Where would Illinois basketball be without Ayo Dosunmu? Outside of the games he explicitly won (of which there are many), how do you quantify the effect of a single player on the Illini fan base this year?
Last Friday night would be a good place to start. Illinois faced Maryland in the biggest college basketball game in Champaign since 2005, and State Farm Center felt like Assembly Hall of old, back when it sported the longest sell-out streak in the country. Students had lined up for hours, seats were full well before tip-off, Scott Van Pelt was courtside, and the lines at the bathrooms formed a full human circle around the arena.
As we got into our seats, my fiance and I (wearing matching Ayo jerseys) joked to each other that “this is the house that Ayo built,” while looking across the packed 200 level. After thinking about it a while, I’ve actually come to believe it.
This newfound excitement in the State Farm Center (and this recent Illini turnaround) is due, in its vast majority, to Ayo Dosunmu.
Without Ayo, there is no AP Top 25 ranking this year. Without Ayo, Giorgi would have been a dim bright spot in the worst Illini team in program history last year. Without Ayo, Adam Miller and Kofi Cockburn probably would not have chosen Illinois. Without Ayo, fans would have no reason to get excited about basketball in June.
Dosunmu almost single handedly pulled Illinois basketball from the brink of mediocrity. His recruitment alone brought optimism to a fan-base long-starved for any semblance of momentum, but what’s more, he actually backed it up on the court. Last year, on a bad team, Ayo started to generate NBA draft buzz. This year, his early exit has become a foregone conclusion for many Illini fans.
And then, in the blink of an eye, when everyone’s watching to see what Ayo can do in clutch time, it all changes. Futures are instantly thrown into jeopardy. What was once a storybook season has been thrust into the air. The Illini’s ship, which was headed straight for a top four seed in the NCAA tournament, has suddenly lost its rudder.
In college sports fandom, these injuries, and the fallout they produce, are especially pronounced. These players are, by definition, amateurs who are training. For many on the team, this is preparation so they can one day make an income off of their basketball ability. Whether these athletes are actually amateurs, and whether their treatment as such is ethical, is still ripe for debate, but one thing is absolutely clear: when tragedies like this happen in college sports, they are infinitely more painful than their professional counterparts. These players have nothing but potential, and to see it taken away by injury, if only temporarily, seems inherently unjust.
In Ayo’s case, it hurts even more because of the intangible commitment he made to turning around Illini basketball. Ayo believed in Illinois after countless spurnings and mockings from highly-touted recruits. He made a commitment to make this program his own, and then he actually backed it up. This is a rare enough feat for a highly-touted recruit at a blue blood school, let alone at Illinois where these recruits are few and far between.
I don’t think this is the end for Ayo, but even so, I’m reminded now more than ever that our cultural heroes are still humans. They risk their (in this case, future) livelihoods so that we can watch a game on TV or in an arena, but when distinctly human tragedy happens, it seems almost unfathomable and leaves us with knots in our stomachs and screams in our throats.
HERE’S A GOOD UPDATE! This whole post feels a little reactionary now. Woof.