Basketball-wise, Meyers Leonard did not have the best Wednesday night. Individually, he was great: 18 points, 9 rebounds, one assist, one block. But his team, the hapless and collapsing Illini, lost to Michigan in typically uninspired fashion at home. The loss permanently sealed Illinois's 2012 fate as a once-promising team that melted down in the worst possible way.
On Jan. 11, the Illini were alone atop the Big Ten at 4-1. They had just upset Ohio State at home. Since then, they've lost 10 of their past 12 games, fans have revolted, athletic director Mike Thomas was tepid in his support of coach Bruce Weber, Weber was open and public and emotional about his failings as a coach this season, and his tenure -- and any chance Illinois had of returning to the NCAA tournament -- has ended emphatically.
After the game, Leonard even raised eyebrows with this comment:
Center Meyers Leonard said the Illini have not given up hope. "I don't know why anyone looks at us and thinks we're some different team," he said, alluding to earlier victories this season. "Like we're not capable. But we are."
It's fair to wonder how capable Illinois even was in the first place. This offense was never good, and it has only worsened -- it is now No. 10 in the Big Ten in efficiency -- down the stretch. But it's not hard to figure out why people are looking at Illinois differently. When you lose 10 of your past 12 games, that's just part of the bargain.
But there is a bright side to this story, fortunately, a nice human element to add to an otherwise brutal night for Illinois and its star center. Bailey Leonard, Meyers' older brother, who just returned the States after his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, surprised little bro and the rest of the team with a visit to its afternoon workout Thursday. From the State Journal-Register's John Supinie:
Bailey returned from his second deployment overseas to shock Meyers during the afternoon workout. He wore his dress blues.
“Surprising Meyers was great,” Bailey said at halftime. “It was great to see him be happy in front of the team. I think it was good for the team. I hope it gives them extra motivation to play tonight.” [...] Weber knew about Bailey’s return for a month and kept the surprise. Meyers thought he wouldn’t see his brother for the first time in a year until the Big Ten Tournament, at the earliest.
“I had no clue he was coming,” Meyers said. “I brought tears to my eyes. He put his life on the line every single day. I couldn’t be more proud to call him my brother.”
If you read Dana O'Neil's excellent feature on Meyers Leonard in January (and if you haven't, just go read it now, because I guarantee it's a better way to spend the next half hour than whatever it was you were planning on doing), you'll be familiar with the Leonards' story.
Meyers' father passed away when he was six, throwing his family's life into disarray. His mother's poor back health made it impossible for her to work but unable to afford the surgery she needed. Bailey's decision to enlist in the Marines and serve overseas was even more difficult, and Meyers has had the weight of all that and more on his very broad and capable shoulders throughout his basketball career.
Last September, for a piece on college basketball players' (and our generation's) memories of September 11, 2001, I spoke with Meyers about his brother's deployment and how it affected him.
"Honestly, I try not to think about [my brother]. It scares me when I do think about him. His life is at risk every day. I try not to think about it, but there are certain days or certain time periods where I won't be able to talk to him and it's on my mind even more. Basketball is an escape from pressure. Whatever the pressure is. Whether it's homework or worrying or just needing to clear my mind, I'll go run and get some shots up and clear my mind and escape before going back to what I was doing before."
Unfortunately, Bailey's surprise return Wednesday night didn't lead to a win for Illinois or Meyers, despite his excellent performance in the game. But in the midst of a messy, frustrating, spiraling and potentially all-consuming season, it may served as a helpful reminder that some things are much bigger than wins and losses.
Update: A must-see photo of the reunion is here.