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It's official

Illinois coach Bruce Weber waited two years, 11 months and 18 days for Jereme Richmond's letter of intent to come through the fax machine of the men's basketball office.

It was Friday, Nov. 24, 2006, that Richmond, then a 6-5 freshman at North Shore Country Day, made his verbal commitment to Weber. And on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009, that commitment finally became official. A letter of intent with Richmond's signature arrived at Illinois in the late morning.

"Oh, man, I've been waiting so many years to do that," Richmond said. "To get that out of the way, it was a huge lift off my shoulders. Honestly, it felt like Christmas. You wait for so long for it to happen."

Weber certainly had his moments of anxiety between receiving Richmond's commitment and his letter of intent.

"It's had its ups and downs," said Weber, who first saw Richmond play when he was in eighth grade. "There have been times where there were some trying moments. There were people who continued to recruit him. He had his ups and downs transferring schools and all that stuff.

"Again, we've tried to be loyal and patient with him. I hope along that way it's now going to be a great story for everybody, for him and our program."

Richmond, who is a 6-8 senior at Waukegan High School, has the potential to be a program changer. He's ranked among the nation's top seniors and is already considered a NBA prospect.

"When I say it, and you may think I'm going off the deep end, but we haven't had a player like him at the University of Illinois," Illini assistant coach Jerrance Howard said. "He's 6-8, and he can shoot, dribble, rebound, block shots."

Richmond's ability is one of the reasons Howard has described him as the "most important recruit in Illinois' history." More importantly, Richmond was the first freshman to commit to Illinois under Weber, and he created a domino effect in what has become a steady run of blue-chip recruits for the Illini.

Basically, Richmond made going to Illinois cool again. Before Richmond, Sherron Collins, Eric Gordon, Derrick Rose, Jon Scheyer and Julian Wright all had shunned Illinois.

"What allowed me to commit so [much] earlier was I saw a lot of the state players weren't attracted to Illinois," Richmond said. "A lot of guys like Sherron Collins, Jon Scheyer, Julian Wright, Derrick Rose -- they're from here, but they didn't represent their home state. That's not a fault against them. Me being from here, I wanted to give back to them."

After Richmond's verbal, current Illinois freshmen Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson and high school players Tracy Abrams (Mount Carmel), Nnanna Egwu (St. Ignatius), Crandall Head (Rich South) and Meyers Leonard (Robinson) committed to the Illini.

"In the past three years, he could have easily changed his commitment," Weber said. "He was loyal to us and has been a positive force in recruiting. He gets along with everybody and is not afraid to get on the phone. He's always pushing Illinois. He wants the best guys around him."

Richmond gets along well with Howard. When Illinois hired Howard in September 2007, his first action was to build a relationship with Richmond. Richmond had developed a bond with his initial Illinois recruiter, Tracy Webster, but Webster had left for Kentucky. It was about this time that Richmond began to waver on his commitment.

"The vibe I got was he was real close to de-committing," Howard said. "I was getting a lot of mixed emotions from him."

Howard knew he had to start from the ground floor with Richmond. The coach first talked to him about his family and school.

"I got to know him more on a personal level," Howard said. "I didn't talk to him about Illinois or basketball. I talked to him about him as a person. I talked about his goals. I told him, 'We're going to be loyal to you like you're loyal to us. I want to help you reach your dreams of the NBA.' In order to help a kid, he has to trust you. My philosophy with Jereme was to recruit him like he never had been committed.

"I'm very passionate about Jereme. He's a different breed. He's like a little brother to me."

Richmond has a mutual respect for Howard.

"Actually, before Jerrance came into the picture, I wanted to see if other programs felt the same way about my talents as Illinois did," Richmond said. "I felt all these other people were getting high accolades and getting all the attention. When Jerrance came into the picture, he inspired me to stay. He said to me that no matter where I go, I would have to work hard.

"This game is basically a business. With Jerrance, he saw something in me that was more than business. He saw a person you can inspire. He wanted to get in my life off the court. That helped me want to work with him on the court."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.