Smile Politely

The Twenty Greatest Illini: Rafter Hangers in The Assembly Hall

When Merchandising Tool, Viacom (MTV) first arrived on cable, their programming consisted of almost nothing except promotional videos for popular music. As they began to hone their marketing skills, MTV culled and grouped videos they felt would be well-received by targeted demographics. They labeled this survey Top 20 Video Countdown.

Why the disproportionate overlapping? It’s not for lack of material. Although MTV didn’t start until 1981, music videos had been around since the 20s. And even in 1987, no Whitesnake video was better than Strawberry Fields Forever.

That show ruled the ratings for its target market. So naturally, there were umpteen spins-off, and variations. Soon, upping the ante, MTV began to run regular top-videos-of-all-time programs. Discriminating viewers quickly identified a tendency for MTV to include current hit favorites among the listees. That is, you could count on the “100 Best of All-Time” being pretty much the same as the “Top 20 of the Week.”

MTV knew that. But Whitesnake made the cut, and The Beatles didn’t. Someone in Marketing was convinced that the kids don’t care about yesterday’s material. “What’s fresh?” they queried. “Give us today music!”

The University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics is having a Top Twenty Countdown of its own. If you keep an eye on, you may be able to suss whether it’s a marketing ploy, or an earnest honorarium.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll learn the identities of 20 Illini Men’s Basketball players whose jerseys will hang from the Assembly Hall’s rafters. The DIA chose to release these names a few at a time, to keep us psyched up about it. The anticipatory buzz is loudest in the garages and tool sheds of locals whose radio dials — long since gummed stationary — never leave 1400 amplitude modulations anyway.

You may also hear the chatter if you venture into the sort of tavern where all the men sport caps. Because you’re stuck at work, procrastinating, your forum for debate will be the worldwide web. Here, you’ll find lots of opinions on this subject.

As you know, opinions are like assholes — some people just can’t seem to maintain theirs properly, and others just plain stink.

To brass tacks: What about great players from bad teams? What about the merely good players who seemed great because they shared the court with other greats? Is it fair to judge an individual based on the success of the supporting cast? Does it matter if it’s fair?

Must we be completely, thoroughly, objective in our analysis of cager superiority? Or should our jersey-hanging reflect the amount, or type, of subjective joy we got from our experience of particular individuals? Well, I think the subjectivity is important, but…

What if none of us was alive to see Andy Phillip play? Does that mean he doesn’t get make the list?

Oh crap, that’s a good point. So now we find ourselves relying on historical reports — which we must also interpret subjectively. Do we like the historian’s writing style?

In any debate over all-time Illini greats — especially one that fixes an arbitrary limit — participants are wont to invoke statistics. Statistical analyses are useful for people who don’t know the whole story. They’re a good starting place for television announcers who need to learn about a team’s composition, and fast. But statistics don’t tell the whole story.

Look at the current team. Chester Frazier gets the most minutes of anybody. That’s the only statistical category in which he leads. And it’s not a stat frequently cited as an indication of superiority.

The simplest, most commonly cited stat is points scored. If, in choosing the all-time Illini greats, you used scoring as your primary index, you’d be compelled to vote for Andy Kaufmann. Nobody likes Andy Kaufmann.

A different, frequent analytical mistake made by Illini Lore Inexperts factors High School Success Stories and Statistics (Hisssssss) and Career Range as a Professional (CRAAP) into an analysis which, for our purposes, should concern only a player’s career while wearing the Orange & Blue.

Those external factors help to color the larger picture, yes. They give the researcher an insight to a player’s ongoing legend (i.e. why those old farts still sit around those taverns and talk about him). But they skew the analysis, for our purposes.

Here are two examples:

To name the greatest Illini of all-time — based on street legend, high school accolades, playing time as an Illini, team success in the Big Ten and NCAA, and longevity earning a paycheck in basketball — is a fairly simple process.

The answer, unfortunately, is wrong: Sergio McClain.

Which member of the 1984 Co-Champion team had the best pro career? Was it Efrem, Douglas, Richardson or Wysinger? Anthony Welch? Big George?

No, it’s Scott Meents. A nice guy, and a great player — but probably not the guy you remember from that team.

Subjectivity is important. In fact, it’s vital. That’s why the experts who actually watch every game, and every season, know just how dumb the guy on television sounds.

If you based your analysis of the Flying Illini on stats, or success in the pros, you’d never divine the most important guy on that team: Steve Bardo. If you limited the parameters to on-court aspects alone, you’d still not get the correct name: Kenny Battle.

“Aspects,” you see, involves intangibles like gumption, fervor and audacity. Strip the analysis to bare statistics, and you’ll arrive at the sterile, and incorrect answer everyone else gets: Nick Anderson.

Nick was great, but he’s not the glue that sticks a team together. He’s not the spark plug that jumps a team’s engine.

I have my opinions about the Top 20 Rafter Hangers, and they just happen to be better informed and thought-out than anybody else’s. Furthermore, they smell like a rose.

My list would look nothing like the MTV version I expect. There would be only two names from the 21st century.

If either Brian Cook or Frank Williams takes Gene Vance’s spot, I’ll be bemused. But I would also push Kevin Turner over Frank; and Doug Altenberger over Brian. Brian was timid, and Frank was AWOL. Neither had the mental make-up of a champion, and yet nor could their mental frailties overcome their sheer talent. But this is college basketball, a game in which we root for the underdog, not the Übermensch. Overrated and under-performing doesn’t sell here, but grit and determination sure does.

I don’t know if the names on the raftery jerseys will reflect a democratic process, or the mind of a solitary expert. Maybe it’s just a way of marketing contemporary names to new recruits. “Let’s remind them The Olympian played here,” and whatnot.

We’ll have fun drawing inferences about the process, one week at a time. In fact, let’s fight about it.

Whaddya say?

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