By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
January 17, 2022
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Meyers Leonard and his wife Elle just donated a half-million dollars to the place where they had their first date.
Nine-year NBA veteran and Illinois basketball great Meyers Leonard and Elle made a $500,000 gift to the Ubben Basketball Complex renovation and expansion project. The donation, which gets the Illinois athletics department to the $31.3-million mark in commitments for the renovation and expansion toward the $40 million project, allowed Leonard to return to campus for the first time since he was drafted 11th overall in 2012 NBA draft.
Meyers Leonard said he met his wife Elle, a graduate of Illinois’ College of Business, during his two-year college career and Elle was adamant that her husband mention that the Illini practice facility holds a special place in their family.
“It’s been on both my wife and I’s mind for some time,” Leonard said. “So this university is very special to us. It comes from the heart more than it does from my pocket.”
The reason the Robinson native, who led Robinson High School to the IHSA class 2A state championship before the former five-star prospect chose to stay close to home at Illinois, hasn’t been seen around the Champaign campus for almost a decade is pretty obvious in his mind.
“I was focused on taking care of my family in the NBA but I didn’t grow up with a whole lot at all,” Leonard said. “Champaign, Illinois and the University of Illinois was the mecca to me. Some of my family hadn’t seen the campus and the new things so it was an amazing feeling to be back and share that with them.
The donation also allowed Leonard, who now lives in Los Angeles, the opportunity to address in-person the anti-Semitic slur incident that has continued to follow him and his family. Last March, Leonard used the slur "k***" during a Twitch stream while playing the first-person shooter video game ‘Call of Duty: Warzone’. Leonard hasn’t resumed his professional basketball career since the incident but used the literal press conference platform to address the issue and how he intends to address an on-campus Jewish group at the university following Monday afternoon’s Purdue-Illinois game.
“I certainly made a very, very big mistake, and I have over the last however long since the incident taken the steps to educate myself to be in the Jewish community,” Leonard said Monday.
Leonard continues to rehab his injuries following shoulder surgery and ankle surgery this past offseason in Los Angeles and said Monday he is “still in overdrive” trying to mentally move past the anti-Semitic incident with therapy and constant sessions with a local rabbi in his suburban Los Angeles community.”
The Ubben renovation and expansion will add approximately 40,000 square feet to the existing structure, while remodeling large portions of the original building. New coaches' offices and entry lobby are included in the project. Two new half courts will be added to both the women's and men's gym spaces, giving the programs additional space to work on player development. The project will feature a strength and conditioning addition, player recovery spaces, and a state-of-the-art sports medicine facility, and will significantly increase the size of the locker rooms and players' lounges. The new construction broke ground in January of 2021 with completion scheduled for the beginning of the 2022 basketball season.
"There is no greater compliment a program can receive than when one of its former players elects to give back," Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said in a written statement. "In visiting with Meyers over the years, I've heard first-hand how much his Illinois experience changed his life. From a young kid in Robinson who had the goal of one day playing for the Fighting Illini, to then have that opportunity and make the most of it in becoming an NBA player, he has lived his dream. His Illini pride has remained steadfast all these years, and now he is committed to paying it forward. We are grateful to Meyers, and his wife Elle, a proud U of I alum as well, for their support of Fighting Illini basketball. The loyalty of former players is part of what makes Illinois such a special place."
(Cover photo courtesy Illinois Athletics)
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