By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Last month, Michael Jordan celebrated his 50th birthday. Saturday, the University of Illinois’ Assembly Hall celebrates its 50th birthday.
And, once upon a time, I mistakenly celebrated the former while celebrating inside the latter.
It was March 1992, and I was a sophomore at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School. On that Friday afternoon, our 28-2 boys basketball team, led by 6-foot-9 Illinois recruit Chris Gandy, was down on the Assembly Hall court for an Elite Eight game and I was high up in the stands with hundreds of my festive schoolmates.
During warm-ups, one of us spotted a tall, lanky black man with a shaved head walking around on the arena floor and chatting up people courtside. Immediately, speculation spread among the students around me that Michael Jordan – Michael Jordan! – was in the house. Within minutes, we had giddily determined that it was fact.
Even though it wasn’t.
Turned out that once a few of us actually got a closer look, we realized the man wasn’t Jordan. He was just some dude with a shaved head. As to why we thought that MJ would be at the Bradley-Bourbonnais vs. Palatine Fremd state quarterfinal game 130 miles from Chicago on a Friday, I really don’t know. But, hey, we were goofy high school kids, and we did.
All these years later, I still fondly recall that moment of teenage exuberance and naïveté at Assembly Hall, just one of many great memories that I’ve made inside the iconic arena over the years.
Five decades ago today, on March 2, 1963, “The Hall” opened its doors for the first time when the Fighting Illini left longtime home Huff Gymnasium with just two games remaining in the basketball season and beat Northwestern 79-73. It was the first of Illinois’ 553 wins at the arena vs. just 149 losses for a .787 winning percentage. At 4:15 p.m. Saturday, the Illini will go for another home “W” against Nebraska on Senior Day at the Hall.
A couple of weeks after that inaugural Illini game in ’63, Assembly Hall hosted its first IHSA State Basketball Tournament. That March, my father, Joe, had just finished his senior basketball season at Kankakee High School with the Kays falling to Bloom in the sectional championship, two games shy of reaching the Elite Eight. My dad and his teammates still attended the tourney, however, buying tickets to watch the quarterfinals inside the new arena.
“I thought it was really something,” my father told me on Thursday, recalling his thoughts upon walking in to Assembly Hall. “Especially the roof. It was an impressive structure back then. It still is.”
The Assembly Hall, which is set to receive a major renovation soon, has indeed held up remarkably well over the years. I’ve long believed that besides Willis Tower, its spaceship-shaped silhouette is the most recognizable of any building in Illinois. I only wish the IHSA boys basketball tournament was still played at Assembly Hall. Perhaps some day it will be again.
During my lifetime, I’ve watched the likes of the Harlem Globetrotters, the cast of “Les Miserables” and Nine Inch Nails perform at the Hall. I’ve seen plenty else, too. And in honor of Assembly Hall’s “Big Five-Oh,” the following are the five most memorable Illini hoops moments that I’ve witnessed there in person.
Feb. 12, 1998
Illinois 84, No. 13 Michigan State 63
With an 0-11 football season, my senior year at Illinois couldn’t have started out any worse. But the 1997-98 basketball campaign more than made up for it as I gleefully watched five fellow seniors – Jerry Hester, Brian Johnson, Jerry Gee, Kevin Turner and the late Matt Heldman – lead the Illini to an unlikely co-Big Ten title, its first crown since 1984.
That season culminated with this rout of Mateen Cleaves’ league-leading Michigan State squad during which Illinois took a 32-27 lead at the half and then ripped off 52 points after intermission on incredible 63 percent shooting. To this day, I still say that second half was the loudest that I’ve ever heard the crowd at Assembly Hall.
Dec. 9, 2000
No. 9 Illinois 87, No. 7 Seton Hall 79 (OT)
It isn’t every season that Illinois has a colossal nonconference showdown at Assembly Hall. But in 2000, it certainly did when the Top 10-ranked Illini and Seton Hall Pirates clashed in Champaign. Despite the pre-game buzz, however, the first half was a disaster as Illinois fell behind by as much as 21 points.
In the second half, though, Frank Williams blew up as he scored 17 of his 21 points to help force overtime. In the extra session, Illini guard Cory Bradford drained a 3-pointer for the lead, tying the all-time NCAA record for consecutive games with a trey and sending the crowd into an absolute frenzy. The eventual victory was Illinois’ largest come-from-behind win in Assembly Hall history.
Feb. 6, 2001
No. 7 Illinois 77, No. 4 Michigan State 66
It was the first-ever official “Paint the Hall Orange” promotion in school history, and my dad and I arrived early to enter Assembly Hall just as soon as the doors opened. I still recall hundreds of Orange Krush members also standing outside waiting to get in, the students bouncing up down as they loudly chanted in unison and anticipation.
The wait turned out to be worth it, as Bradford drained six three-pointers and tallied 22 points as No. 7 Illinois rocked the fourth-ranked Spartans. I still have a framed panoramic photo of the orange-clad crowd from the memorable game on the wall of my bedroom.
Dec. 1, 2004
No. 5 Illinois 91, No. 1 Wake Forest 73
Assembly Hall has never rocked from tipoff all the way through to the final buzzer in the way that did when the No. 1 Demon Deacons came to town. Even though Wake Forest was the top-ranked team that day, every Illini fan in the house knew – just knew – that Illinois was the better team and would win the game.
Illinois did in absolutely dominating fashion, as the Illini shot 60 percent in the first half to score 54 points and grab a 21-point lead. Wake Forest, led by future NBA star Chris Paul, never got closer than 17 as the lead grew as large as 32 points. The following week, Ilinois grabbed the No. 1 ranking and held onto it for the rest of the regular season.
Feb. 6, 2010
Illinois 78, No. 5 Michigan State 73
For years, it was my dream that ESPN’s College GameDay would come to Champaign for a huge Illinois football game. That never happened (and doesn’t seem likely to any time soon). But in 2010, the basketball version of GameDay did roll into town and witnessed quite the finish to a thrilling game.
With Illinois ahead by just three points late, Mike Davis blocked a three-pointer in the closing seconds and then broke away for a monster dunk as time expired and the crowd erupted. The loss was MSU’s first conference defeat of the season and it was Illinois’ first victory over a top 5 team in five years.
The way Illinois has bounced back this season, there’s reason to believe many more could come at Assembly Hall during the next 50 years.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.