CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Brad Underwood jogged through a sea of orange with outstretched hands to high-five members of the Orange Krush student section after his Illinois basketball team just beat Iowa on March 9, 2020 in the regular-season finale.
“I love you guys,” Underwood said as he made his way through for his post-game celebration.
Three days later, Illinois was on a bus returning from Indianapolis after COVID-19 changed our world and canceled both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Videos of large swaths of people in close quarters and touching one another looks like a lifetime ago. Since March 12, 2020, our lives have been lived at a distance. For the most part, we exist through screens. Arenas and stadiums sit mostly empty aside from the games being played, which at times can feel like they’re being played on another planet.
As our world inches towards normalcy a year later, those moments still don’t exist. The Orange Krush didn’t attend one Illinois basketball game this season. No fans sat inside the State Farm Center to watch the No. 3-ranked team in the country, which heads into the Big Ten Tournament with a double-bye and will likely be announced on Sunday as a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Fans celebrated at a distance from the players and coaching staff in Tier 1 testing personnel that created the best bubble possible inside of the confines of Champaign-Urbana.
In a normal year, these players would be rockstars walking around campus, basking in the joy from a university that longed to see the basketball program back in the NCAA Tournaments and back to the kind of heights that this team has reached. There’s still a buzz, but it’s felt different. Social media is the main vehicle for fans to show the players that they have support. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best possible avenue as players go from the gym to their apartments and back, shrinking their circles to miniscule sizes.
“They try to do it through social media, whether it’s Instagram, Snapchat, they definitely make us feel the love and understand that they appreciate us,” said sophomore center Kofi Cockburn, who, given his sheer size, would be one of the more recognizable faces around campus.
On a Tuesday afternoon, Cory Shumard stood inside of Gameday Spirit, located on the corner of 6th Street and Green Street in campustown and watched the traffic outside. People clad in orange and blue shirts — and masks — strolled by as temperatures approached the 70s for the first time in months.
Things started to look more like normal and feel like normal inside the store, which Shumard manages along with the Neil Street location. He wishes he had more product to show off to a reporter, but at the same time is glad his shelves aren’t at capacity. That means business is humming. Illinois basketball has injected life back into the businesses that took a hit as things shut down when COVID blasted through the country.
“It’s hard to quantify exactly how that’s going, but it’s definitely been phenomenal, especially the last three or four weeks and just everybody kind of sensing how special this season is kind of winding down a little here at the end,” Shumard said. “Now we’re getting ready for the postseason to start, Illinois basketball has definitely been the horse driving the cart.
“Coming off the 2020 we just did, what a welcomed shot in the arm in our business it’s been for us. Because of who we are and what we do on this campus, it could not have come at a better time.”
Go VIP! Get the first month of Illini Inquirer VIP access for just $1 or get 30% OFF an annual membership!
He said the best-selling items are replica jerseys and a rack sat front and center inside the story with various jerseys from No. 1 (Trent Frazier), No. 11 (Ayo Dosunmu) and No. 21 (Kofi Cockburn). Their names aren’t stitched anywhere on the actual jersey, but it’s very much understood who wears those numbers during games.
In normal times, there would be a booth set up inside the State Farm Center to sell merchandise, but with no fans allowed, that’s been put on hold for a season. There’s still plenty of foot traffic inside the brick-and-mortar building, though. Wins and losses, Shumard said, are the single biggest influence on business. It’s completely out of his control, which makes things all the more unpredictable. This is a bit of the perfect storm. The wins are coming in droves and it’s coming after a time that businesses suffered from shutdowns as a result of the pandemic. People are itching for the sense of normalcy this team is providing.
It seems like a strange concept to assume the resurgence of Illinois basketball is solely responsible for an uptick both finances and morale around campus, but it’s definitely a factor in things.
“Just to see what campus looks like right now, it is a complete 180,” Shumard said. “I know it’s not quite back to its full capabilities, so to speak, and we may be a couple months away from that, but this Illinois basketball season has certainly brought some excitement out of our Illini Nation again.”
Rather than crowding together behind the benches and baseline at the State Farm Center, the Orange Krush was split up and relegated to watch games from a different vantage point, at home, this season. It’s a rowdy fan section that is both organized and imaginative. Their presence is every bit part of the game-day experience. After wins, players and coaches walk through the section for high fives.
All of that support has been channeled on social media this season in lieu of in-person activity. The Twitter page has more than 16,000 followers and is active in supporting Illinois basketball. The coordinated efforts of game day routines have been moved online — for now.
“I always send reminders on game day or when rankings come out and news about the team or certain player or whatever,” said Luca Ripani, communications chair for the Orange Krush. “It’s just kind of making sure that people when they wake up in the morning, they (say), ‘Oh, right, Illinois basketball is the third ranked team in the country.’ We don’t want them to forget that’s their ranking and this kind of a really rare season.
“There’s no arguing the last decade plus of Illinois basketball has not been the greatest, so I think a lot of people don’t need reminding, but we just want to make sure people recognize just how important this season is to the program and really to the state, honestly.”
Ripani has had ever-so-distant interactions with the team this season. Center Jermaine Hamlin is in one of his classes and Ripani sent an unreturned message via Zoom to Hamlin after Illinois routed Michigan earlier this month without star Ayo Dosunmu. Then came the moment that Ripani knew Illinois basketball was back to relevance.
One of his teachers asked the (virtual) class who was an inspiration. The answer? Dosunmu. That’s how far things have come for Underwood’s basketball program. Dosunmu is a household name around the country and in Champaign, where the buzz about the team is the highest, he’s a legend.
“I think that’s totally fitting because it just shows, a couple years ago even when Ayo was a player, no one would have said a basketball player,” Ripani said. “Now that everyone in the country knows the University of Illinois because of our basketball team, people are taking advantage of it and are recognizing the importance of this moment this season. The energy, it’s so unique. People aren’t really used to this kind of success for Illini basketball. It’s unique. It’s maybe not something that you will see everywhere you go, but you can just kind of feel people being excited about this team because it’s so rare that this team is top 3. It’s happened like twice this century.”
When it was announced that fans weren’t going to be in attendance, Scott Beatty began to wonder what the WDWS Fighting Illini Postgame Show would look like. Beatty, the host, knows well enough that fans called into the show on their drives back home after attending a game in-person. Without that on the table would they just go to bed?
Fan interaction is exactly what Beatty likes so much about the show. It’s a virtual barstool for fans to vent or celebrate. There’s a uniqueness about it. Mostly, there is no set time for the show to end.  People call or text into the show and get their chance to talk on the radio.
Any concerns Beatty previously had have been wiped away. He usually reads anywhere between 30 and 40 texts on air and fields between six and 20 phone calls.
“I think people are hungry for a place to interact about this team,” Beatty said.
In year’s past, he could more or less predict when a high volume of calls would come in: losses to Indiana usually did the trick; so did ugly losses, particularly at the end of former head coach John Groce’s tenure. Even in Underwood’s first few years, there were general feelings of apathy in some pockets of the fanbase late in the season as the team finished out the year without a postseason on the horizon. Not this year. Calls and texts don’t slow down.
Illinois has had its fair share of 8 p.m. tip-offs this season and Beatty assumed that people would simply go to bed after games that end at 10 p.m. rather than calling into a radio show. He was incorrect. Even on shows that he thinks can be quick — an hour or so — they run longer because people have plenty to say.
“What’s been interesting to me is when Illinois has won this year in games you kind of expected or the timing was the late games, you think, ‘Well, it’s just not going to be as many people that are calling because they’re just going to go to bed,’” Beatty said. “No. They’ve still been there. … It’s just not been that way this year. People are eating this up.”
Chances of in-person, but distant, interactions between fans and members of the team who exist in their quasi-bubble have been few and far between. Underwood walked out of the Ubben practice facility last week to a group of fans in the parking lot scanning for autographs. He quickly had to shoo them away because they’re not part of the daily testing protocol.
“I was like, ‘Woah, stop. You can’t come near me,’” Underwood said.
He misses crowds at the State Farm Center and in the summer when he walked around town, he appreciated all of the honks and words of support. But in order for this mounting buzz to continue, the team has to stay COVID-free and play basketball games. The best way to do that is to isolate from everyone not in protocol. Illinois hasn’t had a positive COVID test, Underwood said, since August. It’s been a very targeted approach to making the best season in 16 years happen.
“You guys laugh and you guys think I’m kidding, but I have not talked to anybody face to face who is not in everyday testing other than that’s in the Big Ten deal,” Underwood said. “I just don’t. Get after me for not supporting the restaurants or whatever. I just haven’t done it. It’s been my way of doing it and I want to lead by example. I haven’t felt that. … That’s disappointing from a certain sense but it’s also been OK.”
Junior Giorgi Bezhanishvili doesn’t see many people outside of his group, which is particularly notable because he’s one of the most outgoing personalities on this Illinois team. Occasionally, he or a teammate will pick up a carry-out order from a restaurant and they get a glimpse of the buzz around town because of what they can do on a basketball court.
Of course the players know all of the attention exists, but they just feel the energy in a different way this season.
“We definitely feel it, but we would definitely feel it way more of people could be in the gym and on campus — still on campus when we get food everybody recognizes us and says, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go win it all. Love you guys,’ and everything,” Bezhanishvili said. “We definitely feel it from the perspective. I can’t really say. I can’t really say. It would be an experience to have everybody in the gym and really feel it. It’s something that you have to experience and feel it to be able to really talk about it. I don’t really know actually.”
Illinois heads to Indianapolis with a legitimate chance to win the Big Ten Tournament and will likely be a trendy pick to advance to the Final Four of the Indiana-based NCAA Tournament, perhaps even win it all. The buzz will only continue to build throughout March.
Shumard has seen this all before. He’s been the manager at Gameday Spirit since 1998 and has seen this kind of run before but his employees haven’t experienced it. It’s been since 2005 that there’s been this much buzz around the basketball program.
The tides are turning and Champaign is feeling the effects of Underwood’s rebuilding efforts.
“I remember when it wasn’t a question, just a foregone conclusion that you were going to be part of the Big Dance,” Shumard said. “I’m excited to watch Coach Underwood and his staff and the way that we’re going to continue and build the consistency with this program again, but it’s got to start somewhere. It’s got to start with a season like this. We’re excited to kind of watch the reactions of everybody around us. It’s fun to plan for. We’re hoping for a lot more victories.”