I was visiting my father in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for spring break. I was 19, and it was April 1, 1985, a Monday.
Two friends I knew who were Alabama students (Roll Tide!) asked me to join them in the “TV room” of Mary Burke North (a dorm) to watch the NCAA men’s basketball championship. Eighth-ranked Villanova was going to try and cement an improbable run by knocking off No. 1 monster Georgetown, a fellow Big East team who had easily won both regular season meetings between the two.
Lyle, Brent and I, along with friends Jenny, Lindsey and Dawn, went out for pizza, then headed to the guys’ dorm at 7:30 to get a good seat.
We were just in time. By game time at least 50 people were in the lobby, sitting in front of a 40-some inch TV, huge by the standards of the day. The volume was cranked, and everyone kept it down so all could hear.
By halftime over a 100 were jammed into the room, and the security dude at the front desk admitted later he was considering the UP (University Police) to make them aware of the situation, just in case. Why?
Well, the chairs and couches were divided by a long aisle, put there by the watchers of the game. Those on the right were almost entirely white fans, though some black fans (you could use that term without offending anyone back then) were sprinkled into the mix, including Warren Montgomery and Larry Davis, two of Brent’s friends.
The other side of the room was filled exclusively with blacks, with no whites in the group. The mostly-whites (the vanilla side, we were called, in good humor) were rooting for Villanova, while the “chocolate” side (their own word choice) was passionately rooting for Georgetown.
I pointed out both schools were Catholic, likely had Jesuit roots and that Villanova almost certainly had a much higher percentage of undergraduates of African descent than tony Georgetown. Didn’t matter.
Villanova hit 22-of-28 from the floor and 22-of-27 at the foul line, and “Easy” Ed Pinckney, giving up three inches and 50 pounds, outplayed Patrick “traveling” Ewing to lead the Wildcats to a stunning 66-64 win.
Throughout the second half, there was much banter back and forth between the two sides. Jibes and jokes flew as frequently as the few dozen wads of paper (where from I never learned) that were serving as fun releases of pent-up energy.
When it was over, the whole darn room got up and gave each other high fives, shook hands, gave little hugs, that kind of thing. Everyone talked about how great a game it had been. I heard many guys and gals, of both races, talk of how the experience showed them “the other side” turned out to be pretty cool people.
I bring up the story for three reasons.
The first is that Villanova’s head coach, Rollie Massimino, passed away at 82 Wednesday. The winner of over 800 games at Stony Brook, UNLV, Cleveland State and Nova, the always-dapper Massimino was widely known for his sideline theatrics which, unlike a jackass like Bob Knight, never demeaned a player or referee.
The second is that there was a time, not all that long ago, when something could divide a group along racial lines, and that was okay. The situation need not turn violent or leave bitter feelings and only rarely did.
The third is the continuing frustration so many feel regarding the University of Illinois, which this week took another step into the cesspool that is the PC world.
The university president (whose name is unworthy of mention) has ordered the cessation of the playing of the 30-some-seconds “War Chant” at U of I athletic contests because the music “might be considered by some as racially insensitive.” Click the link and decide for yourself — for over 80 years no one has complained. No one.
The U of I admits to having received something like $10-12 million less in alumni endowments and gifts since the sacking of Chief Illiniwek (the marching band’s mascot, by the way, NOT the sports teams’) in 2007. Wow! — $12 million!
That is a big pile of donors, all justifiably pissed, in my opinion, at having a beloved tradition summarily dismissed and being branded as either racist or insensitive for disagreeing with the move.
The state is named for the French Jesuit missionaries’ interpretation (three different spellings have been found) of Illiniwek, what they believed the local tribes, in the mid 1600s, called themselves. Believed to mean “superior men” or “these be men,” recent Miami/Algonquin language research suggests it likely meant “speak (like) regular.”
In any event, the Illiniwek had been slaughtered or taken off as slaves by other tribes by the time American explorers began surveying the prairie grass in the late 1700s. Today those Native Americans whose roots claim to be Illinois are members of the Peoria tribe in Oklahoma or of a few other widely scattered groups. But the fact remains — the white settlers found the Indians they were looking for were either killed or scattered at the hands of other Indians.
To honor them, they named the land after them. They named their university — academically, if not athletically, one of the best in the nation — after the vanished tribe. They chose Fighting Illini to honor their spirit.
An exhaustive national survey conducted by the Washington Post in 2016 asked thousands of Native Americans if the use of “Redskins” or other nicknames — Fighting Illini, Braves, Chiefs, etc. were offensive. Seven percent — seven percent — said yes. Over half said it simply didn’t matter, that they never stopped to think about it.
Think for a moment. Why name yourself after something you wish to belittle? Why have as a mascot, as a symbol of pride, an image you wish to deride? You would not. Rather, you would have it as a place or name of honor, something to remember or emulate, to hold high and praise.
Are the Fighting Irish next?
I hope we, as a nation, can regress. I pray we can all go back in time to that night, in 1985, when race was a factor but not a violent one, when handshakes and nods stood in for batons and pepper spray.
If we cannot. I fear we will become like the Illiniwek — dead or dispersed in 100 years.