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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – It seems no one knew that former University of Illinois assistant basketball coach Wayne McClain had cancer until just before he died last week. Not even his brother Terry.
"None," Terry McClain said at the funeral Wednesday, shaking his head in disbelief.
McClain's death at 60 surprised the basketball community in the state of Illinois, where McClain also attained legendary status as a high school coach in Peoria, and beyond.
Dozens of coaches — including Kansas' Bill Self and Kansas State's Bruce Weber, who both had McClain on their staff at Illinois — and former players like Jerry Hester spoke at the service in Champaign. Other ex-Illini players, such as Demetri McCamey, Jamar Smith and Brian Randle, spoke to the crowd of more than 1,000 by video from the international cities where they play pro basketball.
Some told stories about McClain the snappy dresser, the dedicated-but-slow runner, the mentor and the sort of guy who would keep to himself bad news like cancer that was about to take his life.
"I was so mad, to be honest, that he didn't tell us," said Weber, who steered the Illini for nine seasons, adding that he wished he'd known in time to offer some kind of help to his longtime assistant. "That just wasn't him."
Passed over at one point for a coaching job at his alma mater, Bradley University, McClain chose to handle his disappointment quietly and on his own, friend and Peoria pastor Leroy Smith said.
"He could have created a ruckus," Smith said. "He didn't get angry. He let me know everything was all right."
McClain was from Peoria, an industrial city in central Illinois. He first made his name in coaching as an assistant and then as head coach at Peoria Manual High School. There, he won three straight state titles there as coach in the 1990s, and was an assistant on a fourth state-title team.
Along the way he helped build a pipeline of Peoria talent that was the backbone of a number of Illini teams. That flow of talent no longer exists; Illinois doesn't have a player from Peoria on its roster.
As Illinois' head coach, Self hired McClain as an assistant in 2002, and Weber kept McClain on his staff until he was fired in 2012. McClain followed him to Kansas State for a season before returning to the state of Illinois and prep basketball, becoming the coach of Champaign Central's boys basketball team.
It was a step down the coaching ladder some didn't understand. Weber, though, said he was surprised McClain was willing to move to Kansas in the first place.
"This was his home, his life," Weber said.
Terry McClain, who lives in Minnesota, said he spoke to his brother three, sometimes four, times a week. During their last conversation, Terry McClain called to kid his brother about the news that he would soon be a grandfather for a second time.
Terry noticed Wayne was breathing heavily.
"I just don't feel good," Terry McClain recalled his brother saying, downplaying it.
Days later, Wayne McClain's son, Sergio, delivered the bad news.
"Unc, dad is in the hospital, he's got cancer," Terry McClain recalled his nephew saying just a couple of days before Wayne McClain's death on Oct. 15.