CHAMPAIGN — Until five minutes before Illinois tipped off against Hawaii Friday night, Steve Kelly had not seen his broadcast partner, Jerry Hester.
That’s a bit unusual, although so is the play-by-play radio role for Kelly, who was dispatched to Honolulu to pinch-hit for regular play-by-play voice Brian Barnhart.
Barnhart was held back in Champaign to do the radio call on Saturday’s Illinois-Purdue football game and Kelly, a long-time fixture on radio and television in Champaign, was doing what he always does — being a pro who dives in wherever needed.
But as the start of the game approached, Kelly was aware that Hester, a star for the Illini in the 1990s, had yet to make an appearance.
Finally, Hester walked up to the scorer’s table and with an expressionless face picked up his headset, apparently ready to assume his role as the analyst on what would be the first road game in the John Groce coaching era.
Then Hester looked at Kelly and dropped a quiet bombshell.
“Jerry said, ‘My dad died today,’ ” Kelly said. “I was shocked. I didn’t know what he was going to do.
“I asked him, ‘Are you planning to do the broadcast?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I think so.’
“I told him I would do it by myself if he didn’t feel up to it. I told him if he wanted to give it a try and changed his mind, to just stop and I would take over. I told him if he was having a tough time during the game, to just get up and walk away and gather himself.
“I was willing to do whatever was best for Jerry.”
Kelly wasn’t the first person Hester had told his 68-year-old father, Jerry Hester Sr., had died unexpectedly back in Illinois of an aortic aneurism.
Hester had ridden from the hotel to the arena on the team bus and during the trip he shared his sad news with Groce and the other Illini coaches.
Kelly asked Hester how he wanted to handle the news publicly. Did he want it mentioned during the broadcast? Did he want to keep it a private matter?
“Jerry said we would mention it at the end of the game,” Kelly said. “And so we did the broadcast as normally as we could. I thought Jerry was a little subdued, but I doubt anyone could tell anything was wrong.”
Delivering a normal broadcast was difficult because it was anything but a normal basketball game. Illinois fell behind by 16 points, then rallied in the second half, sent the game into overtime and won it when Peorian D.J. Richardson hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for a 78-77 victory.
It’s a shame that almost no one witnessed or even heard the radio broadcast of what happened next.
The game did not start until 11:45 p.m. (Central) and didn’t end until about 2:10 a.m. It was not televised and an internet video stream was mostly of poor quality. Those who cared enough to follow along were relying on the descriptions of Kelly and Hester.
There was a momentary delay after Richardson’s basket swished through the net, during which the officials checked a video review of the play, then agreed the ball left Richardson’s hands just before the clock expired.
“As soon as the game-winning shot was upheld and we knew Illinois had won, the Illini coaches pounced on Jerry,” Kelly said. “Coach Groce went right to Jerry and reached over the table and threw his arms around him. He knocked Jerry’s headset off and I’m sure you could hear it on the air.
“The other coaches grabbed him too and coach Groce told him they were dedicating the victory to his father.”
Understandably, Hester was moved and Kelly, who was watching it all, tried to stay composed while the broadcast continued.
But some of the best Illini radio no one was awake to hear came after Groce settled in to speak with Kelly and Hester during his post-game radio show.
“Groce mentioned dedicating the game to Jerry’s father and just broke down trying to talk about it,” Kelly said. Indeed, Groce’s voice cracked, then went silent.
“Coach Groce literally had his head in his hands, crying,” Kelly said.
As he composed himself, Groce said he could only imagine the impact of losing a father since his own father, Larry Groce, had made the trip to Hawaii and was seated behind the Illini bench during the game.
Groce knew how special it was to have his own father there that night, and what a hole it would leave if something happened to him.
Listening back in Central Illinois, I was struck with the realization that we were learning something very personal about the new Illini coach, a guy we’re still just getting to know. And we were feeling a sense of genuine sympathy for Hester, a kind, thoughtful player I covered from 1993 to 1998, a small forward who still ranks 15th on the Illini career scoring list.
Hester, a financial planner who lives in the south Chicago suburbs, had been in contact with his family and they agreed he should remain in Hawaii and do the Illini Sports Network radio broadcasts of the games at the Maui Invitational. A memorial service for his father has been delayed until after Thanksgiving.
“My dad would be proud that a Peoria player made that shot,” he said of Richardson’s game-winner. “My dad willed that shot in, I promise you.”