These are optimistic times for the University of Illinois men’s basketball program. A series of off-season recruiting victories for second-year head coach John Groce have inspired confidence that the downstate school will once again be rich with Chicago-area hoops talent, the very same type that had every corner of the campus soaked in applause and excitement 25 years ago.
1988-89 Illinois men’s basketball team, dubbed “The Flyin’ Illini” by commentator Dick Vitale at the time, raised Assembly Hall’s first Final Four banner in over four decades, unleashed a wave of orange and blue alumni into the NBA and made Champaign, Illinois the center of college basketball world for a season. Now as they celebrate their silver anniversary and their starting point guard Stephen Bardo is set to release “Flyin’ Illini,” his chronicle of their unforgettable season, the four NBRPA members who starred for the 1988-89 team—Bardo, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill and Marcus Liberty—sat down to reminisce on the five months they spent as the most exciting team in the land.
“We were like rock stars,” said Liberty, a first-year player on the squad whose dynamic, all-around skill set in a 6- foot, 8-inches tall package made him the Parade Magazine Boys Basketball Player of the Year coming out of Chicago’s King High School. “Everywhere we went people were congratulating and clapping and just being excited about Illini basketball, because they knew a change was coming.”
The level of change is hard to overstate. No one in the top-11 of the Flyin’ Illini rotation stood taller than 6 feet 8 inches yet none were shorter than 6 feet 4 inches. The daunting array of swingmen with ball-handling skills and midrange- to-outside shooting ability made them matchup nightmares at every position. Undersized center Lowell Hamilton and 6-foot-6-inch shooting guard Nick Anderson combined with Gill and Battle to give the Illini four players averaging 13-18 points per game. Bardo and junior guard Larry Smith both averaged over four assists per game, and Gill only came five dimes shy of reaching the same benchmark.
Before “combo guards” who could rebound and “stretch fours” who could drag post defenders out of their comfort zones became household terms, Illini head coach Lou Henson flooded the floor with them. As teams were only beginning to embrace the value of abovethe- rim play, the Illini attacked the rim from every spot on the court. Only when Bardo crossed over to the media and begin providing color commentary on games was he fully struck with the impact the 1988-89 team had on the sport.
“Every time I call a game, whether it’s Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self, John Calipari, they talk about that team. We were so unique. Bill Self went on CBS and said we were his favorite team ever in college basketball. We have tremendous credibility,” Bardo said.
With a roster full of Illinois products (every member of the rotation hailed from in-state) the Flyin’ Illini took tremendous pride in representing their state, but like any great squad, their fondest feelings are reserved for the teammates they sacrificed personal statistics and glory for. Speaking now with a lifetime of basketball in their rear-view mirror, this season still stands out as a magical experience.
“It was the best feeling I ever had in basketball,” Gill said, “It will never be duplicated.”
Origins With every player who saw the floor hailing from Illinois and four regulars born within the Chicago city limits, the 1988-89 represented a remarkable coalescing of local talent, but in a foreshadowing of future struggles for Illinois schools to retain the top high school players in their region, it almost didn’t happen.
Team Co-captain Kenny Battle spent his first two years wreaking havoc on Mid-American Conference competition at Northern Illinois. Illinois was always the Aurora native’s first choice, but he sought to avoid the redshirt he would have gotten had he come straight to Champaign. When it became apparent the collection of talent that was gathering under coach Lou Henson, the decision to transfer became easier.
Despite 1988-89 only being his second year playing for the Illini, Battle was elected team captain alongside Hamilton, and didn’t see much remarkable about his path to that title.
“It’s hard work. It’s leadership,” Battle said.
It was also inexhaustible energy. Battle’s motor was so revered by his teammates and most of all Henson, that he created the “Kenny Battle Award” to be bestowed upon the most hustle-happy player on each year’s team.
Gill was a day away from committing to Michigan State. Only a three to four hour drive from his hometown of Matteson, Ill. and presenting less of a logjam of guards and wings, Gill was only stopped when “something told me to go to the U of I.”
Part of that was something was definitely Gill’s father, who thought the intense competition to get playing time at Illinois would make his son better. He would weigh in again and encourage his son to stay for his senior year of school in 1989-90, and in turn Gill saw his draft stock skyrocket and was selected fifth overall by the Charlotte Hornets.
Liberty’s recruitment was easily the most muddled. Despite being named the No. 1 high school player in the country by Parade Magazine and USA Today, he felt his college decision was taken out of his hands. Liberty claimed legendary King High School coach Sonny Cox made a point of trying to funnel him to Illinois, allegedly for compensation that he never saw any part of, and little consideration was given to his preference for Syracuse, where head coach Jim Boeheim promised to utilize Liberty’s unique blend of size and skill.
Illinois was still his second choice, but Liberty’s disappointment, his adjustment to coming off the bench and Henson’s more rigid approach to what responsibilities players with his size should have made his early days in Champaign difficult.
But despite coming off as bitter about his experience in previous interviews, Liberty insists he’s grateful for how things worked out and happy that his family had the opportunity to see him play at Illinois. By the end of his senior season, he was asking East St. Louis star LaPhonso Ellis to come to Champaign with him at the state title game, albeit unsuccessfully.
“It turned out to be a good decision for me because I got a chance to play for a Final Four team and play with some guys who are truly legends of the game for the university,” Liberty said. “Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Kenny Battle. Those guys are Hall of Fame Illini basketball players and I got a chance to play with them.”
The special collection of talent was apparent to Stephen Bardo during high school recruiting events. After a Nike showcase camp in New Jersey, Bardo spoke to Anderson, Gill and Liberty about the kind of team they would have if they all went to Illinois. Bardo saw the conversation as a formation of a pact to attend school together. Gill didn’t recall such an agreement when asked and Battle didn’t mention it, but since they all ended up together on a Final Four team anyway, it is only a small glitch in Bardo’s design.
When asked if the Flyin’ Illini’s season represented his plan coming to fruition, Bardo said “I would have to agree.”
Confident talk is typical of pre-season interviews of even the most doomed teams; the more stirring realizations of potential greatness take place on the court. The Illini started the year ranked No. 9 in the AP poll and had plenty of reasons to feel good about themselves after an early slate of blowouts, but didn’t have their mettle tested until they were tasked with an 18-point first half deficit on the road against Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game.
Led by co-captain Kenny Battle’s 19 second half points— which included two clutch free throws and a steal in the final minute—the Illini rallied to a three-point victory.
“He’s got the right last name,” Missouri coach Norm Stewart said of Battle afterward. The victory kept their win streak alive, but the Illini got more important information about what type of team they were.
“We knew that we could pull off any type of game and win,” Gill said.
A romp through a winter tournament Hawaii culminating in a victory over No. 17 Georgia Tech put the first big-time credit on their resume. Yet that win barely registers as a unique memory due to the double overtime epic the two teams engaged in at Assembly Hall a month later that vaulted the Illini into No. 1 spot in the rankings for a week. As the Illini dribbled out the last minute of their thrilling comeback victory, it was once again Battle placing the punctuation mark. He received a pass from Larry Smith on the baseline and slammed home a thunderous dunk while getting fouled that sent the whole arena, and the whole team into hysterics.
“The ranking just made it real and gave us a stamp as far as being No. 1,” Battle said, “But we were always No. 1 in the hearts of Illini fans.”
For a singular image of the team, the dunk against Georgia Tech tells a lot of the tale: above-the-rim, exciting, intense and thrilled to be competing with one another.
“You knew it was something special because everyone sacrificed something. Every one of those guys were great scorers in high school,” Battle said, “We all gave up a lot of scoring. We learned to play defense. Once we all learned what each one of us was good at doing, it was a great group to watch.”
Battle carried the scoring load along with junior guard Nick Anderson. Despite missing 12 games with a broken foot, Gill provided lock down defense and combined with 6’7” center Lowell Hamilton to give the Illini their other two double-figure scorers, Bardo and Smith provided Coach Henson with two capable ball distributors to rotate between or pair together, and Earvin Small and P.J. Bowman provided defense and three-point shooting off the bench.
But all of these players were veterans who had accepted and grown into their roles with time. For an all-world recruit like Liberty, becoming a secondary option was an adjustment, but one he was glad he ended up making. “
I was so used to playing all the time, and now I had to take a backseat and watch and learn a lot,” Liberty said. That his 20 minutes per game were spent with far more screen-setting and less ball-handling that he was used to, only made it harder.
“It was a time when Coach Henson said ‘I know I’m going to need you, Marcus, so just be ready,’ so I had to be ready, because you never know.”
Gill’s injury, suffered in the second game against Georgia Tech, briefly sent the Illini into a tailspin. All four of their regular season losses came during the 12-game span he was absent. That lull was all Bob Knight’s Indiana squad needed to win the Big Ten title outright, despite losing to a Gill-less version of the Illini twice, the second time coming on a dramatic buzzer-beating three-pointer from Anderson off a full-court pass from Bardo that shocked the Bloomington crowd.
Gill returned in time to get a couple of games to re-acclimate himself, and the Illini entered the tournament healthy, riding a six-game winning streak and with a No. 1 seed, albeit in a brutal Midwest region. After struggling more than expected in the first two rounds, they defeated Pervis Ellison and Louisville in the Sweet 16 boosted by a surprising 14-point effort from Liberty and 24 from Anderson.
Perhaps the signature win of the season came in their Elite Eight triumph over Syracuse. Facing a loaded Orangemen lineup that featured future pros Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and Sherman Douglas brought out the best in the Illini. Battle and Anderson combined for 52 points in a breathless 89-86 win that appropriately ended with Battle nailing two free throws to seal the university’s first trip to the Final Four in 47 years. As the final buzzer sounded, the players writhed around the floor in ecstasy, deliriously embracing each other even as the court flooded with fans.
“I’ve played in the NBA, I’ve played over in Europe and I have never felt that way about a group of guys that from the first player all the way down to the twelfth player on the team,” Liberty said, “We all had one common goal, and that was to win.”
The Illini fell two wins short of that ultimate goal when they lost 83-81 to a Michigan team on a miracle run in the National Semifinal. As Liberty put it, the undersized Illini were “a rebound away” from playing Seton Hall for the championship.
Liberty’s lament is the closest any of the Illini come to expressing regret about a year that saw the team set a then-school record for wins in a season (31), average more points than any Illini team in over 20 years, achieve the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll for the first time in 47 years and complete a season that to this day, is the fourth-best in school history by winning percentage. If they ever forgot what they achieved that season, they would swiftly be reminded.
“Illinois is a state school,” Bardo said, “Everyone in the state was really proud of what we did and how we represented the state. I have never really been in a situation like that since.”
Five members of the Flyin’ Illini would eventually make the NBA. Anderson hit the ground running in Orlando, averaging double-figures in the first 11 seasons of a 13-year career and starring alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway for an Orlando Magic team that made the 1995 NBA Finals, eliminating the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in the process.
Gill lasted even longer, playing 15 years for seven different teams, and surprising, if no one else, himself with his longevity.
“I attribute that to my work ethic, being able to stay in shape, being able to stay healthy for a large part of my career,” Gill said, “Those were the things that made me last so long.”
Gill averaged over 20 points per game twice in his career and was a double- figure scorer into his mid-30s, but prided himself on doing it all. He placed his faith in the defensive skills that carried him through his early days when the speed of the NBA game had him reeling.
“All aspects of my game were fundamentally sound. That I got from four years at U of I, that was what carried me over in the NBA when I first got there,” Gill said. “Once you have the fundamentals of the game, you can play in any system.”
Since retiring from the NBA, Gill has transitioned smoothly to the broadcast side, working as a studio analyst for his hometown Comcast SportsNet Chicago for seven seasons in addition to the Big Ten Network and Vs. Network.
“It kept me in touch with the game,” said Gill, who will now be working for NBA TV during the upcoming season.
While Gill and Anderson enjoyed remarkably lengthy NBA careers, the other three had careers more typical of transient nature of professional athlete careers.
A late first-round pick, Battle played in four seasons in the NBA, (including a dunk contest appearance) as well as four seasons in the CBA, a season in Argentina and one final year playing in North Dakota for a International Basketball Association team in 2000. “They paid me the money, so I went,” Battle said.
Now that his career is over, Battle has settled down with his family in Joliet and turned his famously endless pool of energy toward working with children. He runs a co-ed youth basketball camp and coaches an AAU team, and also dedicates his time to the volunteer basketball clinics run by the NBRPA. While many question whether Battle’s ‘tweener status kept him from getting properly utilized in the NBA, he dismisses that line of thinking, insisting that he got his shot and appreciated it. At the least, his introduction to the league was easier than Bardo’s.
“I never questioned it,” Bardo said, “But it was stunning because it was the first time someone told me I wasn’t good enough. I had to regroup quickly, but it was the best thing for my career.”
Bardo made a single appearance for the San Antonio Spurs the next season, before catching on with the Dallas Mavericks the year after. While he spent the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons in the CBA, he got back to the NBA one more time for a nine-game stint with the Detroit Pistons.
“Playing in the NBA was a lifelong dream, and although I didn’t play very long, I realized the dream.”
By the time his NBA career was over, Bardo was prepared for the lifestyle that moving from contract-to-contract required.
“I kind of figured out after the third or fourth year,” Bardo said, “I was going to be a hoops gypsy. Have ball, will travel.”
During the last season of his professional career, Bardo was at an Illinois basketball game and then-athletic director Ron Guenther approached and offered him a chance to do radio broadcasts for Illinois men’s basketball games. Bardo found the possibility of wide exposure appealing for the speaking career he was developing, and while the speech communications he had taken at Illinois were long behind him, he felt no anxiety about putting himself out in the open.
“I was ignorant,” Bardo explained of his fearlessness, “I was just having fun.”
Eventually the radio work became TV work, as Bardo worked as a sports reporter for CBS-2 Chicago, called NCAA tournament games for national CBS broadcasts, and became a regular presence on broadcasts of Big Ten games for ESPN. The new season will see him transition to an analyst/announcer role with the Big Ten Network.
“Basketball brought me everything,” Bardo said, “It brought me friends, a college education, I met my wife at the University of Illinois. I was there because I was an outstanding basketball player. I was a good student, but that wasn’t what I was being recruited for. Then I get a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream in playing in the NBA and I played in eight different countries overseas. I love the game, and I would play now if my knees and back didn’t hurt.”
These days, Marcus Liberty uses his NBA career as part of his cautionary tales to young players. Even though he achieved the rare feat of lasting four years at the highest level and excelled in a bench role for the Denver Nuggets for a handful of seasons, it’s easy to wonder what could have been if a few things went differently for the King High School star.
He left Illinois after his junior year, but only because the death of his grandfather created more immediate need for his family. He slid to the second round despite a dominant 1989-90 season, but felt his work ethic declined removed from an environment full of the mentoring and sacrifice for a common goal that permeated Illinois.
“I never really had someone that could actually mentor,” Liberty said, “Someone like a Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, that could grab and put you under their wings and say ‘young fella this is what you’ve got to do.’”
Liberty moved on to the CBA for a season after his NBA career ended, but soon opted for the international route, playing on teams in eight different countries before retiring at age 34. While he eventually worked through the culture shock of playing abroad, Liberty regrets the mercenary nature his career took on at the end. In his current work training and speaking to kids, often at NBRPA events, Liberty stresses that while basketball is a business, it’ important not to lose the love of playing. It’s a complex message to deliver between tips about his B.E.E.F. (balance, elbows, eyes, follow-through) instruction method for shooting form and box out drills, but Liberty speaks with an enthusiasm that belies his 44 years of age and claims the kids crane in to listen when he identifies himself as a former Illinois Mr. Basketball or mentions the NBA.
“Why not listen to me?” Liberty asked. “Why not listen to the Do’s and Dont’s I can offer?”
A shy kid growing up, Liberty credits one of his professors at Illinois pulling him aside and insisting he open up and communicate for his ability to talk about the difficulties he’s faced in his life and use it to guide others.
“When I walked away from the game and finally retired, I really missed the University of Illinois and I missed a lot of people that really mentored me and molded me into who I am today,” Liberty said. “A lot of people failed me that came into my life. I would never want to do that to a kid that came into my path.”
When he settled in Sarasota, Florida, he quickly gained notice from his neighbor Dick Vitale, who hired Liberty to train his grandchildren after an audition. As of September, Liberty was leaning toward taking a job coaching at a high school in Florida, but made no secrets of his desire to get back into the college game, even at Illinois.
Getting the Team Back Together
“I always knew I wanted to write this book,” Bardo said of his account of the 1988-89 season, “I waited for the 25th anniversary.”
The timing is right to maximize on fan nostalgia and calls for a reunion, but there’s also no such thing as too soon when it comes to re-living the best season of their lives.
“We should have did this a long time ago,” Liberty told Bardo when he first approached him.
The honeymoon never really died between players and the Illini fanbase. Fans who stopped them in the street to tell them how much they loved their brand of above-the-rim basketball at the time can still pick them out of a crowd now. For any Illinois hoops fanatic, this is the second-best Illini team of the modern era, and it’s worth wondering if the best one (the 2004-05 squad that went 37-2 and lost in the National Championship Game) would have formed in the same way if the Flyin’ Illini had not put the program on the map 16 years prior.
“It’s nice to be reminded of how people thought of that team,” Bardo said.
Bardo’s work has made him a regular feature on campus since he retired. But Gill also runs an annual golf outing benefitting the Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana that celebrated its 24th year of existence in July. He also makes a point to come back to the State Farm Center for a few games every season, as does Battle, who has never strayed far from the program. “Illinois is always in my heart,” Battle said, “I always love going back and I always have a thrill going into what’s now the State Farm Center but will always be Assembly Hall.”
A July interview Liberty gave with the Sarasota Herald- Tribune quoted him as saying that he had never been invited back, but he was eager to clarify that he was not bitter nor at odds with the university, just that he had not been invited by any specific coaching administration since Henson stepped down in 1996. If anything he wants to be more involved. Echoing the others, Liberty is optimistic about the progress Groce has made but still alarmed by the diffusion of Chicago-area talent to “national” programs and believes that the more recruits that know of the kind of supportive and loving environment that the 1988-89 team enjoyed, the better.
Every member of the team except for Nick Anderson (who had a prior commitment) is scheduled to be on campus at the Illini Union Bookstore on Nov. 1 for the celebration of the release of Bardo’s book.
Official university plans to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the team beyond the book signing are unscheduled or unannounced at the moment, but would easily be embraced by a group that still cherishes their relationship with the Illinois fanbase a quarter-century after they set the college basketball world ablaze and most of all, still cherishes what they built together.
“We are pretty much bonded for life. We built something that was so special that you see it off the court,” said Liberty, whose answer was immediate when asked how he’d react to the team being officially honored by the school.
“I would call it a family reunion.”