We are pleased to announce that we have a winner in our "The Moment" writing contest
. With 36 percent of a heavy vote and a very organized campaign, Stephen Spence and Illinois State have taken the prize home to Normal, and to the Valley. For his efforts, Stephen will be receiving a red and white Team Ballz
The 5-foot-8 Boo Richardson, the essay's topic, had two-year stats at Illinois State that were somewhat less than legendary.
He arrived in 2006-07, the final year of the Porter Moser administration (whom we saw on the bench at Saint Louis the other night
), and played in the first season of the current Tim Jankovich era. That was the 25-win year
that died in a steamrolling against Drake at Arch Madness, and lasted in ghost form until the second round of the NIT. Here is Boo doing what he did best: play defense (photo via The Pantagraph
And now, just like they used to do on Star Search
, we're going to bring Stephen out once again, or rather reprint his essay in its entirety. Congratulations again!
Heartbreak had already befallen the Redbirds earlier that March.
In coach Tim Jankovich's inaugural year, the Redbirds had finished the season with an overall record of 24-9 and an RPI of 34, but an ugly loss to Drake in the championship of the MVC Tournament left the Birds nowhere to be found once the committee selected the 34 at-large bids a few Sundays before. This is a fate that befalls many of the schools who find themselves below the Red Line.
But after a ten year absence from the Big Dance, Redbird fans were once again beaten down by the optimistic hope that they had all clung to, even as the last two schools were read off by Greg Gumbel. NIT bound, the Redbirds were selected as a No. 2 seed in the conciliatory tournament. Not bad for a team that had only won 59 games in the previous five seasons... but certainly a hollow victory of the highest order for the faithful.
After narrowly escaping with a 61-57 win over the Utah State Aggies, the Birds were guaranteed one more home game on newly-minted Doug Collins Court, with the hope of advancing to play at Ohio State in the following days. The Dayton Flyers and the Illinois State Redbirds battled back and forth for the entirety of the first half, but a ten-minute dry spell from the field left the Redbirds and their season all but finished, as most ten-minute droughts in March tend to do.
Down 55-48 with the shot clock turned off, Boo Richardson clanked the Redbirds' final shot off the rim. Dayton's Chris Wright gathered up the rebound with nothing to do but dribble out the remainder of the clock. The all-too-sparse crowd at Redbird Arena let out a final exhale. Nothing remained but the inevitable sound of the final horn, a sound that during the month of March, brings an all too cold and mechanical end to the hopes and dreams invested into the team that finds itself on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Boo Richardson was the senior point guard for the Birds, and while he was not the tallest (he stood at only 5-foot-8), or most prolific athlete on the floor, he seemed to channel a supernatural enthusiasm when he donned a basketball uniform. Redbird fans felt nothing but appreciation for this juco transfer that made so many hustle plays for our team in such a short period, someone we had barely gotten a chance to understand. "Oh Boo, we hardly knew ye," was the phrase on the tip of many Redbird fans' tongues as the March afternoon gave way to evening.
As Boo's career with the Redbirds ticked away its final seconds, Boo made a lunge for the ball and picked it away from Dayton's ball handler. Boo took a single dribble, and then the horn sounded. The unavoidable weight of "the end" fell over the stands quickly. Dayton's band lit up in a joyous rendition of their fight song.
I'm not even sure if the steal was recoded on the official scoresheet, but its effects were felt throughout the arena. Weak but meaningful applause broke out among the remaining faithful, and Boo walked off the court for his final walk in Red and White.
As I watched the final rounds of the NIT and NCAA Tournaments in the next few weeks, I found my mind going back to Boo's steal over and over again. I told my friends and family about it, but they didn't seem particularly fascinated by the play. Perhaps it was their reaction to the pain of defeat. Perhaps my dreams and aspirations for that Redbird team had driven me to the point of obsession. But in my estimation, that simple poke-away steal represented everything right about the competitive spirit of Our Game. Even more important to me, it captured the competitive spirit of my Illinois State Redbirds. Losers let their opponents dribble out the clock, but winners make a play. Even if all the odds in the world are stacked against them.
It didn't end with an awe-inspiring run to the Final Four, or a chance meeting on the road with a Bradley fan I would spend the rest of my life with. But the impact Boo Richardson had on my life is profound enough. Ever since "The Steal," which ranks up there with "The Shot" in the eyes of this proud Illinoisan, a Boo Richardson card sits squarely in the front of my wallet, next to a Visa card and a school ID from an institution well below the Black Line. Every day, I can feel in that card all of the anguish of defeat and all of the determination to win I felt that day, and if there's anything that gets you going in the morning more than Our Game, I'd like to know about it!
Am I just another person inspired by the heroism they found in a beautiful game? You bet! But that shared experience has the ability to drive any one of us, or all of us, to greatness.
Thank you, Boo Richardson.