CHAMPAIGN — Let’s be clear: Nothing is better than attending a sporting event in person.

The noise. The action. The smell of brats and popcorn. The energy.

You can feel it in your heart and soul. Euphoria happens when your team takes the lead and despair when it falls behind.

When I hear someone say, “I’d rather watch at home,” it doesn’t compute.

Consider all the golden sports moments Illinois fans have witnessed over the years.

Deron Williams’ climactic three-pointer against Arizona. James McCourt’s game-winner against Wisconsin. Eddie Johnson beating Michigan State. Rocky Harvey stunning Michigan. Tyler Griffey upsetting No. 1 Indiana. And on and on and on. You were better for having been there.

But that isn’t possible now. COVID-19 has forced the stands to remain empty.

The timing couldn’t be worse for the legion of Illinois basketball fans. Brad Underwood has the best team at the school since the 2004-05 Illini reached the national title game.

Another lengthy NCAA tournament run is a distinct possibility.

Had fans been allowed in this season, State Farm Center would have been packed to the gills. Standing-room only. Scalpers delight.

But it can’t happen this season.

Finding another way

On Tuesday night, Illinois hosted Northwestern at State Farm Center. It was the first home game since the nation’s fifth-ranked team drilled Wisconsin 75-60 on Feb. 6.

On a ridiculously cold night (aren’t they all), it seemed like the perfect time to curl up at home and watch on the screen of your choice.

Thanks to the school’s COVID Wellness Ambassadors, Illinois students could do so while also attending a “party.”

No spilled drinks or double-dipping (so rude). Just a chance to hang out virtually during Illinois’ closer-than-Underwood-wanted 73-66 victory against the Wildcats.

While Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn and pals kept the team toward the top of the Big Ten standings, about 130 participated in the Illinois Men’s Basketball Watch Party.

The COVID Wellness Ambassadors had the vision for the event. They worked with the Illini Union Board, Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, Gies College of Business and International Students and Scholars Services to make it happen.

The team of staff and students started working on the event in mid-January.

The two primary on-screen hosts of the event were undergraduate students Evan Neilson and Sarah Bittle. They did a fine job setting the tone and encouraging the party-goers.

The top segment was an interview with former Illini Aaron Jordan. He shared his favorite moment as an Illini, a 79-74 win in 2019 against then-No. 9 Michigan State.

“Everybody rushed the court,” Jordan said. “Before that, I hadn’t been a part of many games like that. Just to experience that with those guys was unbelievable and something I’ll tell my kids and grandkids.”

Jordan remains a fan of the program, and he calls himself an Illini for life.

“I’m so proud of where guys are at right now, the progress of all my teammates, my coaches,” he said. “They’re doing a really, really good job. I’m going to be supporting and yelling. I’m just so happy to be a part of the Illini family.”

Fun and games

Nothing draws people to events like the chance to win free stuff. Constant giveaways happened during the watch party.

A five-question quiz gave me a chance to learn more about the school.

An example: Which movie did not mention the University of Illinois? Options included “The Breakfast Club,” “Risky Business,” “With Honors” or “Blues Brothers 2000.”

The correct answer is “The Breakfast Club.” Years of binge-watching finally paid off.

And did you know tuition at Illinois back in 1858 was $15? Prices have climbed a bit since then.

Reactions to the watch party have been positive. Next best thing to being at the SFC, one watcher commented.

Will there be another watch party in the future? The Big Ten and NCAA tournaments are coming up in the next month, so those might be of interest.

No decision has been made, said Jodi Silotto of campus public affairs, who helps lead the Wellness Ambassador program with graduate student Molly McQuaid.

“Regardless,” Silotto said, “we will be cheering on the Illini.”



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