Volume 3, Issue 42: An Empty Corner
"The silver black boot that cracked my front tooth is a new kind of truth I'm getting used to."
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In 1989, the men’s basketball coaches at the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa were recruiting a powerful, unusually skilled center from Chicago Simeon High School named Deon Thomas. It was a heated recruitment between two conference rivals, but, eventually, Thomas chose Illinois, as had many Simeon players, including Nick Anderson, Ervin Small and the late great Ben Wilson, the national player of the year in 1984 and the subject of the deeply sad ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Benji. The lead recruiter for Iowa was an ambitious assistant desperate to make his mark in the business, a 29-year-old named Bruce Pearl.
Pearl, frustrated that he’d lost out on such a valued recruit, called Thomas and confronted him with a rumor that he’d either heard or concocted himself out of thin air. Pearl claimed that Thomas came to Illinois because Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins—a former Cook County probation officer and Chicago youth league basketball coach with deep ties to the Chicago high school basketball scene who had become Lou Henson’s longtime right-hand man (and had had a personal mentorship since childhood with Benji Wilson)—had offered Thomas a Chevy Blazer. Thomas, who was an 18-year-old high school senior at the time, had grown frustrated and exhausted with Pearl’s constant calls and had hoped they would stop once his recruitment was over. Eager to get off the phone (as reported by Deadspin years later, “Pearl had put in nine calls to Thomas in the previous 48 hours”), Thomas, on the third asking about the Blazer story, said, “yeah, somewhat.” In an interview later that year, Thomas said “I was just trying to get him off the phone.”
It turned out that Pearl was taping the phone call, and he immediately submitted the tape to the NCAA along with breathless claims of Jimmy Collins’ corruption. A years-long investigation ensued, and while the accusations of free Blazers were proven entirely false, the damage was done. Thomas was forced to sit out his freshman season as the NCAA investigated the charges, Illinois was slapped with a vague “lack of institutional control” and banned from the NCAA tournament for two seasons and stripped of scholarships and, more than anything else, the reputation of Jimmy Collins was ruined. Collins had long been thought to be Illinois coach Lou Henson’s successor-in-waiting, but after the scandal, the word “Blazer” was forever attached to his name. Collins was certain Pearl’s baseless accusations was the reason he missed out on the Illinois job when Henson retired, and many others. From the 2011 Deadspin piece:
"The reason it impacted me so much was the longer it went on the longer I was finding out tidbits," Collins said. "They were really causing me to try to lose my job, my livelihood, the way to feed my family. That's why it hurt so bad, because I knew it wasn't true, and I knew that they knew it wasn't true. … In Champaign, all the people down there know it didn't happen. But the further I get away from Champaign, I get people saying, 'Ah man, how you doing? It's so good to see you beat that case.' I [worked in] the probation department for seven years and when you beat the case, it means they didn't have something on you to prove that you did it — but you did it and you got away with it."
It followed Collins, and Thomas, wherever they went, which was particularly galling as they watched Pearl, as the years went on, become a successful coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Tennessee and now Auburn (as well as a charismatic television personality). Meanwhile, Collins coached at tiny Illinois-Chicago the rest of his career, unable to move forward, or move away, from the Pearl incident. Collins once told an interviewer that there wasn’t a day in his life that someone didn’t bring up the Pearl-Thomas incident."It's a con man's game, and he's running it,” Collins said.
It turns out that Thomas’ relationship with Collins was about more than just a fictional Bronco. The two men were best friends, with Thomas, like so many basketball players before him, considering Collins a mentor and a father figure. “He taught me how to be married to my wife, how to be a husband and father,” Thomas told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I didn’t grow up with a dad. My mother and stepfather got divorced. But here I am, married 22 years, kids doing great. Coach Collins was able to make me see what was possible not only in basketball but in my life.”
Pearl reportedly ran into Collins at the Final Four 23 years after the incident and apologized. Thomas didn’t buy it, seeing Pearl as a uniquely malevolent figure, saying, “It’s kind of hard to forgive a snake. I don’t want to really use the word, but he’s evil.” Thomas later took the high road, saying he “wished [Pearl] the best.” But he and Collins had to relive the whole thing with every Auburn win, or every Pearl ESPN appearance, even after Pearl was briefly banned from college basketball after a career of shady behavior. It never went away. One lie, one decision by a young assistant trying to get ahead, and it stuck to everyone caught up in its wake, the rest of their lives.
Last Sunday morning, Jimmy Collins died at the age of 74, leaving behind a wife of nearly 50 years and four children. Tributes poured in from all across the country. But of course everyone wanted to hear from Thomas.
On WDWS Radio in Champaign, longtime Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate, still hosting his weekly radio show at the age of 89, had Thomas on to discuss Collins’ life and legacy. I have clipped the audio from that interview, because you really should listen to it.
Here’s what Thomas said, through tears:
I want everyone to know, Coach [Collins] and I have been attached at the hip since all of that stuff started. For anyone that’s listening, understand what the truth is: That man never did anything wrong. Nothing. I’m reading an article that came out yesterday, and they’re praising him at the beginning, then you throw that [Pearl] crap in there, and that man never did anything wrong. They allowed a lie to follow him around and tarnish his reputation for years. He was special. People need to know that. And understand that.
Thirty-one years later, one decision, one lie, still lingers, still hurts, still lasts, even on a man’s death bed, even as his closest friend tries to say goodbye.
One of the hard parts of wrapping your minds around this particular moment in history is trying to figure out how those who perpetuated it, and did nothing to stop it, will be judged. As rats abandon the sinking ship, with only the most desperate and corrupt left, there will eventually be attempts, when this is over, to rejoin the rest of us in polite society—this, after all, is part of the grift too. They’ll try to normalize their behavior and cravenness, to excuse it, to distance themselves from it. There are people who still, to this very second, with 3,600 people dying every day, are attempting to deny the seriousness of the pandemic and obstruct those attempting to fight it. Someday, maybe someday soon, this pandemic will be over, and there will be an accounting, a reckoning. We can be empathetic to those who have fallen prey to their avarice, but, if there is ever any sort of normality even possible after this, we must make sure to never let these people back into it. (And here’s a handy list of them. For your fridge.) I say this not as a matter of vengeance but as a matter of justice: There must be ramifications for those who might someday try to pull this shit again.
But, really, the damage has already been done. That’s what I thought, listening to Deon Thomas weep through my headphones: There is no fixing this.
That was one lie, just one, just one opportunistic moment from someone who had only his own interests in mind and didn’t care what happened to anyone else because he wanted what he wanted. And that lie affected lives forever. Thirty years later, a man died full of regrets and unfulfilled dreams, with his reputation still bleeding, all because of that one lie. One lie can change everything. One lie can destroy an entire life.
What do thousands of lies do? What does an endless parade of lies, a cascading cavalcade of lies, just an eternal stream of bullshit … what does that do?
I would love to believe that—while we will look back at this time with sadness, anger, frustration and despair—we will in fact be able to look back upon it. Because to look back upon it will mean that it is over. I would love to believe that it will be a dark, awful period in a history, sure, but one we can tie up and place neatly away, in some storage space where we can hide from it, claim it’s something we can all move on from. I would love to believe that at some point we’ll be finished with it.
But I’m worried that’s not how any of this works. The results of the lies, the ramifications of this time, will reverberate for the rest of our lives, and surely the rest of our children’s lives. There are people who were destroyed by this time, by these people, who will never recover. It will be 30 years in the future, as they lie dying, and they will still be thinking about what happened to them and the people they loved and the world they cared about back in 2020, the years before, how their lives were just never quite the same after that.
We are so close to taking the first small step in being able to move on from this. Vaccines are coming, vaccines are here, Trump is leaving. But we’ll never truly move on from this. I have found much hope of late, considerable optimism that the fever is breaking, that we might make it through this, that road back will be difficult and grueling but also passable, and possible. But we won’t be able to shut a door on this. We can’t stow it in a warehouse someday. and move on. We’ll have to live with it forever.
Bruce Pearl may have meant his apology to Jimmy Collins; he may have even believed it. But it doesn’t really matter. Jimmy Collins still was shattered from what happened to him, and he and the people who loved him never truly healed. It will take us decades to fix what has been broken. We’ll never get to all of it. I’m afraid we won’t even come close.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
How Not to Behave in a Pandemic, Medium. This was not actually the strongest writing week. I’m in final, final book edits, and it’s the last week before Christmas, and … there’s just a lot of balls in the air. Didn’t quite feel on my game this week.
What If Cleveland Would Have Scored Off Aroldis Chapman in the Ninth Inning of Game Seven of the 2016 World Series? MLB.com. I enjoyed this one because it allowed me to imagine the Cubs not winning the World Series.
Steven Soderbergh Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. With Let Them All Talk and The Laundromat.
Meryl Streep Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. With Let Them All Talk and The Prom.
What Cleveland Changing Its Baseball Team’s Name Means, New York. I have been writing on this topic since I was a freshman in college. I will confess to growing a bit tired of it.
Getting to Know Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Medium. Made sure to get this done this week.
The Thirty: Picking a Future Hall of Famer Off Every Current Roster, MLB.com. Discussed this one on MLB Network. How’s my Room Rater?
Five More People Who Got Us Through 2020, Medium. This series will be done soon.
Grierson & Leitch, we discuss the Minari, The Prom. Let Them All Talk and Small Axe: Alex Wheatle.
People Still Read Books, talking with David Wallace-Wells about his groundbreaking book The Uninhabitable Earth.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, reviewing the Missouri game, previewing nothing.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON
My Favorite Movies of Each Year of the Last Ten Years, Ranked by My Desire to Watch Them Right Now, This Very Second, in 2020
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
O.J.: Made in America (2016)
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Uncut Gems (2019)
Midnight in Paris (2011)
(We’re taping Dorkfest on Monday night, by the way.)
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
It’ll take four months to get here, apparently, but send ‘em anyway. Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Country Feedback (Live From The National Bowl, Milton Keynes / 1995)” R.E.M. I’ve been listening to the “R.E.M. at the BBC” collection on Spotify all week, and 1992 Will Leitch, who thought “Country Feedback” was his favorite R.E.M. song, very much appreciates that every time Michael Stipe sings this song on this collection, he says, “This is our favorite song.”
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
Also, this is Illinois’ new football coach:
Be safe, everyone.