CHAMPAIGN — Give Ayo Dosunmu a chance, and he’ll tell you all about the loves of his life. About the joys. His family. His school. His Illinois teammates. The game. The gym.
But he’s going to have to work out first. He always has to work out first.
It’s two weeks before the start of final exams and a day ending in the letter “y,” so Dosunmu’s self-imposed schedule begins at the Ubben Basketball Complex. Organized spring workouts are over, yet it seems no one informed the Illini point guard and former Morgan Park star.
Awake at 7. Getting up shots at Ubben by 8. A shower. A meal. Classes. Back to the dorm for a nap. Back at Ubben and shooting again by 4. An hour in the weight room. Another meal. Who’s ready to study? Asleep by 10:30 or there’s going to be a problem.
“I can’t function without my sleep,” he says, leaning back into an oversized blue leather sofa in the Ubben players’ lounge, which doubles as the team’s video room.
As rough a go as Illinois basketball has had in recent years, it’s probably safe to say coach Brad Underwood’s program couldn’t function without Dosunmu, its 6-5 linchpin, who was named to the Big Ten’s all-freshman team after leading the Illini with 13.8 points and 3.2 assists per game during the 2018-19 season.
Put bluntly, Dosunmu, 19, is the most important Illini player since Dee Brown, who was the engine of the 2005 drive to the national title game. Brown, a Proviso East alum, made everyone around him believe that anything was possible. Dosunmu, a two-time state champion at Morgan Park, is the skillful, tireless, joyous embodiment of the belief that a school in a once-unthinkable six-year NCAA Tournament drought can shine on the court again — and soon.
“Is he that guy for us? Yes, absolutely,” Underwood says. “In this state, there’s an importance for recruiting that he’s from Chicago. But I want it to be bigger than that, and it is. Illinois basketball got a special person who has special character and special talent in Ayo, and he’s ours. We should be really proud of that. And there’s nobody prouder of wearing that [Illini] jersey than him.”
Dosunmu, who is choosing between majors in communications and journalism, aspires to be a basketball studio analyst after his playing days are over. He fancies himself more of a Kenny Smith — hopping out of a chair to demonstrate X’s and O’s in front of a giant video board — than a style-over-substance Charles Barkley. He assures a visiting reporter that he’ll tell it like it is, too, unafraid to ruffle feathers in the name of accuracy. For example: Though his idol is Kobe Bryant, whom he met and peppered with questions a few years back at the Nike Skills Academy, he admits that Michael Jordan was better.
OK, so making that particular call isn’t all that difficult. Analyzing what went wrong last season with the 12-21 Illini, an extraordinarily young team, is much harder to do. Dosunmu leans forward and begins, in his best ready-for-prime-time TV voice:
“I felt like Illinois was right there. They played as hard as any team in the country at times, in my opinion, but they just couldn’t match the same intensity day in and out. They had a lot of games where they played hard, and a lot of games where they weren’t locked in for the whole 40 minutes. I feel like for them to take it to the next level, they have to play hard the whole game. Sometimes they played hard for the first half but then took their foot off the gas pedal in the second half.
“I wouldn’t say youth was the problem, either. I would say they didn’t understand the importance of every four minutes, [the time] between media timeouts. You come out in the second half not knowing the importance of four minutes, that could lead to taking bad shots very quickly and — boom — before you know it, the other team is on an 8-0 run. Those are killers right there.”
And what about the Illini’s hotshot freshman point guard? Was he as good as he could’ve been?
“He was pretty good,” Dosunmu says. “He had a lot of great games. I just feel like his consistency of playing to the highest level — him playing to his potential each day — wasn’t there. Look at all the great players in college, that’s what they do. So him just fixing his consistency, day in and out, that would help out a lot.”
Dosunmu will do it with joy. There’s that word again. It’s right there in his name, what Ayo means in the West African language of Yoruba. Quamdeen Ayo Dosunmu’s first and middle names translate to “go forward with joy,” and if anyone can think of a better way for a young person to try to live his life, please speak up.
When it really comes down to it, Dosunmu is guided by two core principles. One is spelled out in his name. The other was impressed upon him by Yakub Dosunmu, his Nigerian immigrant grandfather. Six words that get him up and out every morning, that ring too loudly between his ears for him to ignore:
“A real man goes to work.”
Some mornings, mind you, are bigger bears than others. For Dosunmu, the worst ones came last winter after Illini losses on the road. The sky was forbidding, the temperature brutally cold, his dorm bed warm and cozy and the sting of two rough hours on the court lingering.
“That’s the hardest time to do it, of course,” he says. “I mean, I love school. I love everything about it. This is a prestigious university. But, at the same time, in reality, you’ve got a game at 8 at night, let’s say you lose, you get on a plane and don’t get back until 12, you get up at 7 to lift and you’ve got class at 9? That takes a toll on your body and mentally. So it’s easy to say, ‘I’m not going to class today.’
“But real men, when times get hard, they always go to class. No matter what, if you’re having problems with your girlfriend or if you lose a game and you don’t want to go to class, always remember that a real man always takes care of his responsibilities. That makes it easy for me because, man, I’m tired, but I’ve got to get up. I’ve got to go.”
But Dosunmu wrestled this particular bear to the ground long ago. He spent his first year of high school at Westinghouse, where he led the varsity squad to a White-West division championship and played alongside brother Kube, then a junior. The pair would transfer to powerhouse Morgan Park, where Ayo blew up into a star, but that year at the House was beyond special. It was the most fun Ayo has had in basketball, he says, and not just during games.
The best times were had starting weekday mornings at 5:30. Ayo, Kube and father Quam — who knows a thing or two about get-up-and-go, having spent 30 years as a UPS man — were in the gym at Breakthrough Urban Ministries in the South Side’s East Garfield neighborhood like clockwork. It was a family affair: Mom Jamarra regularly dropped them off, headed home to take the two Dosunmu daughters where they needed to go, picked up food and brought it for the boys and then saw them off to school.
“It was storybook family time,” says Kube, now a guard at the University of Illinois-Springfield. “At the end of the day, Ayo’s ceiling was so high, we wanted him to be the best he could be. Him playing now on a national scale, regardless of where I’m at, I feel like I did a good job of preparing him.”
It’s a beautiful thing, this best-friend relationship between the Dosunmu brothers. The younger, taller, more talented one doesn’t love basketball any more, but he eclipsed his older brother before reaching high school and, hey, you know what? It’s all good. It’s wonderful, figures Kube, who is Ayo’s sounding board and biggest fan. After Ayo has a bad game, he texts Kube for advice and support.
“A great guy,” Ayo calls him. “The best. My best friend in the whole world.”
Quam, who played at Kenwood and coached the boys in their nascent years of AAU ball, is in the inner circle, too, of course. The three have a text chain — “My Dudes,” Dad named it — that runs on high all day, every day. They still shoot together most every week, with Quam, now an elementary-school peer professional at CICS Loomis-Longwood on the South Side, driving to Springfield for Kube, who takes the wheel to and from Champaign before Quam’s long ride home.
“Talking to you right now, you telling me what my boys said about each other, you saying all that, if you look into my eyes right now, you’ll see my eyes are watering,” Quam says. “I’m moved with emotion.
“Those boys, I started teaching them how to play basketball when one was 3 and the other was 4½, and we’ve been all the way together. We started together, and we’re going to finish together. At the end of the day, they are my best friends, both of them.”
A few days after our interview on campus, Dosunmu will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a White Sox game on Illini Night. He’ll stand at the foot of the mound and deliver a looping toss that finds its target, relief pitcher Ryan Burr. Generously, we’ll call it a high strike.
The Dosunmus are a Sox family. Quam, who was born in Lagos, has been a fan since the “South Side Hit Men” days of the 1970s. The whole family, save Kube — who has his own final exams to contend with — will be on hand because, well, that’s how they roll. The family text chain, named “Dosunmu 6,” burns even hotter than “My Dudes.”
“We do everything as a family,” Quam says. “The way my wife and myself see it, family is everything. That’s all we know. Without family, it’s nothing.”
Ayo Dosunmu might have won two state titles at Morgan Park, but he wasn’t quite on the national short list of mega-talented, mega-hyped recruits. He narrowly missed out on being a McDonald’s All-American. He wasn’t even the Sun-Times’ Player of the Year as a senior. He lost out on that to Simeon’s Talen Horton-Tucker, who played as a freshman at Iowa State before declaring for the NBA Draft. Dosunmu himself flirted with the draft before deciding to stay put for at least another year.
“I wish everyone from the city the best of luck because when you’re in Chicago, so many different media outlets and so many different people try to divide you,” Dosunmu says.
“I really don’t care who’s player of the year. I don’t care who gets picked for McDonald’s. None of that stuff bothers me because when you get to the collegiate level, it doesn’t matter. Who cares? You’ve got a junior who’s been here three years, you think he cares about a freshman coming in saying he was a McDonald’s All-American or won player of the year in his city? Literally, once you graduate, throw that in the garbage.”
That’s the much-needed realism Dosunmu has brought to Illinois, which still contends with — from some strange corners — a misguided sentiment that its basketball teams are born to be nationally relevant. Even Underwood insists, oddly, on referring to Illinois as a “top 10 program” nationally, which is about as believable as tales of surfing in Central Illinois would be.
In fact, ascending as a program in an authentic way takes nonstop, heartfelt work. It takes the willingness to build something out of nothing. It takes embracing the early-morning grind as a blessing, a privilege and a matter of principle. It takes love. It takes joy.
“That’s why I came here,” Dosunmu says, “to help make all of that happen.”
It’s no coincidence that while Dosunmu puts in the hours, fellow freshmen Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Alan Griffin, Tevian Jones and others are doing the same. The gregarious Bezhanishvili, to name one, wants to be wherever Dosunmu is. They’ve had a couple of English writing classes together. They have long discussions about slavery and other chapters of history. They seem to bond more by the day.
“I notice how well Ayo handles stuff outside of the court, like talking to people and being a good human in general,” Bezhanishvili says. “Obviously, we know he’s a great basketball player. But I think this other stuff is more important.”
When Bezhanishvili learned that Dosunmu had decided to return to school, he was “the happiest person on Earth.” All mock drafts for 2020 have Dosunmu going in the first round. NBADraft.net has him going sixth overall.
“He’ll be one of the best point guards in the nation next season,” Bezhanishvili says. “That’s not even a question.”
Dosunmu takes a pass on discussing the 2020 draft at length. But he takes the question of Illinois getting back to the NCAA Tournament head-on. Anything less, he contends, will be a failure.
“I can tell you there’s going to be a lot of people on the bandwagon,” he says. “I can tell you that wholeheartedly. Now we’re older, much bigger, stronger, got a whole year under our belt. We have the talent. It’s just about going to work.”
And about bringing immeasurable joy to Illini Nation. Doing so just might be Dosunmu’s destiny.