beats headphones red Black goes
CHAMPAIGN It’s a cold, windy and rainy Tuesday in early November as Leron Black strides through the automatic glass doors at Nugent Hall.
Wearing gray sweatpants and a bright orange Illinois hoodie over his blue Illini stocking cap and black Beats by Dre canisters, Black takes off his USA Basketball backpack, pulls his hood off and shakes the rain from his body.
He does it all with a constant smile. It’s barely 40 degrees, but the freshman from Memphis, Tenn., who will play his first official college game Friday, clearly is happy between classes.
“What’s not to be happy about?” he asks. “God has been good.”
To know Leron Black is to know that his faith is an important part of who he is. It’s also a big reason why the highly coveted four star forward ended up at Illinois.
Black and Illinois coach John Groce share strong Christian bonds. Throughout the recruiting process the two would trade text messages almost daily consisting of messages and scriptures from the Bible.
“I wanted to play for a coach that had the same religion as me,” Black said. “I play my best when I’m comfortable with the coach, and I’m comfortable with Coach Groce.”
The religious piece has been a part of Black’s life for as far back as he can remember. Black’s parents, Ronald and Tola, were raised in the church, as were Black and his sister and brother.
“The roots are there, the seeds were planted,” said Black’s grandmother, Doris Winn. “It’s up to him to know the Lord and try to live according to the Bible.”
Growing up in Omaha, Neb., the family moved to Memphis when Black was 10 Winn would read the Bible to him.
“She taught me about Jesus,” he said. “Faith has always been a part of my life.”
Black’s own Bible isn’t far from his bed in the Nugent Hall room he shares with teammate Michael Finke.
“I try to read something from it every night before I go to sleep,” he said.
Black meets weekly with team chaplain Troy Collier to read scriptures, and he reads some throughout the day via an app on his cellphone.
“It’s just something I do on my time,” Black said.
His favorite verse is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Black had that passage tattooed inside his right biceps this summer.
“It’s just a reminder to me that with faith, no matter what, I can do anything,” he said.
To know Black off the court is to know that he’s a fun loving 18 year old with that easy smile.
“He’s laughing all the time, making jokes, just a great guy,
” Finke said.
“I like to make people laugh, I talk a lot; I just like people,” Black said.
The Black that Illinois and Big Ten fans are going to get to know on the basketball court is anything but fun loving, friendly and jovial.
Before he played a game for the Illini, the 6 foot 7, 220 pound Black earned a reputation as a physical, aggressive bruiser with a relentless motor. Teammate Kendrick Nunn nicknamed him “Savage” because of his on court disposition.
“On the court, if you’re not on my team, we’re not friends, I don’t want anything to do with you,” Black said. “I’m going to come at you as hard as I can because I love to compete.”
It’s rare, Groce said, to find a player who combines the lovable personality off the court with the ultimate tough guy persona on it.
“His high school coach used to tell me you’d hate to play against this guy because he competes his tail off, he’s got that swagger and that nastiness to him on the court,” Groce said. “But in the handshake line and after that game, he wants to hug you and sit down and say a prayer with you. He has that ability, and it’s genuine.”
That nickname has spread to Memphis. When Black’s sister, 16 year old Allanna, or brother, 12 year old Michael, talk to Leron, they say “What’s up, Savage?”
“I like the nickname, it’s a compliment to how I play,” said Black, who was called “Black Widow” in high school at Memphis’ White Station.