Szwaja's Sports Blog

Friday, October 13, 2006

So imagine you meet the girl of your dreams, you date her for a while and it starts to get really serious, so you ask her to marry you and she says yes, you're on cloud nine, then eleven months into the engagement she finds out this guy she kind of used to like breaks up with his girlfriend and she tells you, "Thanks, you're a great guy, but I'm going to marry him instead." Imagine how you would feel. That's kind of how I feel. Kelvin Sampson, Eric Gordon Sr., Eric Gordon Jr. ... I wish none of you good luck, break a leg Eric ... Seriously

If you looked at my away message on AIM on Oct. 13, 2006, those are the words that greeted you. They might seem a little harsh, but I mean every word of it. I don't usually get hostile when it comes to things like this. I've been a sports fan that's had some wonderful moments. The Bulls championships were great. The White Sox World Series was great. The 2001 Sugar Bowl appearance for my Illini was great. The Illini Final Four run in 2005 was great. But I'm really mad today. I know, I know, an 18-year-old preparing to play amateur basketball shouldn't mean this much to me, but it does and I'll explain why below in a second.

But before I do that, let me just get this out of the way. Someone who's reading this might be ready to call me or shoot me an IM that says something like this, "The kid decided to go somewhere else, big deal. Move on with your life, Mike. Damn." If that's you, you're wrong. There's so much more that goes into this.

The first thing that must be said is this: Eric Gordon is damn good. He's Carmello Anthony lead his team to a title as a freshman good. Don't believe me? Go to YouTube, type his name in and have a good time watching. Don't leave until you find the block he had during his game against Greg Oden's team last winter. He's the kind of player that can instantly make your team elite. Before it's all said and done, he'll probably make Luther Head, Deron Williams and Dee Brown all look 2nd tier. And it pains me to say that after what's gone down over the last couple months, but it's as true as it was last November when he committed to Illinois.

And that's the first and foremost reason this whole thing really blows. Bruce Weber works magic during game action, but all we've heard as Illini fans from outsiders is "great coach, lousy recruiter, he'll need to be great when he's coaching middle-of-the-road players." The jury was still out ... until Gordon committed. He was that key recruit that would shut up the nay sayers, because the nay sayers were starting to chomp on some meat. Sherron Collins? Once had Illini as his leader, but he bolts to some guy named Bill Self and Kansas. Julian Wright? Recruited hard by Weber, even looked like he was going to commit, spurns Illini for Self without even stepping foot in the state of Kansas. Jon Sheyer? Even with Weber's brother as his high school coach, it was Duke all the way. Derrick Rose? Early leader was Illini, but eventually eliminated them from his list because they don't wear Adidas shoes at Illinois. The proof was there, except for Gordon. Gordon was the 2-karat diamond in the glass case. If Weber could get him, he could get anyone. End of story. Recruiting was no longer an issue. Weber = the next elite college basketball coach. He was ready to join the ranks: Coach K, Olson, Boeheim, Williams, Pitino, Izzo ... Weber. There was a new cowboy in town.

Then along came the Indian to Weber's Cowboy status. (Seriously... Kelvin Sampson is Native American.) Like a bullet through his Sheriff star, Sampson put Weber back on the ground by snatching Gordon from the Illini coach. And the nay sayers suddenly had more meat. And it's hard to ignore. Why has Weber missed on all these great players? Maybe he really doesn't cut it as a top-shelf recruiter, which ultimately means if you're an Illini fan you have to start questioning if he's the man to take your program all the way to the top. Sure, he took lightly recruited players at Southern Illinois and made the program into one nobody wanted to face come March ... for the first two rounds at least. That was as far as he would ever take SIU .. the second round of the tournament. But that's not good enough at Illinois. At Illinois, winning the National Title has become the goal. I never thought I'd say this, but this Gordon thing might ultimately end up costing Bruce Weber his job. That might sound like a reach, but this has a real chance to be the first step in his downfall. That might sound like an over reaction, but only time will tell. If five years from now, the Illini have turned into a year-by-year bubble team, Weber's a goner. Had Gordon committed to Illinois, there's zero chance that happens to the program by 2010. Now, it at least seems plausible, which means it at least seems plausible that Weber could be on the hot seat as early as the conclusion of the 2007 season.

Which is a shame, because Weber's in an interesting position, seeing as how when he's given the players, he responds. Under his guidance, he turned Luther Head, Deron Williams and Dee Brown all into NBA players. There's no doubt in my mind that none of the three would be on an NBA roster had they all finished out their careers under that guy I mentioned earlier, Bill Self was it? Hell, for all we know, Head might be playing prison ball if it wasn't for Weber. He made Luther into an incredible, well-conditioned, sweet-shooting basketball player and, more importantly, a better person. Without Weber, Luther might as well have been Blandon Ferguson? Never heard of Ferguson? My point exactly. As for Deron Williams, he got him in shape, made him a better shooter, got his confidence sky high and turned him into a top-5 pick. Sampson developing players who are ready to contribute in the NBA? Please. Hollis Price was the highest profile guard to ever play for Sampson at Oklahoma. In an NBA career spanning two games for the Houston Rockets, Price averaged 1 point per game, 0 rebounds per game, 1.5 steals per game and 1.5 turnovers per game. Price is long gone from the NBA. Meanwhile, in a weird twist of fate, Head became a key contributor for, who else but the Rockets last season.

I'm not saying Gordon's NBA career will mirror that of Price's. But I am saying that Weber could have molded him into a more NBA-ready player than Sampson. Again, the proof is there. It's the difference between being, say the 10th pick in the draft as opposed to the 2nd pick in the draft. There's hundreds of thousands of dollars to be lost in that gap. I have yet to understand why guys like Collins, Wright, Rose and now Gordon fail to see that Weber can make them millions of dollars. Instead, most of them chose to play in Self's offense, where guards go to die.

The last big thing at stake here might be the thing that hurts the most in this whole situation. Gordon had been committed to the Illini for about 335 days. Because Weber thought he had a scholarship reserved for Gordon, he passed, or was passed up on by other star guards. See Dar Tucker and Rose as two of the best examples. With Gordon seemingly in his back pocket, it had to be tough for Weber to approach star players like Tucker and Rose and promise they would see enough of the ball to be stars. Consequently, Tucker fled the scene and signed elsewhere and Rose took the Illini off his list of potential schools. And don't give me the argument that Weber should have sat Gordon down when he started wavering and demanded a yes or no commitment right then and there, thereby giving him more time to fill the scholarship that would have been open. This argument fails on two accounts. 1) Gordon and his father repeatedly said, up until two weeks ago, that Eric Jr. was a solid, 100 percent commit for the Illini. And 2) It would have been too late. Guys like Tucker and Rose were already going other directions by the time Gordon started his little backstabbing moonwalk dance. The Illini are in for their most trying season in years in 2006, and it looks like 2007 will be even more trying without Gordon in the mix. So because Weber thought he had Gordon but really did not, the chance of getting any premier players is diminished. The way I see the worst case scenario play out:

2006 season: Illini barely make tournament
2007 season: Illini bubble team at best
2008 season: By this time the program has returned to mediocrity. Weber is taking lesser recruits and getting a lot out of them, but it's apparent his team won't challenge for the National Title any time soon.
2009 season: The three headed monster backcourt that was Brown, Williams and Head is a distant memory in the minds of recruits. The memory of the legendary backcourt of yesteryear means little in recruiting circles, and Weber is having a tough time convincing big time recruits to come to Illinois. Again, Weber has his team on the bubble, while the Illini fans start calling for his head.

And, at least in my mind, if Eric Gordon suits up for the Illini, even for just one or two seasons, none of that stuff above has any chance of happening by 2009. The momentum gained by getting a player in the mold of Gordon to play for your program just wouldn't allow it.

As a die-hard Illini fan, everything I just outlined above is what has me burning up with rage inside. For a team that came within six points of winning a National Title against a team that would send four of its five starters to the NBA draft lottery, it's just not fair. What Eric Gordon did to the Illini program could potentially be as bad as the ramifications stemming from a serious probation handed down by the NCAA. And while I'm not saying Weber can't rebound from this, it's beginning to look like it will be one tough ride back to the top. Weber will have to do something to break the mold, something that will go against all the precedents that have been set, something that will put him back on the map. And that's sad considering he's just two seasons removed from one of the greatest college basketball seasons in NCAA history.

What's also sad is that I'm sure Gordon doesn't realize everything I just spent more than an hour typing. And I wouldn't expect him to. Why should he?

In the end, I've tried to parlay something good out of all this, and in a way, I have. I now have a good reason to loathe and despise everything that is Indiana basketball. For the rest of my life, when my Illini square off with Indiana, I'll want the Illini to win in such a fashion that the Hoosiers leave the court embarrassed. And every time that happens, I'll smile the smile of all smiles, because I'll remember today, October 13, 2006 ... the day I could find no good reason to smile. Thanks for nothing, Eric Gordon. You've been no help, no help at all, that's for sure.