By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
January 6, 2022
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- While Ayo Dousnmu may have been the 34th player in Illinois men’s basketball history to have his jersey raised to the rafters of the home arena, the moment certainly represented how his presence with the Illini program meant so much more.
The halftime celebration of Dosunmu’s jersey retirement on Thursday night capped a career that ended by earning consensus first team All-American honors after averaging 20.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game while leading the Illini to a Big Ten tournament title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. However, Dosunmu’s honor symbolized something bigger for the Chicago native who will turn 22 years old in just 11 days. For the folks who walk into the State Farm Center from now, Ayo Dosunmu will represent the human embodiment of Illini basketball’s reemergence of relevance.
“It’s a special night,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “(Ayo) is very deserving of this. He is the essence of what our program was going through when we were building. I’ve got tremendous respect for Ayo for sticking through everything, continuing to work and allow us to coach him so we could continue to establish our culture here. I couldn’t be happier and prouder of an individual and his family. He’s got a wonderful family and I’m excited for all of them to be here and witness this.”
In 1977, 23 years before Dosunmu was born, Eddie Johnson became the first premier Chicago talent to choose the University of Illinois to play basketball and his presence immediately changed the trajectory of Lou Henson’s rebuild of the Illini program. Johnson, who is probably most known for hitting a game-winning shot against Michigan State’s 1979 national championship team, was able to experience Illinois’ return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years.
After winning the Illinois Mr. Basketball honor in 1986, Nick Anderson became the highest ranked Chicago talent to choose Illinois in several years. Even though Illini fans had to wait a year for Anderson to be eligible due to the Prop-48 academic eligibility rules, Anderson became the leading scorer and go-to element of the 1988-89 squad that made the program’s first Final Four appearance in over four decades.
On June 24, 2001 (when Dosunmu was just over a year old), Dee Brown, arguably the best talent in Chicago, committed to playing for Bill Self’s Illini program. Dosunmu’s honor on Thursday night saw him be the last jersey retirement in Illinois basketball history since Brown’s No. 11 (the same number Dosunmu would wear at Illinois) was honored.
On October 19, 2017, Dosunmu created another similar story by verbally committing to play college basketball for Illinois when head coach Brad Underwood was trying to rebuild the legacy of the Illini program.
“It’s what makes this place special,” Underwood said. “It’s a very small group that gets this honor and I’m very happy to be able to coach him and be involved in a very small way to see him achieve greatness.”
In a bit of irony, Dosunmu, a five-star prospect from Chicago’s Morgan Park High School, selected Illinois over Wake Forest and then-Demon Deacons head coach Danny Manning. Manning served as the interim head coach for Maryland in Thursday night’s contest at State Farm Center.
By the time Dosunmu’s college career was over, he was a consensus first-team All-American and won the Bob Cousy Award as top point guard in the nation. At the same time, Illinois was then considered once again a power program in college basketball and Underwood’s program was suddenly on solid ground.
“When I came into the (Illinois) program, we weren’t very good record-wise. But we had the culture,” Dosunmu said Wednesday in his media availability before practice with the Chicago Bulls. “So to be a part of changing the culture is something that’s very exciting. That’s something you look forward to and enjoy doing because it takes more than just talent or executing Xs and Os. I felt I was a big piece of that. I accepted that challenge.”
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