CHAMPAIGN – When Illini basketball practice opened earlier this week, coach Brad Underwood started by assembling his team near mid-court to hear from two special guests.
No telling if the players can appreciate the combined achievements of the two men who addressed them. But in Mannie Jackson and Jerry Colangelo, they were face-to-face with alums who have made an impact at Illinois and an even bigger impact in the game of basketball and beyond.
Mannie Jackson and teammate Govoner Vaughn were the first African-Americans to start for the Illini basketball team. He would go on to become a high-ranking executive at Honeywell and play for and eventually own the Harlem Globetrotters.
He’s one of the most respected business leaders in the country and has given millions to worthy causes.
Colangelo’s resume is enormous in its breadth and depth. He came out of Chicago Heights and played at Illinois while becoming the senior captain of his team. A 1962 graduate, Colangelo was a scout and assistant to the president for the original Chicago Bulls. He then became the youngest general manager in professional sports for the expansion Phoenix Suns and would eventually become head coach, owner and president of the Suns.
He also assembled a group of investors that was granted a Major League Baseball expansion team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he was involved in women’s pro basketball, the National Hockey League and Arena football.
Colangelo became director of USA Basketball and has had a hand in assembling the last three United States Olympic teams, each of which has won gold medals.
So when Underwood placed each of them in floor level chairs to watch his opening practice, he was inviting a critique by two men who know the game.
After the practice was over, each had praise to offer.
“I was really impressed,” Jackson said. “I tried to pick a starting five, but it was very hard. And that’s good.
“The thing that I admired today was the energy that went into it and the teaching that went into it. You can tell people to do something but there were a lot of times when Brad told them why it should be done. That sticks with a purpose.”
Jackson attended Edwardsville High School, the same school that produced Illini freshman guard Mark Smith.
Jackson was impressed with Smith, too.
“Mark is good, really good,” Jackson said. “I know his family well. Quality young man, quality mom and dad. His parents are special and he was special at (Edwardsville).”
Colangelo, who has watched Mike Krzyzewski conduct many practices as the Olympic team’s head coach, echoed Jackson’s comments.
“It was pretty impressive,” Colangelo said. “Coach Underwood demonstrated a real capacity to lead. I was impressed with his workout, his organization, his structure. He pushed them pretty hard the first day of practice and I liked that. And it put them on the line, literally.
“People he called out had to make a free throw and, if not, they had to run. There was a little bit of running going on. And a lot of yelling.
“I pulled Brad aside and said, ‘Coach, this is a long season. This is the first day of practice. How are your vocal chords going to hold up?’
“And he said, ‘The Lord blessed me with good vocal chords. I’ll be fine.’”