An emotional Meyers Leonard stood up for Bruce Weber after Illinois got drilled at Ohio State Tuesday,.
``He deserves the best,'' Leonard told reporters in his first media session since Weber had let his hair down after Illinois' Purdue meltdown. ``We're going to see what happens with the rest of this season, but he's been incredible for all of us. He's not only a teacher and coach on the court, but off the court as well, trying to make us good young men.''
In this dark period for Illinois, which has lost nine of its last 10 games, Weber might be teaching Leonard the most important lessons a coach can convey.
Sometimes bad things happen in life. And you have to deal with them.
Being a Big Ten basketball coach isn't a civil-service job. You can do everything the right way. But if you don't win enough games, your job will be at risk. At Illinois, 49-54 over the last six Big Ten seasons, with only one NCAA tournament win, is not enough wins.
Where does that leave Leonard, a gifted 7-foot sophomore? Still immature in a lot of ways. But learning fast.
College sports is a big business. For all of his troubles, Weber is likely to walk away with more buyout money ($3.9 million) than 90-something percent of Americans make in their lifetime. The hurt and disappointment will be there, but that's a pretty good balm.
Leonard also will have an opportunity for a big payday this spring. If he wants, he can enter the NBA draft, where he'll have an opportunity to sign for millions.
By many measures, he's not ready. He's not nearly as good as he's going to be if he continues to improve. And the transition to the cold-blooded world of the NBA will be difficult. He'll be drafted on potential. But even if he makes some initial money, developing quickly enough to keep an NBA job is an open question.
In most cases, especially one like Leonard's, where the family can use the money, it's a no-brainer to turn pro. And I've been assuming all season that Leonard will not be at Illinois in the fall.
Lately, though, I've begun to wonder if that's the right move--and if he'll rethink moving on and decide to stay in Champaign another year.
Having seen him weeping on the bench during Illinois' humiliating loss at Nebraska Saturday makes me think he might do himself a favor by staying in college another year. There's no room for crying in the even-keeled NBA. And another year at Illinois would help him develop the skills to harness his emotions and use them on the court. That would reduce his chances of becoming that frustrated in the future.
Much will depend on Illinois' next coach, of course. One of the new coach's first priorities will be to meet with Leonard and convince him to stay in school. If they connect, Leonard should think seriously about that.
In most cases, it's very self-serving for coaches to convince star athletes to stay in school.
In this case, it might be in Leonard's self-interest to spend another year in college.
He can improve his basketball skills, which will improve his chances of being productive in the NBA when he gets there. He can prepare himself emotionally for life in the pros, which is relentless and demanding as well as exciting and rewarding.
Will he buck the trend and stay in school? Some of that will depend on what Weber taught him about life off the basketball court.