CHAMPAIGN – It’s been 20 years since Jerry Hester was watching as his freshman roommate, Kiwanne Garris, missed both free throws and saw a chance to beat Missouri in triple overtime trickle away.
Hester’s first Braggin’ Rights basketball experience was agony, sheer agony.
It’s been 13 years since the first time Sean Harrington played in the annual Border War clash between Illinois and Missouri.
Harrington was a guard on coach Bill Self’s first Illini team, and he was on the floor for an 86-81 overtime victory in 2000.
Harrington’s first Braggin’ Rights experience was joy, sheer joy.
Years later, the memories are still fresh and crisp for each ex-player, and even now, from his home in DeKalb, Harrington can feel the butterflies building as Saturday’s game approaches.
“When I was playing, I’d always get jitters before a game, but once the lineups were announced, that went away,” said Harrington, who played at Illinois from 1999 to 2003 and is currently doing some television work for ESPNU and ESPN3.
“But that was the one game where I’d have jitters throughout. With the vibe and what was going on in that building, you’d never get past them.”
Harrington was 3-0 in Braggin’ Rights games in which he actually played, so his memories are spoken through a constant smile.
“That game was probably the most fun I had year in and year out,” he said. “It’s just madness playing in it, and I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
Hester won just once in his four-year Illini career, and with great detail he can dial up memories of losses and the victory alike.
The reason he has such clarity of recall?
“There is something special about that game,” said Hester, who will be sitting courtside Saturday as the radio analyst for the Illini Sports Network. “Once you play in your first one, you can’t wait to play again. And now that I’m no longer playing, I can actually appreciate it even more because I can see parts of the rivalry you couldn’t see as a player.”
Hester’s lone victory -- a 96-85 overtime triumph in 1995 -- stands as a highlight of his career.
Hester scored 14 points in the game, hit a pair of 3-pointers in overtime and finished the game with a resounding dunk that earned him acclaim beyond the borders of Illinois and Missouri.
“Right after that game we took off for Hawaii and ESPN had just started doing their ‘Top 10 Plays’ thing and we were sitting in a restaurant in Hawaii that had the TV on. And I looked up and someone said, ‘Wow, what a great dunk by that guy.’ Then he looked over and said, ‘Hey, that was you!’
“That was pretty cool. Winning the game and finally getting to hold that trophy was such a highlight.”
After Garris missed his free throws during the triple overtime spectacular in 1993 (making just one would have won the game for Illinois), Hester and Garris returned to their hotel room in St. Louis.
But Garris, who was a quiet and unemotional freshman, didn’t need consoling.
“It was a tough game,” Hester said. “Kiwanne was the strong, silent type. I remember back in our room we talked about the game, but we never talked about the free throws.
“Once we got back to campus we had a couple days off before Christmas. Kiwanne went to Chicago, and I went home to Peoria. I remember when I got back to campus I went into the gym and Kiwanne was already shooting free throws.
“He ended up being a great free throw shooter. He was extremely competitive, and he went to work on not ever failing in that situation again.”
Garris’ determination apparently paid off. He would go on to make 83.0 percent of his free throws, fifth-best in the history of the school.
Harrington will be watching Saturday’s game on television. It is from experience that he knows what he’ll be thinking.
“What I learned about that game is that it means so much to the fans,” he said. “It’s the one game where as a player, you feel like you can give the fans a present for Christmas. That was always a great, great feeling.”