Weber coaches Illinois to win

Updated: March 14, 2005, 5:09 PM ET
Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Bruce Weber stood alone at the edge of the court, clutching a clipboard, his face red and his eyes filling with tears as the United Center fell silent in tribute.

No one would have blamed him if he'd decided to skip top-ranked Illinois' game Saturday and seclude himself with his family, mourning the sudden death of his mother less than 24 hours earlier. But Dawn Weber raised her children to be strong, to play on no matter what.

So there her son stood, biting his lip and trying to keep the tears from falling. In the stands, his youngest daughter sobbed while another daughter hugged her.

Finally, Weber looked up, acknowledging the crowd with a wave. Then he started drawing on his clipboard, burying his grief in a game, if only for a few hours.

"The moment of silence, it hit me pretty hard," Weber said after the 64-56 win over Minnesota, clearly drained. "But I told the kids, `I'm going to coach you hard, you've got to play hard.' That's how she would have wanted it."

Basketball always has been the glue that kept Weber's family together. Both his parents loved the game, he and his brothers grew up playing it in Milwaukee, and nothing made his mother prouder than to see her sons on the court.

That's what brought the 81-year-old widow to Chicago on Friday. Bruce Weber's No. 1 Illini were playing in the Big Ten tournament while another son, David, had his Glenbrook North High School in the Class AA sectional finals Friday night.

But as Dawn Weber was at the United Center picking up her tickets, she complained of chest pains. She was taken to Rush University Medical Center, where doctors discovered a tear in her aorta below the heart.

"The last thing she told my sister before she went into surgery was not to tell me and not to tell my brother," Weber said, smiling slightly. "Then we would worry about her and we wouldn't coach like we're capable. So that was in her heart."

Weber's last conversation with his mother, in fact, was about Illinois. Dawn Weber had gotten a satellite dish so she could watch the Illini, and Weber joked that last weekend's loss to Ohio State, Illinois' first of the season, "got to her a little bit."

"She just couldn't believe what had really happened with our team. She said, to her, it was a fairy tale," Weber said of their talk Tuesday night. "For her to see her son makes her very, very proud, as she is of my brothers also. They've had great success, also. I think that's the last thing I will remember."

Weber learned of his mother's illness from his wife, Megan, after Friday's game, and they went to the hospital to join his brother and sister. Several hours into surgery, Dawn Weber died.

After consulting with his family, Bruce Weber said he would coach the Illini in Saturday's semifinal game.

There was never really a question.

"Everyone felt that I should coach this game," Weber said. "Basketball has been a major part of our life. She loved it. My dad loved it. (My family) felt it would be the best thing to do."

But that doesn't make it easier. Weber huddled with his brothers and sisters, Friday night making funeral arrangements while his assistants handled the game preparation. He slept fitfully, waking up every few hours or so.

He had breakfast with his team Saturday morning, where they went over the scouting report, then rode the bus to the arena with them. He entered the United Center alone, surrounded by security guards and looking somber in a dark gray suit and orange tie.

"There's been a lot of tears since 6 o'clock yesterday," Weber said. "Tears of good things. All the times we had together. She was a great mom. At the same time, it's emotional."

Weber had agreed to pregame interviews with CBS and ESPN before his mother's death, and decided to honor the commitments. He spent about 10 minutes doing interviews and then disappeared into the Illini locker room.

He came out to the floor briefly for the national anthem, then quickly left again. He returned just before player introductions, and was greeted with a warm cheer of "BRUUUUCE!" One fan held a sign that read, "Saddened by your Loss, Inspired by your Courage." The Illinois cheerleaders had gotten orange-and-black ribbons and given them to the coaching staff, school officials and the team's family members.

Clearly touched, Weber waved to the crowd. When he went to shake hands with Dan Monson, the Minnesota coach whispered condolences in Weber's ear and hugged him three times.

"It puts basketball in perspective," Monson said. "Anybody would trade any one basketball moment for family."

That, though, is what the Illini consider themselves. Though the players had only met Dawn Weber a few times, most consider Weber a father figure and they ached with his pain. They met Friday night to pray for him, and wore black bands on the left shoulders of their jerseys.

"It's tough," Deron Williams said. "I don't know if I could do that, personally. It shows how strong he is and how good of a person he is after an unfortunate situation."

Though Weber appeared overwhelmed during the moment of silence for his mother, he was all business once the game started. He was up and out of his seat after just a few seconds, and not even two minutes had gone by before he started jawing at the refs. He cheered when his players made good shots, and looked pained at their many mistakes.

And when the brief respite of the game was over, he went back to grieving.

"We're going to meet now as a family and try to coordinate ... the next three or four days so (my brother and I) have an opportunity to do our best at our jobs. Again, that's what she would have wanted," Weber said. "She'd be so proud if he can get to state and we can make a run in the NCAA Tournament."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press