Last Saturday, the Fighting Illini played Auburn at the United Center. And if you asked any Illini fan, there’s nothing like it.
It was a great way to showcase their basketball program to a city blossoming with talented ball players. Aside from an opportunity to broaden its fan base, it gives high-profile recruits the chance to witness the Illini’s basketball coaching and style.
Every time I had the fortune of seeing the Illini play at the UC, I always considered a rather open-ended question:
What’s the effect of having an established basketball program with Chicago in its backyard?
Is there a notable benefit from having a city full of passion for the game, fans, and players alike, watching at all times? DePaul was a national powerhouse in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Why did that mystique and aura fade away from that program? And how come Northwestern hasn’t ever made the NCAA tournament with such rich resources at its disposal?
Chicagoans are a basketball crazy demographic. Nationally, the notion is that this stems from Michael Jordan and the Bulls dynasty of the 1990’s. But the game has been played on streets, playgrounds, and gyms since the dawn of the 20th century. Major high school games in recent memory have filled up Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena and the UIC Pavilion. And at the college level – until Illinois’ lackluster last few years – Illinois had routinely sold out the United Center once a year for a regular season non-conference matchup.
For decades arguments have been made about what regions produce the highest level of basketball talent. New York claims the best ball handlers, guards who can go one-on-one and create their own shot. Detroit, bolstered famously in the 90’s, always has kids ranked in the top-10 in national recruits. Indiana breeds shooters, kids growing up in Hoosier country shooting at backboards fastened onto the sides of barns (okay maybe I’m drawing conclusions here).
Chicago has consistently held the title of the richest talent base for basketball.
Within the last year Chicago boasted the best players in the game at their respective levels: Simeon’s Jabari Parker – the number one ranked high school player in the country. Anthony Davis – the NCAA Player of the Year and NBA’s number one draft pick. And of course, Derrick Rose, the NBA’s youngest ever Most Valuable Player, arguably the most beloved athlete by his fan base in the nation.
What this means for the three big area programs – Illinois, Northwestern, and DePaul – is that a bulls-eye should be placed squarely on Cook County. Basketball undoubtedly is the most popular sport among youngsters living in Chicago. Basketball programs like Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas may be able to sway the absolute top prospects away from the in-state school, but that still leaves a deep pool of talent to pluck from. Five players in the 2013 national top-150 class hail from the Windy City; followed by another eight in 2014 (according to Rivals.com).
The number one players in both classes? Chicagoans.
The Chicago Public League has been an elusive recruiting ground for the Fighting Illini. The pipeline was in full swing through the 80’s when recruits like Eddie Johnson and Ken Norman signed in the early part of the decade. Their time in Champaign elevated the program’s status under coach Lou Henson, and later in the decade “The Flyin’ Illini” were born when Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill helped lead the 1988-89 squad to the Final Four.
The recruitment of Simeon’s Deon Thomas in the 90’s placed Illinois on probation, and led to Coach Henson’s retirement – seemingly and abruptly clogging the talent pipeline. From 2000-2010 Illinois successfully recruited just two players from the Chicago public schools – Luther Head and Calvin Brock. The 2011 class was gold for Illinois, signing four players from the city (PG Tracy Abrams and C Nnanna Egwu).
Subsequently, Illinois secured commitments from two Simeon products in 2013. This wave of Public League recruits is still reverberating and looks like it may be for some time.
Once upon a time, DePaul basketball was a national powerhouse. Under the leadership of Hall-of-Fame coach Ray Meyer, DePaul went 132-15 from 1977-82. Making the NCAA tournament each season, they reached the final four during the ‘78-’79 season. Leading this stretch of success was two Chicago high school studs turned NCAA All-Americans, Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings.
A decision in 1981 to move all home games from Alumni Hall in the heart of campus in Lincoln Park, to what is now known as the All State Arena in Rosemont marked a crucial turning point in DePaul’s recruitment of student-athletes. Instead of playing in front of a standing-room only crowd on campus, DePaul shuttled its team in buses 20 miles away to suburban Rosemont to play in a dark, cavernous arena with no ties to the school. This is still the case – for now at least.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has vocalized his interest in DePaul building a new home arena in the South Loop. Not only would it keep the Blue Demons at home in Cook County (only six miles away from campus), but it would provide a place for city prospects to watch the team in person. Building this arena would give DePaul something that no other major division one program boasts – a home court square in the heart of downtown Chicago.
The Northwestern brand has been sort of remodeled in the last ten years or so, with heightened products on the football field and basketball court. In 2009, fielding its best basketball team in years, Northwestern launched a daring and brash marketing campaign singling out the University of Illinois among others and attempting to throw its lasso around the skyline of Chicago.
“Chicago’s Big Ten Team” is still plastered on billboards, seen in newspapers and on websites. The point is distinct – Northwestern, not Illinois, locates its campus just a couple miles outside the city, plays all its home games either in Evanston or in Chicago, and most courageously claims that the city is Northwestern’s.
I always applauded Northwestern’s decision to move forward with that marketing campaign, and I think about that slogan every time I see one of those ads. “Chicago’s Big Ten School.”
Illinois is the school with the annual game at the United Center. Illinois is the first choice in the back of recruits’ minds. On football Saturdays at bars all across Lincoln Park, you can spot significantly more orange polo’s than you can purple. Northwestern is always the underdog, an academic institution in its infancy days of truly contending for Big Ten Titles athletically. I’m sure I will feel the same way about DePaul if they can move their product back to the city, build teams off the shoulders of Chicagoan’s and truly compete in the Big East.
As for the Illini? At 14-2 and #12 in the country, don’t be surprised to see John Groce stick around Champaign for a few years. But don’t be surprised to see him make visits to the Windy City either. Something Bruce Weber should’ve done more often.