Recovering Arcade Junkie
This story has been around a while, but I'm surprised that very few people seem to be aware of it. I lost a lot of respect for their team after reading this article. I also really don't understand how the national media never latched onto this story since Head is such a big part of the Illini team.
Note the article is somewhat long.
Note the article is somewhat long.
Illini coach keeps it in the family
Illinois' Bruce Weber has no apologies for giving a second chance to Luther Head after the player's brush with the law in 2003.
By David Haugh
Tribune staff reporter
Published February 20, 2005
CHAMPAIGN -- After attending Illinois' inaugural Midnight Madness practice in 2001, freshman engineering major Solomon Brown called home to share his excitement with his dad, Randy.
He raved about the potential of incoming Illini freshman Luther Head.
"I remember him saying, `Dad, that's a guy to look out for,"' Randy Brown recalled.
Four years later, his son can barely watch.
"I used to have season tickets, but I don't go to games anymore," Solomon Brown said. "There are times that I see Luther did something to help win a game and I think to myself, `You're lucky to be out there."'
Brown supports the No. 1-ranked Illini, but he has struggled to see Head in the same light since a dark night in November 2003 when his off-campus apartment on Gregory Drive was burglarized.
Inevitably, Brown's mind races back to the anxious moments he spent sitting on the edge of his bed, clutching a golf club he might have needed to defend himself and his girlfriend if the men rummaging through his and his four roommates' belongings in the living room were able to jiggle loose the locked bedroom door.
Brown dialed 911 as the intruders walked out tucking DVDs into their clothes on their way to packing the stolen merchandise into the trunk of their car. After a night of drinking, police reports allege, the men walked into the apartment complex looking for a party and walked out carrying 26 DVDs, PlayStation and Xbox game systems, two backpacks, a pair of dress shoes and $200.
Head never has denied being among the group of at least five young men, including teammate Richard McBride and former Illini player Aaron Spears, who entered the apartment and took as much as $3,000 worth of goods.
The contrast between the way Illinois coach Bruce Weber handled the incident--he suspended Head and two teammates for four games but welcomed them back to the team--and the disposition of criminal cases involving other Big Ten basketball players is still bothersome to some people here.
Fifteen months after the Champaign burglary, critics still question the former prosecutor's decision not to go forward with the case and whether he intimidated the young victims into not bringing charges against Head and his companions. The prosecutor, John Piland, lost his bid for re-election as Champaign County State's Attorney, in part because his opponent made his handling of the case a campaign issue.
For all the excitement that Illinois' No. 1 national ranking has generated throughout the state, the outcome of Head's largely forgotten but serious encounter with the law underlies the senior guard's emergence as the Illini's leading scorer and a top contender for Big Ten player-of-the-year honors.
Recently, Head and Weber referred to the burglary and the adversity that followed as the point at which this Illini team began to build the togetherness that has been the foundation for a magical season.
"Overcoming that brought us closer as a team," Head said the other day at practice.
Senior Roger Powell, a licensed minister in the Pentecostal church, recalled the way Head humbly asked his teammates for forgiveness and acceptance after spending many a night "praying with each other" for direction.
Weber used the words family and trust when recalling the good that came out of something potentially very bad for Head, the basketball program and the university.
"I think we came together, the staff, the players, everybody came together because we went through that stuff," Weber said.
Weber suspended Head and the other players involved for four games, two of them exhibitions. They avoided further legal jeopardy because the victims agreed not to file charges after Piland warned them they would face intense media scrutiny.
Not every Big Ten basketball team has fared so well after incidents involving the police.
- Iowa kicked star Pierre Pierce off the team 17 days ago and denied his appeal last week. He faces three felony charges--two counts of first-degree burglary and one count of assault with intent to commit sexual assault--and one count of fourth-degree criminal mischief. Pierce could face 56 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
The arrest was Pierce's second since he enrolled at Iowa. The former Westmont High School star was suspended from the team and sentenced to probation and community service in 2002 after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of assault against a female Iowa student-athlete. Hawkeyes coach Steve Alford subsequently faced intense statewide criticism for welcoming Pierce back to the team, a move that backfired when Pierce was arrested again last month.
- Michigan has been without its best player, Daniel Horton, since suspending him on Jan. 25 after Ann Arbor police filed domestic assault charges to which Horton pleaded guilty last Monday.
- Former Wisconsin guard Boo Wade, who left the team last month, broke the terms of a plea agreement related to a domestic-violence charge and faces sentencing March 8.
The case involving Head differs in that nobody got hurt. But it would be wrong to suggest nobody got scarred.
Piland lost his re-election bid last fall to Julia Rietz, whose campaign ads took shots at Piland specifically for his decision not to file charges in the Illini incident.
"From a community perspective, there was an overwhelming majority of people unhappy with how the state's attorney handled this because he did not hold [Head and his friends] responsible for their actions," Rietz said.
Brown and his four roommates were eventually compensated for their lost merchandise through a Champaign law firm the alleged burglars retained. Of the five roommates, only Brown responded to a request to be interviewed.
"The vast majority of people around here think it never happened, and maybe only me and my roommates and some of my friends remember," Brown said. "But I think they would have been kicked off the team if we had filed charges."
Brown expects school spirit will spur him to follow the Illini bandwagon to St. Louis if the team continues winning and makes the Final Four, and he would "celebrate like everybody else" if Illinois wins the national title. But any celebration of this team always will be tempered for Brown, every memory framed by a night he and his family would rather forget.
"From a parent's standpoint, after seeing how upset they all were after it happened, you just want somebody to go to jail," said Randy Brown, who runs his own custom mill in Downstate Greenville. "It's hard to root for them like we used to. I hope the players involved realize how fortunate they are not to be in jail and on the No. 1 college basketball team in the country."
The point does not seem lost on Luther Head.
A second chance
Even if the Illini were not on pace to make college basketball history and Head was not a contender for Big Ten player of the year, the senior from Chicago would cherish every moment of this season. As weary as Head gets addressing the incident that nearly knocked his life off track, he knows being interviewed by reporters beats being interviewed by detectives.
"I should feel lucky, and I am, just to be able to still be here and be able to play and put on an Illinois jersey," Head said. "I had to grow up and get more responsible and start looking out for my team and my teammates and realize there were other people I need to consider before I think about my actions. I feel like this season is a gift."
More than the victims, to whom Head has never apologized, he feels indebted to Weber.
It was Weber who did not accept Head's offer to quit the team after he was arrested later last winter for driving on a suspended license, news that brought to light six traffic violations in the previous three years. And it was Weber who resisted making a bold public statement after the alleged burglary by kicking Head off the team regardless of the state's attorney's decision.
After all, most elite college basketball programs such as the one at Illinois are dictatorships rather than democracies and due process means nothing more than the process of paying dues in order to earn playing time.
But Weber said he was more attuned to his conscience than to any adviser or attorney, or to public opinion. He also said he understands the criticism of those who disagree with his decision.
"It's a tough predicament for coaches because you want to say something, but you can't say something because of lawsuits or whatever is involved," Weber said. "[But] what is our job? We're educators. What is education? Change. They're in your family. You go recruit them and you tell them, `Come into my family, join my family,' and then you just kick them out? Do you kick your kid out? You don't give up on your kid."
That was the philosophy Weber applied at Southern Illinois in 2001 when he took a chance on transfer Rolan Roberts, whom Virginia Tech had suspended for one year for an incident alleging assault and sexual misconduct. Local police in Blacksburg, Va., never charged him.
Weber welcomed Roberts, but applied a zero-tolerance policy toward him. The gamble paid off as the 6-foot-6-inch center stayed out of trouble, became the Missouri Valley Conference newcomer of the year and helped lead the Salukis into the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 in 2002. Weber thinks of that example when coaches call looking for advice after a player runs afoul with the law, as one coach did last week.
"I was lucky because I was with coach [Gene Keady at Purdue] for 18 years and watched him deal with things and how you do it," Weber said. "I'm not saying every kid is right, but it's part of our job to be there for them. They all make mistakes. You made mistakes. I've made mistakes. I did stupid things. My kids do stupid things. Some are a little stupider than others, but at the same time it's part of your job as a parent and as a teacher to understand that."
Ultimately, though, the job of the Champaign County prosecutor would determine how much Weber's support of Head would matter.
Warning to witnesses
Piland had a simple question for the five roommates as they considered whether to file charges against the men who invaded their apartment and stole their belongings.
"Do you want to be like Steve Bartman?" the former state's attorney asked them.
"Then, his exact words were, `This is going to be a media [fire]storm,"' Solomon Brown recalled.
Reporters had interviewed the students before the police report was in Piland's hands, and Piland envisioned the media attention increasing. The prospect of being known as the guys who derailed the Illinois basketball season did not appeal to several of the roommates.
Already, someone had left a piece of cheese at the roommates' door, a none-too-subtle message that they would be considered rats if they proceeded.
Still, the five students could not arrive at a consensus.
"A couple of us really wanted to press charges and a couple of us didn't," Brown said. "The ones who didn't never experienced the fear of being awakened in the middle of the night by guys breaking into your house."
Piland contended all of the friends had to agree or else the defense could argue any roommates not cooperating might have granted the intruders permission to enter the dwelling, creating reasonable doubt.
He made them aware that he could not prove illegal entry without their testimony and that the nature of the crime would carry a charge that would bring a minimum prison sentence of four years and as many as 15, under state law.
He explained the legal concept of accountability that would have held Head as culpable as his companions regardless of his role in the incident. "You can't be a lookout for an armed robbery and say I didn't hold the gun," Piland explained.
Then, he said, he left the decision up to the roommates.
"If they said, `We want this case prosecuted,' I felt there was sufficient evidence to move forward," Piland said. "But without them, no way."
Rietz, Piland's successor who earned 62 percent of the vote last November, called it "inappropriate and unfair" to leave such a weighty decision in the hands of the victims.
"It's not my job to let a [21-year-old] victim tell me what to do," she said.
It occurred to Rietz to exploit what she considered the error of Piland's ways in campaign ads after members of the community consistently brought up the Illinois incident at appearances.
"People here are fans of the basketball team, but they also live here and were concerned," Rietz said.
She suggested Piland could have taken an alternate approach and reduced a potential Class 1 felony to a misdemeanor theft charge that would have carried a lighter penalty, perhaps probation and counseling. She never endorsed making examples of the Illini players, only making them accountable.
"It was not my position we should throw the book at the young men who put themselves in a bad position," Rietz said. "It was my position that they should merely be treated like everybody else."
Piland pointed out that Rietz still can press charges against Head and the others if she wants to badly enough. The statute of limitations for burglary does not expire for another two years.
"If the public outcry [over] the decision I made to respect the wishes of the victims is so great, it can easily be rectified," said Piland, an Illinois alumnus who acknowledges he is a fan of the team. "And it hasn't."
Rietz explained why.
"My position has been that I will not reverse any decisions made by the previous state's attorney on high-profile cases," she said. "If I were to do that, I'd have to review every one and that would not be fair to anyone."
Life goes on
When Piland announced the decision not to file charges, it "felt like a boulder off my chest" to Aaron Spears. The 6-foot-9-inch center from Chicago returned to the team last season with Weber's blessing but eventually left the university. He's averaging 8.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game for Highland Community College in Freeport, Ill.
Bound for St. John's University in the fall, Spears believes Weber labeled him a troublemaker after the incident, though he acknowledges "messing up" that night. Spears was an Illini reserve and more expendable to Weber than Head, one of the team's best clutch players at his best.
"After that I matured and knew I had to stop getting myself in those types of predicaments," Spears said. "Wrong place, wrong time. I've moved on."
Head has moved on too. He takes a step closer to the NBA with every game. Some scouts envision him as a late first-round draft pick.
As for Solomon Brown, he will graduate from Illinois in December with an engineering degree and no regrets.
"I understand there were a lot of politics involved in how everything happened," he said. "I'm OK, and wish them well."
Acceptance comes easier for the son than his father.
"They had to live up there, we didn't, so the parents might look at it a little differently," Randy Brown said. "But we respected their decision not to press charges and we were proud of them."
Which is more than Brown could say about the head basketball coach at his state university.
"I tried to talk to coach Weber and he never returned my calls, so I'm going to write him a letter to ask him to think how he would have felt if his daughters were involved in something like that night and how he would have reacted," Brown said.
"I know there's pressure on Division I coaches to win, but come on. On that night, a couple of his players were nothing but thugs."
Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune