OPINION: Top 8 Former Illini Basketball Players Who Could Be On A Statue

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Brad Underwood certainly got me thinking on a Monday afternoon.

While on the ‘College Hoops Today’ podcast with host and CBS Sports college basketball analyst Jon Rothstein, the Illinois men’s basketball head coach uttered a phrase almost entirely in jest to describe his best player during his three-year tenure with the Illini.

When asked about the possibility of Ayo Dosunmu skipping the NBA draft process and returning for his junior season at Illinois (something Dosunmu has specifically told us he doesn’t intend to do), Underwood said the following.

“There’s no doubt that if Ayo were to come back here, I mean, they might build a statue (of him),” Underwood said. “I’m a big believer in young people reaching their dreams and goals and I know what (Dosunmu’s) goals are.”

“There’s no doubt that if Ayo were to come back here, I mean, they might build a statue (of him). - Illinois head coach Brad Underwood on star guard Ayo Dosunmu. 

The Dick Butkus statue is unveiled on the campus of the University of Illinois on Oct. 11, 2019.
The Dick Butkus statue is unveiled on the campus of the University of Illinois on Oct. 11, 2019.Matthew Stevens/Illini Maven at SI

This is where I may remind folks that Dick Butkus, who is still on the last Illinois football team to win the Rose Bowl in 1964, just got a statue of himself outside the Smith Family Football Center presented by the school last fall - 55 years after he graduated. Statues don’t just go up for former Illini athletes.

Rothstein has already been a big advocate in the national media that the return of Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn to the Illinois roster for the 2020-21 season would make the Illini a national championship contender and a favorite to win the Big Ten Conference regular season title.

However, Underwood’s comment, however in jest it may have been, did get my brain going on which former Illini basketball players could deserve such an honor of a permanent statue outside the State Farm Center in Champaign.

Here is the list of eight players (in no particular order) who Illini Now/Sports Illustrated believe are worthy:

Andy Phillip - 1942-43 and 1947 - The only reason Phillip, who was a leader of the famous ‘Whiz Kids’ team of the 40s that had a chance at a national championship but elected to participate in the armed forces instead of play in the NCAA Tournament. The only reason Phillip wasn’t an All-America selection three years in a row was a little thing called World War II. Phillip remains the only Fighting Illini player elected in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Johnny ‘Red’ Kerr - 1952-54 - Most people my age remember Kerr as the television analyst on WGN for Chicago Bulls games during the Michael Jordan era of the 80s and 90s. Kerr was one impressive player not only in the NBA but with the Illini as well. Kerr was the Big Ten Conference’s Most Valuable Player selection in 1954 and was named to the 1952 Final Four All-Tournament team. He averaged 18.3 points per game as an Illini and still is the school’s 23rd-leading scorer.

Eddie Johnson - 1978-81 - People forget “E” was an impressive Illini forward before he went on to score 19,202 points in his NBA career. What folks also often forget about Johnson’s impact at Illinois was the graduate of Westinghouse High School made it cool again for Chicago recruits to come to Champaign to play college basketball. Johnson’s era was known for bringing Illinois basketball back from irrelevance (similarly to how Dosunmu is described today) and averaged 1,692 points in his four-year career. He might be most known for hitting the game-winning shot in then-Assembly Hall on Jan. 11, 1979 to defeat No. 1 Michigan State led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Kendall Gill - 1987-90 - Gill’s career goes overlooked by some because that 1989 Illini team that made it to the Final Four was so balanced and talented. However, Gill remains the school’s 19th on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,409 points but one of the few players in Illini history to be the Big Ten’s single season scoring champ (1990) and a first-team All-America selection in the same year. Gill’s Illini team ended their seasons in the NCAA tournament each of his four years in Champaign.

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Deon Thomas - 1991-94 - The former McDonald’s All-America selection is still the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,129 points and fourth-leading all-time rebounder with 846 in his four-year career. Let’s put this in perspective, if Ayo Dosunmu would like to break Thomas’ record, all he’d have to do is come back for two more seasons and average 20 points per game in each of those seasons to do it. Thomas was named the team’s MVP for three straight years from 1992-94 and was an All-Big Ten selection in each of those years as well. He owned the school's freshman record for single-game points for 29 years after scoring 34 against UW-Milwaukee in 1991 until Giorgi Bezhanishvili broke that record in 2019.

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Photo via Deron Williams' Instagram account

Deron Williams - 2003-05 - Williams is a two-time Olympic gold medal recipient and is the highest drafted player in Illini history after going No. 3 overall in the 2005 NBA Draft to Utah. Williams was an All-America selection in 2005 and still holds the school’s single-game scoring record for a NCAA tournament game with 31 in a second round win over Cincinnati in the 2004 NCAA tournament.

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Dee Brown - 2003-06 - Maybe the most famous player in the modern era to put on an Illini jersey. Brown, like Johnson, made it cool again for Chicago kids to pick Illinois after the Proviso East High School star choose Bill Self’s program in Champaign. Brown was the Bob Cousy Award winner in 2006, given to the nation’s best point guard and “The One-Man Fast Break” was a consensus first-team All-America selection in 2005 along with being Big Ten Conference Player of the Year and Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He is the winningest player in school history with 114 wins during his career and ranks fourth all-time at Illinois in scoring with 1,812 points. 

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