By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) Four times in the past eight years, the No. 1 high school basketball player in the nation has called Illinois home.
Yet, none of them have ended up calling Illinois home in college.
In 2007, Simeon’s Derrick Rose chose Memphis over the University of Illinois. In 2011, Anthony Davis of Perspectives Charter picked Kentucky. In 2013, Jabari Parker, also of Simeon, headed off to Duke, while this summer Whitney Young’s Jahlil Okafor will do the same.
Throw in the likes of Homewood-Flossmoor’s Julian Wright and Crane’s Sherron Collins matriculating to Kansas, Peoria Central’s Shaun Livingston announcing for Duke before declaring for the NBA and Curie’s Cliff Alexander spurning the Illini for the Jayhawks just this past fall, and Illinois has had a rough go of it over the past several years in regards to keeping the state’s top basketball players actually in state.
The growing trend has led to increasing frustration for a fan base still waiting for a homegrown prep superstar to finally stay home, which makes LeBron James’ dramatic NBA return to Northeast Ohio something of an inspiration for Illini Nation.
On Friday, James rocked the basketball world by announcing that four years after he notoriously made “The Decision” to leave Cleveland for Miami, he’s now heading back home toting a fresh perspective along with a load of unfinished business.
“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,” Akron’s most famous native shared in his celebrated essay he wrote with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. “It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
In the piece, LeBron went on to add, “My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
Those words are powerful ones, and their message is moving – not only for citizens of greater Cleveland, but any region where residents take great pride in their roots. As an Illinois alum, they particularly struck a chord with me, as I know the pride that Illini fans have for both their state and its hoops, as well as how maddening it has been to see that home-state allegiance rarely extend to the Land of Lincoln’s prep stars.
As James said in his essay, a huge reason why he’s returning home is to win a championship not only for the Cavaliers – which has never done so since its founding in 1970 – but also for Cleveland, which hasn’t celebrated a sports title of any kind since the Browns won the NFL in 1964 in the pre-Super Bowl era.
Four hundred miles southwest of Cleveland, the campus of the University of Illinois has been a similar championship graveyard. In 109 years of playing basketball, the Illini are yet to win an NCAA championship, leading some to consider the Illinois program the best in the nation to have never done so.
With James now back in the fold, most NBA observers expect the Cavs to now end their title drought at some point. As for the Illini, coach John Groce is still seeking a superstar to help put his program over the championship hump, and if that star is from the state, it would make it all the better.
Seventeen years ago, many Illinois fans hoped that homegrown star Sergio McClain, winner of four consecutive IHSA state championships at Peoria Manual, would be the catalyst for a future NCAA title run when he chose the Illini over Indiana and then told Bob Knight why.
“I still hated to do that,” McClain once told the Champaign News-Gazette about his final recruiting conversation with the Hoosiers coach. “Me and him, I felt like we were kind of close through that recruiting process. When I called and told him, he’s like … (long sigh) … ‘Why?’ I said, ‘It’s my state school. I want to be loyal.’ He’s like ‘Why do you feel like you have to be loyal?’ I said, ‘For the same reason that Luke Recker came to Indiana and (Ricky) Davis and Dean Oliver went to Iowa. I just feel like this is my spot.
“He respected that. He said, ‘If you ever have any problems, you can still call me.’ He was real cool about it.”
He should have been, because it was cool. And if both LeBron James and Bob Knight can appreciate the importance of home-state allegiance, then surely another Illinois prep superstar can someday do it, too.
Until then, however, Illini fans have no “Decision” but to wait.