First off, thank you to all the donors for my little fundraiser. We met the goal in just over 24 hours. You'll see the site filled with these Pick My Post articles over the next few weeks (I offered a post written about the topic of your choosing if you donated to the scholarship in my dad's name - see the previous post if you want to know all the details).
First up, a request for a Mount Rushmore post from donor David Koenen. He originally asked for it to be a football list, but then sent me a message saying that he'd prefer to switch it to basketball. And that's probably a good call, content-wise. Football, to me, only has one debate - the fourth spot. Red Grange and Dick Butkus are 1-2, and then for me, Simeon Rice is clearly #3 in my book (was the all-time sacks leader in college football when he graduated, 21st all-time on the NFL sack list). So the only debate, to me, is "who gets the Teddy Roosevelt spot?"
For basketball, it's much harder. It's a full-on debate. I'll give you an example and then we'll get into that debate.
If Dee Brown had Deron Williams' NBA (and Olympic) career, then Dee Brown would clearly be on the Illini Basketball Mount Rushmore. Part of the reason Red Grange and Dick Butkus are such mortal locks for the Illini football Mount Rushmore were their NFL careers. Grange was the very first NFL superstar, and Butkus was a top-10 linebacker in NFL history. Those two men completing their college stardom with NFL superstardom cemented their faces on the mountain.
For Illini basketball, we don't really have that. Dee was the face of Illini basketball for four years, but Deron was the one picked 3rd overall and Deron was the one hitting the huge three pointer in the gold medal game in the 2008 Olympics as the Redeem Team won gold. It's the same as the 1989 team. Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill had the long NBA careers, but Kenny Battle was the heart and soul of the Flyin' Illini. It's much more difficult to find a true Mount Rushmore.
But David didn't donate money to the scholarship fund for me to say "it's too hard" and avoid the question, so let's get into it. My Illini basketball Mount Rushmore, and then my explanation for each:
Andy Phillip Nick Anderson Deron Williams Ayo Dosunmu
First my general thinking, and then my individual argument for each.
I chose players from the four "should have won it all" Illini teams. We're defined by "best team to never win a title", and a lot of that comes from our close calls. So my brain went "eras" here when trying to choose a Mount Rushmore. The Whiz Kids should have won a title. The Flyin' Illini should have won a title. We were the #1 team in the country in 2005 and the #2 team in 2021 (but, unfortunately, we couldn't get it done).
Those teams were still legendary, though. They're the reason we're even in this argument with Oklahoma for "best team to never win a title." Those close calls have elevated us well above the Iowas and the Missouris of the world. We're right there.
And here are the four players who put us right there.
Illinois Basketball should have won the national title in 1943. The team was #1 in the country, 12-0 in the Big Ten (17-1 overall), and had four of the five players on the All Big Ten team. So why did Wyoming win the national title with Illinois not even playing in the NCAA Tournament? Because after the final game of the season (beating the University of Chicago 92-25 at Huff Hall to finish 12-0 in the Big Ten), three Illini starters headed off to active duty in World War II. Illinois declined an invitation to the NCAA Tournament and that was that.
Andy Phillip (from Granite City) was the star of that team, and he'd go on to a long NBA career. He was a 5-time NBA All Star, was twice named second-team All-NBA, and won a title in 1957 with the Celtics. Oh, and in the middle there he was a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps at Iwo Jima.
Our Mount Rushmore has to have someone from the Whiz Kids, and that someone is Andy Phillip.
When playing hoops in the back yard, I wanted to be Kendall Gill (even though I wasn't left-handed). I had a Battle to Seattle poster. But the player from the Flyin' Illini whose face should go up on Rushmore is Nick Anderson.
There was just so much fulfilled with Nick Anderson. The Ben Wilson "wear #25 at Illinois" thing. The long run of recruiting success for Jimmy Collins in Chicago culminating in an absolute superstar from Simeon heading to Champaign. The long three pointer to beat Indiana (and to stick it to Bobby Knight after the Henson/Knight feud). The final Henson team of the 1980's finally getting over the hump and making it to the Final Four.
That whole journey from, say, 1984 to 1989 - all of the teams that fell short of the Final Four - were pushed over the finish line by Nick Anderson. In terms of talent, there's an argument to be made that he was the most talented Illini basketball player ever. The #25 thing, the Indiana shot, getting to the Final Four… put his face on our Rushmore.
We didn't know right away.
Here's a fun trivia question to spin on your friends. "Name the two Illini basketball players on the All Big Ten Freshman Team in 2002/03." They'll say "Deron Williams and Dee Brown", and then you can make that "AANGHH" buzzer sound and say "Dee Brown and James Augustine - Deron Williams wasn't on the All Freshman team." None of us knew right away.
By his sophomore season, we knew. By his junior season, we really knew. When he went #3 in the draft in 2005, was a 3-time NBA All Star, and was selected for the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams, we knew we knew we knew. But his freshman year, we didn't know yet.
Now we know. Rushmore.
Honestly, this was the easiest choice for me. This one is personal.
Someone cut our mooring lines after the 2006 season and our boat was adrift at sea for more than a dozen years. Everything that was built by the Whiz Kids, the Flyin' Illini, and the 2005 team had all but vanished. And then one player sat down at the Nike Store in Chicago and said "I'm staying home."
He'd go on to be our first 1st Team AP All American ever. He eschewed the draft not once, but twice in order to push us all the way to #2 in the polls. After more than a decade of "is Illinois even a top-25 program anymore?", he dragged us back into the top-15 all time (where we belong).
Yeah, this one is easy. A Chicago player who chooses to stay home and then moves the program back into the national conversation?
Carve his face on the mountain.