Don Freeman Thrilled With Illinois Return

Don Freeman (Holly Smith)

The University Of Illinois has enjoyed the presence of a large number of outstanding basketball players over its long and storied history. Thirty of the absolute best have their jersey numbers displayed in the Assembly Hall to celebrate their careers. Don Freeman returned to campus this past weekend to unfurl his jersey and receive the accolades due him.

Don Freeman was one of the greatest basketball players ever to wear an Illini uniform. A 6'-3" forward out of Madison, Illinois, Don scored 1449 points for a 20.1 points per game average in his three varsity seasons. This ranks him 12th all-time in career scoring.

He still holds the Illinois career record for most points in a season despite playing fewer games than players of recent vintage. His 27.8 scoring average in 1966 may never be exceeded. He also averaged 10.3 rebounds per game for his career.

Freeman had a distinguished 9 year pro career as well, playing for Minnesota, Miami, Utah, Texas, Dallas, Indiana, and San Antonio in the American Basketball Association and Los Angeles in the NBA.

Don was humbled by the honor of seeing his jersey number and name hanging in the Assembly Hall.

"It's great to be back. Especially on an occasion like this. It's better than I ever expected."

He was a freshman when the Assembly Hall opened in 1963. Freshmen were ineligible then, so he had to wait until that fall to play his first home games in the new facility. He says the atmosphere now is much better than back then.

"This is amazing. This is great. This is the kind of crowd that makes you want to play. My wife really enjoys coming over here and seeing this kind of atmosphere too."

Back then, there was no pep band, and there were no floor seats. The crowd was so far away it could barely be heard. It was anything but a snake pit for opponents.

"If we got 7,000 people here, it was a good crowd. Plus, you couldn't hear them because they were so far away."

Freeman hasn't been back since the presentation of the All-Century team in 2005. His job prevents him from visiting more often.

"Yeah, this is pretty much it. I'm on the road quite a bit. I am a bank examiner for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. As you probably know, we've got our hands full these days. I've been with them 23 years. I expect to retire this year."

Don began his banking career in Champaign.

"I used to be involved on the other side, not the regulatory side. I started out here in Champaign for five years. Then I went to Dallas and was in banking there three years. In the middle '80's, I switched over to the regulatory side of it."

Champaign residents will probably remember Don's son Donnie and his athletic exploits.

"My son Donnie went to Rice on a tennis scholarship. At that time, it was pretty hard to find sponsors to go pro."

The younger Freeman was an outstanding baseball player in the Champaign-Urbana Little League before moving away.

"He was real good, and I kind of warned him to go in that direction. But his mother had more power than I did."

Don Freeman was in the same high school class with Chicago Carver and Michigan's Cazzie Russell. The two would have been fantastic together, but Illinois couldn't interest Russell in joining them. The two of them had great battles everytime they played, but Michigan usually won.

The one big exception was their final encounter at Michigan in 1966. Freeman put the team on his back and would not be denied, leading the Illini to a 99-93 victory. It was a typical all-star performance by one of the greatest players in Illinois history.

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