When his coach left, Eldridge nearly followed, but he stayed to lead a Redbird revival
Osiris Eldridge was leaning toward leaving Illinois State after coach Porter Moser was fired following his freshman season.
Eldridge even asked for and was granted his release from the program. But when Eldridge sat down and contemplated his next move a few weeks later, he did what few star players do after a coaching change.
He stayed put.
"When coach Moser got fired, I did consider leaving," said Eldridge, who starred at Phillips High School in the Chicago Public League. "It was big. I got my release, but I just sat on it. I didn't have a real reason to leave Illinois State. I didn't want to be a Chicago guy who transfers from school to school. I didn't want to be playing for six years. I always wanted to be different. I wanted to stay at one school."
Three years later, Eldridge is nearing the end of his college basketball career, and he has no regrets. He has remained at one school. He has entertained Redbirds' fans for four seasons with highlight dunks, memorable Missouri Valley Tournament performances, creative hair styles (Mohawks are such a rarity among basketball players) and plenty of scoring (fifth in school history).
Most importantly to Eldridge is in his career he played a major hand in returning Illinois State's program to respectability. The Redbirds have won 85 games in his four seasons, reached two NITs and is one of a few teams with a legitimate shot at winning the Missouri Valley Tournament when plays begins Thursday.
"I feel like since I've been down here I've heard of certain players and their eras," Eldridge said. "I feel like when I leave it'll be the Osiris Eldridge Era. I felt like I left my mark. I won't say I left a real big mark. I'm not Doug Collins or anyone like that, but I left my little mark. I came down to a school that didn't have success for a while and helped bring it back."
Paris Parham has had the unique front-row perspective of watching Eldridge bloom from an unknown high school player to a prep star to an unknown college player to a collegiate star. Parham was Eldridge's varsity coach in his final two years at Phillips and has been an Illinois State assistant for the past three years.
Parham still remembers his introduction to Osiris Eldridge.
"When we first met, he was a young athletic kid where all he wanted to do was dunk the basketball," Parham said. "He'd throw the ball off the wall and dunk it and do 360s. When you're 15, 16, that's what it's all about. He had a lot of work to do. He put a lot of time into it. There were times I would get to work at 7:30, and O had been in the gym since 5:45. He caught that fever."
Early on, Eldridge was just an athletic freak who attracted a few schools. Illinois State was one of them and would later be rewarded. When Eldridge transformed himself into a dynamic scorer and was included with the likes of Sherron Collins and Derrick Rose as one of Chicago's elite players, plenty of others schools jumped on his bandwagon, but he was loyal to Illinois State.
The only doubts Eldridge has ever had about his college career was what if Illinois had recruited him. It was the one program that could have stolen him away from Illinois State.
"When I was coming out of high school, my dream was I was a big fan of Luther Head, Dee Brown, Deron Williams," Eldridge said. "I really wanted to go to Illinois. I don't think they had any interest in me. I really did feel like that for a while that they missed out. I used to watch Illinois games, and I thought I could be playing there."
Over the years, Eldridge has changed his mind about that.
"If I could do it over again, I would," Eldridge said. "I would still come here over a big school."
Eldridge was an immediate impact player for the Redbirds from the beginning. As a freshman, he averaged 9.5 points despite playing limited minutes early in the year. Fans especially got a taste of Eldridge's scoring capabilities when he went off for 28 points against Creighton midway through his freshman season.
By his sophomore year, those numbers became common. He had 27 against Southeast Missouri State, 27 against Southern Illinois, 30 against UNC-Wilmington and 34 against Indiana State. Last season, he saved some of his best games for the end of the year as he led the Redbirds to a Missouri Valley Tournament runner-up finish while averaging 18.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.3 blocks over three games.
Eldridge's senior season numbers have stayed in the same range. He was named Missouri Valley First-Team All-Conference for the third consecutive year after averaging 15.9 points, four rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals.
His opponents will be glad to see him graduate, but will also miss playing against him.
"He's a great player," Bradley junior guard Sam Maniscalco said. "He's an electric athlete. He's a competitor, too. He's very fun to play against. It's good, too because Illinois State, that's our big rival. Him being on the other side of it, it's fun."
Said Bradley coach Jim Les: "He's a guy who at any time can explode. That's what you worry most about. He's a guy who can get four or five baskets, and it can be four or five 3s. You got to be concentrated on him and make him work. He's a guy who likes to take over games and can take over games."
Where Eldridge will take his game next is up in the air. The NBA appears to be a long shot, but he has been invited to the Portsmouth pre-NBA Draft camp and plans to work out this spring and summer at Tim Grover's ATTACK Athletics on Chicago's West Side.
"You never know what could happen," Eldridge said. "I know I'm not going to be a lottery pick. For my dream, to get to where I want to get, I'm going to have to work extra hard. I see it as how it was in high school. I went to the Adidas Superstar Camp with a lot of players in the NBA and made the all-star team with those players after being a player nobody knew about.
"That's how I feel about now. Nobody knows about me. I'm just going to play. I think my game speaks for itself."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.