For Chicago basketball fans, the year ahead promises to be a painful one.
Derrick Rose is on crutches and not expected to suit up until 2013, reducing a championship-caliber Bulls team into a puddle of doubt. Will Rose still be Rose when he returns? We wait, anxiously, to see.
In the meantime, we have one more season to watch SI cover boy Jabari Parker posterize opponents at Simeon High School. But, sadly, there’s little chance that Parker will stick around after his senior year since the area college teams are far from worthy of his prodigious talents.
Not right now, at least. And not at all in Chicago, which doesn’t offer even one big-time college hoops program within the city limits. If it did, we’d have an alternative to the Bulls, and a chance of convincing young men like Parker to stay home.
It is one of the most remarkable quirks of our remarkably quirky city: a top-tier college basketball game in Chicago is as scarce as a republican alderman.
It’s been the case now for more than 30 years, ever since the DePaul Blue Demons bolted their lively Lincoln Park campus in favor of suburban Rosemont.
But enough is enough. It’s time to bring serious college basketball back to the city that’s as synonymous with the sport as any in America. The best part is DePaul may be on board.
The university last month passed a strategic plan, called Vision 2018, detailing a wide range of goals intended to enhance academics and the campus environment over the next six years.
DePaul’s director of athletic communications, Greg Greenwell, wrote in an email that, “Among the plan’s many goals is one item that proposes that the university ‘seek opportunities to bring men’s basketball back into the city.’”
Greenwell added that DePaul will explore “feasible ideas that address the long-held desire among students, employees, alumni and fans for the men’s basketball team to play closer to the Lincoln Park Campus.”
The sooner the better.
The current state of college basketball in the Windy City is a sorry one. Unless the Big Ten Tournament is in town (it returns to Chicago in 2013) or the University of Illinois is hosting its one non-conference game a year at the United Center, there’s nowhere within our city’s sprawling borders where you can buy a ticket for a big-time game.
Consider your options. Up north, Loyola may have won the national championship back in 1963, but it’s long since rambled off the national map. Over at UIC, Flames games hardly set the world on fire. And Northwestern might claim to be “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” but that doesn’t change the fact that its address remains in Evanston–or that NU has never been to the NCAA tournament.
Before it dropped all sports in 1998, Northeastern Illinois had Division I basketball, but it was hardly major. Meanwhile, down at the University of Chicago, the Maroons last played Big Ten basketball in 1946, one year after the Cubs last played in a World Series.
And, jeez, don’t even get me started about Chicago State.
Four years ago, during his rookie season with the Bulls, Rose—the modern-day face of Chicago hoops—said about his hometown, “I just know it’s a city that loves basketball. It’s the No. 1 sport in Chicago.” Five-time NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway, a Windy City native, once echoed those thoughts, saying: “In Chicago, we love basketball. We love football, but we really love basketball. It’s our first passion.”
Rose and Hardaway were certainly right in regard to high school hoops, where a steady stream of national talent is on display every winter, and at the professional level, with the Bulls.
But it’s that roundball realm in between where the Windy City flunks out. For that, we must rap the knuckles of DePaul, a school that once waved Chicago’s college basketball banner with enough vigor to generate a stiff breeze from coast to coast.
Between 1973 to 1992, the Blue Demons went 414-149 and reached the 1979 Final Four behind legendary coach Ray Meyer and Chicago standout Mark Aguirre, cementing DePaul’s status as one of the top programs in all of college basketball.
In 1980, however, the Blue Demons abandoned the 5,308-seat Alumni Hall and moved their games 15 miles from campus to the new 17,500-seat Rosemont Horizon, now known as Allstate Arena.
By forsaking its city roots, DePaul lost the city’s imagination. After a dismal 3-23 season in 1996-1997 after which head coach Joey Meyer—Ray’s son—was fired, the Blue Demons lost Chicago’s attention for good.
Sure, DePaul made a brief return to relevancy when Chicagoan and Whitney Young graduate Quentin Richardson led the team to the NCAA Tournament in 2000, but that success didn’t stick. And since joining the Big East in 2005, the over-matched Blue Demons have been chewed up and spit out like gristle.
I’ve long believed that DePaul’s decision to play at Allstate Arena has severely hampered the school’s recruiting—“Campus is cool, but you play your games where?”—while also denying Big East basketball the opportunity to develop the kind of identity in Chicago that Marquette (a city school that actually plays in the city) has fostered in Milwaukee.
DePaul’s absence from the city sports scene hasn’t just hurt interest among the city’s basketball fans. On campus, it’s darn near killed it.
Just ask Danny DeCicco, a 21-year-old DePaul junior—and big basketball fan—who recently said, “I’ve been to one game. In three years.”
Standing outside Lincoln Park’s Ray Meyer Fitness and Recreation Center on a sunny afternoon, DeCicco and Joe Laskero, a 22-year-old senior, explained that most DePaul undergrads don’t have the time, let alone the interest, to take the school’s free student fan bus all the way out to Allstate Arena.
During rush hour. On a weeknight. To watch a 12-19 team.
“People joke about it,” Laskero said. “They joke all the time how no one goes to games.”
But, he added, students would if DePaul played its games closer to campus. “There would definitely be a better fan culture,” said Laskero.
In my own hoop dreams, I’d be able to take a quick trip to Lincoln Park on the “L” to watch Big East heavyweights such as UConn and Louisville tangle with the Demons. Or, perhaps, see the likes of Illinois or Michigan State show up for a heated non-conference game.
That’s my vision. And it’s encouraging to hear that, with Vision 2018, the administration at DePaul is thinking the same way.
Rumors about any new DePaul arena have its capacity pegged at 10,000 to 12,000. Other rumors have placed its potential location at the Finkl Steel property near Southport and Cortland, which is within walking distance of the DePaul campus. Another has it at Elston Avenue near the Kennedy Expressway and Chicago River on land that’s been home to the Morton Salt Company.
It’s time to make the rumors reality. It’s time, dear DePaul, to bring major college basketball games back to Chicago.
We miss it.
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DAVE WISCHNOWSKY is a Chicago writer and columnist who currently writes a sports blog for CBSChicago.com and formerly worked as a Metro reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune. His other work can be read here and at wischlist.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @wischlist.
STORY ART: Photo of Derrick Rose, lightly remixed, courtesy Keith Allison/cc.