ST. LOUIS – As they lined up in the tunnel Saturday – the crowd, the court and the biggest game of their careers just ahead – a few of the Illinois State Redbirds yelled toward a teammate at the front of the pack.
"Come out swinging, Boo," they said. "Boo – come out swinging."
A few feet away, Boo Richardson hammered the ball into the concrete. He didn't smile as he listened to the Redbirds' chants. Instead, as he trotted onto the Scotttrade Center floor, Richardson scowled.
If there's anything the senior point guard has learned throughout his basketball career, it's how to fight.
"I've got to be tough," Richardson said. "When you're 5-foot-8, there's really no other choice."
Speaking of being left without options, the NCAA tournament selection committee will be hard-pressed not to include Illinois State in this year's 65-team field after Saturday's 56-42 victory over Northern Iowa.
The win – which came in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament – gives the Redbirds a 24-8 record heading into Sunday's championship against Drake. Even if it loses to the Bulldogs for the third straight time, Illinois State appears destined to dance for the first time since 1999.
"I love this team and I have all year," first-year coach Tim Jankovich said. "It's been a great ride. I don't want it to end. I wish we had 20-25 more games."
Instead Jankovich has just two, maybe three more weeks with his team, which means only three more weeks with Richardson. The thought is one that saddens the coach considering his affection for 160-pound transfer from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.
Osiris Eldridge leads the Redbirds in scoring, and Anthony Slack does the grunt work in the paint. But, during this storybook season, no Illinois State player has done a better job of setting the tone than Richardson, who has gone by the nickname "Boo" since childhood.
"I used to hate the dark," Richardson said after Saturday's victory. "At night my cousins would always turn off the lights in my room and start yelling 'Boo!' I would run to my grandmother, crying. I was scared."
These days Richardson is hardly afraid of a challenge. And goodness knows, he's faced plenty of them.
An unheralded recruit out of Kansas City's Wyandotte High School, Richardson was forced to go the junior college route after being ignored by most four-year programs. He earned a scholarship to Illinois State following an All-American sophomore campaign at Coffeyville. But in his first season with the Redbirds, Richardson averaged 3.4 turnovers per game.
"Last year I came in with a selfish attitude," Richardson said. "I thought juco was the same as D-I, but it's a big difference. I was rushing things. I was out of control. I was over-penetrating and things like that. It just wasn't a good year."
As much as he struggled on the court, Richardson was having even more difficulty off of it.
Shortly after arriving at Illinois State in August of 2006, Richardson's 8-year-old niece, Jessica, died because of a brain ailment. Not much later two of his high school friends were killed in Kansas City.
The biggest blow, though, came when Richardson learned that his brother, Brandon Franklin, had been murdered in a case of mistaken identity.
"He was at a friend's house," Richardson said, "and some guys just (barged) through the door and shot him."
Richardson said Kansas City police still don't know who murdered Brandon, who was 22. But not a day goes by when he doesn't think about his brother.
On Richardson's right arm is a tattoo of a tombstone that reads: "RIP: B-Frank." Before Saturday's game, Richardson removed a copy of Brandon's obituary from his travel bag and read it. Back in Normal another copy is hangs in his locker.
"I still don't have a car because of him," Richardson said. "When I was at Coffeyville, he told me not to get a car because he didn't want me driving around all the time, getting into trouble. He wanted me to focus."
Painful as the deaths have been, Slack said Richardson refused to carry the burden onto the basketball court.
"I remember a few times when he said, 'Basketball is the one thing no one can take away from me,'" Slack said.
Now more than ever, Richardson seems to be playing with a sense of purpose. His newfound dedication to playing defense has led to a small dip in his scoring, but the main thing is that he's committed just 55 turnovers in 32 games. Last year he had 105 in 31.
"I took a deep breath before the season and told myself I was going to be a better teammate," Richardson said. "Whatever it took to win games, that's what I was going to do."
Richardson credits a lot of his improvement to Jankovich, the former Kansas assistant who was hired last spring.
"He's just letting me play," Richardson said. "He's letting me go and letting me run the team. It's great when you have a coach that can see your strengths and weaknesses and won't hold you back. That's what he's done for the whole team.
"He's letting us shine in front of thousands of people."
Jankovich said Richardson is better when he plays with a free mind.
"The way we play is more conducive to him," Jankovich said. "They ran a lot of set plays last season. I'm not saying that wasn't good. But he was supposed to throw the ball from A to B, and sometimes that's more difficult than just freelancing, which is something we do a lot of."
Jankovich, though, has been even more impressed with the intensity Richardson brings to the practice court. He said Richardson is "the best there is" when it comes to motivating his teammates, who have come to cherish their reputation for toughness.
"I wish could have a calorie gage and see how many calories a guy burns in his career," Jankovich said. "He may be first-team All-America in that regard.
"To me, what's pretty (about sports) is how big someone's heart is. It's fun to see all the shots go in and to make all the putts. But what really gets me is watching guys fight."
Guys like Richardson. Guys who come out swinging.
- Illinois State Redbirds