Commentary

Cliff Alexander breaks Illini hearts

Star recruit picks Kansas, but Friday was still a banner day for Chicago basketball

Updated: November 16, 2013, 10:36 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Cliff Alexander pulled a move they'll be talking about for years in Chicago, Champaign, Ill., and Lawrence, Kan.

At a signing-day festival that included the Curie Metropolitan High School dance team wearing masks and grooving to Ylvis, the pep band playing the "SportsCenter" theme song and a highlight video on a projection screen complete with testimonials from international players he has dunked on, Alexander started to commit to "The University of ..." as he picked up an orange Illinois hat.

But the top power forward prospect in the country deked Illini Nation, breaking hearts instead of ankles, by putting on a Kansas hat instead.

"What the Cliff Said" was painful noise to every Illinois fan.

"It was something my teammates thought I should do," he said later. "So I just did."

[+] EnlargeCliff Alexander
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsCliff Alexander watched a recent Kansas practice during a recruiting trip last month, and on Friday he picked the Jayhawks over Illinois.

It sounds like something teenagers would suggest, which is why I loved it. Adult moments sometimes call for teenagers to act like, well, teenagers to let everyone know to lighten up.

I'm sure the Illinois coaching staff disagrees with me, but I bet Bill Self has watched that GIF about 1,000 times.

What most people didn't see was Alexander with tears in his eyes as he sat down at the table. This was before the live television shot and before the hat business.

As Alexander said, the hat fake tweeted 'round the world wasn't an insult, even though it seemed like yet another slap in the face of an aggrieved fan base that has a one-sided tortured relationship with ex-coach Bill Self and a sense of self-pity about the rejections they get from Chicago-area stars. (And don't get them started on Eric Gordon.)

On Twitter, fans acted like fans, while media members predictably got on their high horses, whining about class and an "out of control" recruiting spectacle.

The preps writers, the folks who do this all year, loved Friday's action. Why wouldn't they? It was a banner day for Chicago basketball.

At Whitney Young, one of the best high schools in the country, massive center Jahlil Okafor, the top player in the Class of 2014, picked Duke, and 15 minutes later on South Archer Ave., Alexander, the No. 3 player in the country, according to ESPN, chose another powerhouse in Kansas.

Yes, it was a great day for Chicago basketball. Just not for the University of Illinois.

My favorite reaction was a video shot by University of Illinois junior Daniel Charous. The broadcast major from suburban Chicago filmed his friends watching the ESPNU news conference at the Alpha Epsilon Pi house. When Alexander picked up the orange hat, the room erupted as if they just won the national championship.

Then, someone saw Alexander wearing a Kansas hat and all hilarity broke loose.

I assume most of these kids are Cubs fans, and thus, are used to disappointment.

This was probably the first feel-bad moment of the John Groce era in Champaign. In two offseasons and one season of basketball, Groce has completely re-energized Illinois basketball. He made the NCAA tournament with Bruce Weber's players, winning a game.

His staff has made inroads all around the country -- Memphis-area forward Leron Black signed for next year -- and has rebuilt a fractured relationship with Chicago schools.

"I love Coach Groce," Alexander said. "I love the whole coaching staff."

Even after a terrible recruiting day where the Illini lost point guard Quentin Snider to his hometown Louisville and Alexander to Kansas, hopes are still high for the future in Champaign.

Another former Illinois coach, Jerrance Howard, who left his assistant job after Groce took over, helped seal the deal for Alexander. Howard spent a year at Southern Methodist University before joining Self at Kansas on May 31.

"He played a big role," Alexander said. "As soon as he stepped foot on campus at Kansas, we were talking. We have a great relationship. He was one of the guys who offered when he was at Illinois."

Still, it was no, well, slam-dunk decision, Alexander said. He didn't want to sign a letter of intent (no one should, but that's a different story) but said he's set with Kansas.

"I've been confused for the last week," he said. "One minute I want to go here, one minute I want to go there. I came to the conclusion last night I wanted to go to the University of Kansas."

As he tossed and turned between Kansas and Illinois, I'm sure it didn't hurt to see the No. 1 freshman in the country, Andrew Wiggins, ball out against the other No. 1 freshman in the country, Jabari Parker, at the United Center in a win over Duke this week.

[+] EnlargeCliff Alexander
AP Photo/Damen Jackson/Triple Play New MediaCliff Alexander says he will be a one-and-done player in college, figuring he will be in good hands under Bill Self at Kansas.

Stars want the stage, after all.

"It changed it a lot," Alexander said. "It was very exciting."

The Curie star was built up to be Groce's first five-star recruit and a warning sign to the national powers that Illinois can still get the big Chicago stars.

Groce and assistant coach Paris Parham worked Alexander hard, but respectfully. They have earned a very good reputation in Chicago and that won't end with Alexander's decision. When Groce signed two Simeon starters last year and got Simeon junior D.J. Williams to verbally commit already for next year, it was a smart move, politically and basketballwise.

But Alexander was worth much more to Illinois than one year and word of mouth.

A player like Alexander could've helped Illinois go deep in the tournament and attract other four- and five-star recruits. It would've given Groce a national spotlight.

All that attention equals fundraising money, better facilities, bigger bonuses, alumni pride.

Of course, Alexander didn't have to think about that. What he needs is a solid year of NBA preparation and a nice NCAA run when all the general managers are salivating.

Alexander considers himself a one-and-done player and he said, after talking to his family and his coaches, the tiebreaker between the schools was Self's proven record of developing NBA talent, especially forwards. Groce doesn't have that yet.

"I like Bill Self," he said. "He's a great guy. I like how he coaches. I like how he gets the ball to his bigs."

While the day was about where Alexander would go to college, it was really about getting him ready for the next step.

As I walked up the stairs out of the Curie auditorium, Alexander's father, former local basketball player Clifton Terry, was sitting and talking to two other men.

One man loudly counted down the months of a basketball season.

"You've got October, November, December, January, February and March," he said. "And then, it's a wrap!"

Yes, Alexander's college career will be brief, but few will forget how it started.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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