If a revolution can turn on a single rebound, that rebound may
have been one late in the first half of Illinois's home game with
Michigan State on Feb. 6. Of course it was a Spartan who grabbed
it--Michigan State, tops in the country in rebounding margin at
plus-16.6 a game, claims caroms as its birthright. But then a
curious thing happened. Illini forward Sergio McClain fixed two
hands on the ball and, with a tone-setting tug, wrestled it from
Spartans forward David Thomas.
An official whistled a foul, but McClain's audacious takeback
signaled the Big Ten's new order. In a game of headlocks and
cheap shots--a game, in short, that surely left NCAA officiating
supervisor Hank Nichols mortified and Vince McMahon suing for
royalties--Illinois fought the Spartans to a standoff on the
boards in the second half and won 77-66. "Serge made a
statement," Illini reserve forward Lucas Johnson said. "He was
saying, We're here, and you're going to have to decide whether
you'll come to our level or back off."
With the victory Illinois ascended to the top of the Big Ten
standings--and would stay there at 9-2 (19-5 overall) by defeating
Purdue 82-61 last Saturday--thanks largely to a nucleus of
starters from a midsized Midwestern industrial town, Peoria,
Ill., much as three players from a midsized Midwestern industrial
town, Flint, Mich., led the Spartans to an NCAA championship a
year ago. "They're like we were," says the lone holdover
Flintstone, guard Charlie Bell. "With guys from your own city,
you've been doing it so long, you're like brothers. Last year I
didn't want to let [fellow Flintstones] Mateen [Cleaves] and
Morris [Peterson] down. The Peoria guys are the toughest guys on
Whereas each Flintstone graduated from a different high school,
McClain, Frank Williams and Marcus Griffin are all graduates of
Peoria's Manual High, which won four straight Illinois state
titles, from 1994 through '97. "We've been through so many wars
together, there's a great amount of trust," says McClain.
There's a Peorian counterpart for every Flintstone. The Illini's
answer to Bell is McClain, a 6'4" senior. "Serge and Charlie play
the same role, even though they're at different positions," says
Williams. "They both score some, rebound some and guard the best
player on the other team."
Among the opponents McClain has kept in check this season are
Maryland's Terence Morris, Duke's Shane Battier and Michigan's
LaVell Blanchard. The Flintstones all sport tattoos reading
flint. Over the summer McClain made a tattooed nod to his own
roots--the image of his parents, Robin and Wayne, the latter
having coached Manual High to three of those four titles. In his
well-roundedness, even in his onetime dream of playing for Bob
Knight at Indiana, Sergio is every bit the coach's son.
Williams, a 6'3" sophomore point guard, is the Illini's Cleaves.
"Frank himself will tell you that Mateen was more of a true
leader, more vocal," says Illinois coach Bill Self. "Mateen would
not let that team lose, and Frank's growing into that role for
A year ago, after Michigan State trounced the Illini by 25 points
in East Lansing, Cleaves sought out Williams to reassure him that
his day would come. "He took me to the side and compared his own
freshman year to mine," says Williams, whose break-you-down style
is in the tradition of several generations of Peorian
Williams spent his first season at Manual butting heads with the
old-school ways of the elder McClain, who regularly tossed him
from practice. With Griffin, a 6'9" senior center whose steady
production suggests that of Peterson, the coach had the opposite
problem. Griffin was so withdrawn that he would show up for
practice and suddenly leave. Just as Williams's mother, Mary,
ordered her son to return to the gym, so did Griffin's mom, Ollie
Walls, until he began to make friends and blossom. "That first
year Marcus would never open his mouth," says Coach McClain, "but
he started to come over to our house, and by the next year you
couldn't get him to shut up." Now, like Mo Pete a year ago, Mar
Griff is the Illini's bellwether, their top rebounder (6.3 per
game) and second-leading scorer (12.3) and shot blocker (1.3).
"Griff is a straightforward, get-to-the-point type of guy," says
Illinois guard Cory Bradford, who helped bring down the Spartans
with six three-pointers, then extended to 88 games his NCAA
record with a trey by making two more against Purdue. "Serge is
nothing but heart. Frank's got the killer instinct. Combined,
it's a good nucleus."
"Throw in a little Memphis," adds Johnson, referring to
Bradford's hometown, "and you've really got something."
Peoria's basketball strength rests with its hybrid nature. It's
enough of a big city to have housing projects teeming with talent
but so middle America that its high school coaches still preach
the game's basics. Longtime Manual coach Dick Van Scyoc, the
winningest in Illinois history, closed his 44-year career with a
state championship when McClain and Griffin were freshmen. Today,
the coaches at all four Peoria public high schools either coached
under or played for Van Scyoc, or, like Wayne McClain, did both.
"The ballplayers here are talented, but they're disciplined,
too," says Verdell Jones, whose godson, Shaun Livingston, is a
freshman at Richwoods High and touted as Peoria's next
extraordinary guard. "They work on fundamentals every day. You go
up to Chicago, the players have talent but they're out of
control. You ever go into an abandoned home and turn on the
lights? That's how they play in Chicago. Like roaches, scattered
in all directions."
From the late '80s through the '90s the rivalry between Manual
and Peoria Central routinely drew 6,000 to 7,000 to Bradley
University's Robertson Field House, and in 1988 their meetings
featured 11 future Division I players. Scanning the walls of
Sully's sports bar on Adams Street reveals basketball roots
planted at midcentury. That's when Bradley won three NIT titles
over eight years; when the Caterpillar Cats, the industrial
league team fielded by the city's biggest employer, lorded over
its AAU rivals and in '52 even represented the U.S. in the
Olympics; and when such icons as Chet (the Jet) Walker and Levern
(Jelly) Tart ran at old State Park on the South Side. (They'd let
a little guy join them. He wasn't very good, but at least Richard
Pryor kept everyone laughing.) No other city televises live the
finals of its Gus Macker three-on-three tournament every
summer--and not on some goofy public-access cable channel but on
the CBS affiliate.
Three years ago at the Peoria Macker, Williams dribbled through a
defender's legs--twice--touching off delirium among fans. "People
were running out onto the court screaming, 'I saw it!'" says Gus
Macker founder Scott McNeal. "It was even better than the year
before, when [former Manual Rams and DePaul star] Howard Nathan
dribbled with his knees."
Peoria's tradition runs so deep that for three years no member of
the Manual threesome--NCAA rules prevent more than two college
teammates from playing on the same team--has been able to win the
top men's division at their hometown Macker. They've always lost
in the final to a team featuring Nathan and another erstwhile Ram
and Blue Demon, David Booth. "We owe our success to the Howards
and the Davids," says Griffin. "They'd kick our butts and tell us
what to work on. Mostly, we learned to flat-out guard our man."
As this season began at Illinois, those lessons held extra
meaning. In the first of its two wins over the Illini a year ago,
Michigan State had a 41-16 rebounding edge. Within several weeks
of their second loss to the Spartans, in the Big Ten tournament
final, Illinois players began filing into the weight room. "By
the time practice started in the fall, everybody had increased
his bench press by 40 or 50 pounds," Griffin says. "All we needed
was someone to remind us of defense, defense, defense."
That was Self, who took over from Lon Kruger several months after
leading Tulsa to the NCAA South Regional final last spring with a
stifling man-to-man. Self called the Illini's fortnight of
preseason conditioning "boot camp" and on its last day handed
each player a camouflage T-shirt emblazoned with WAR. His
recruits were already converts. "I talked about Michigan State,
but mostly it was our players who did," says Self. "They said,
'They're really good, and we've got to be tougher than they are.'
To be considered among the elite, you've got to beat the elite,
and they understood that."
In fact, the Illini's Peorians had already done it: At Manual,
Van Scyoc and Wayne McClain had challenged them to shoot for the
Michigan States of the Illinois high school ranks, Chicago King
and East St. Louis's Lincoln High. The question is whether by
beating the defending national champions, the Illini have
demonstrated the Flintiness to become champs themselves. Self
would have none of it, at least not last week. "We just want to
beat Purdue," he protested. "But I'll tell you this: We're in the
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Let's get physical McClain (third from left) wasn't disarmed by the vaunted Spartans rebounders.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Coming-out party The once reserved Griffin is Illinois's top rebounder and is second among the Illini in scoring and blocked shots.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Nowhere to go McClain and Brian Cook gave Purdue's Willie Deane a taste of the Illini's suffocating defense last Saturday.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Running the show Taken to school at times as a freshman last season, Williams has grown into his role as a floor leader.
"We've been through so many wars together, there's a great amount
of trust," says McClain.
Williams's break-you-down style is in the tradition of several
generations of Peorian backcourtmen.