Though DePaul men’s basketball’s last winning season was back in 2006-07, we’ve nevertheless been fortunate to witness firsthand a revolving door of NBA-level talent at Allstate Arena, which hosted the likes of Kemba Walker, Jae Crowder, Wesley Johnson, even Hasheem Thabeet.
Unfortunately for the Blue Demons and their fans, not one of these eventual NBA players ever donned a DePaul uniform.
And keeping with recent tradition, we watched DePaul once again get bested by blue-chip recruits more tempted by the spoils of a successful team in a smaller city, rather than by the past achievements of a now-waning program in the nation’s third-largest market. In the team’s last-ever home game at Allstate Arena on Saturday, the Blue Demons limped to a 79-65 loss against Xavier.
As we traversed the crowd, talking to fans and DePaul alumni, we found it difficult to visualize the wild scenes from the program’s successful run through the 1980s. Even viewing the occasional throwback “Allstate Arena Moments” highlights on the video board indicated an alien environment that neither of us, nor any other student in the last decade, could even fathom.
While alumni described capacity crowds drowning the Rosemont Horizon in noise, all we could remember were blowouts where the chants of opposing fans echoed through the empty stands. During Saturday’s game, the pallid home crowd got a taste of Xavier’s traveling contingent, as “Let’s Go Muskies” thundered through the arena with nary a response from those in Demon blue.
Dissatisfaction, despair and glimmers of hope — these were the sentiments put forth by the fans we encountered, as the Blue Demons concluded their eighth season in the last nine with at least 20 losses.
Longing for the past
“DePaul needs to learn how to recruit in its own backyard,” Frank Rose, class of 1982, said. “When you talk about the old days, all those guys were really from the city — Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings. They haven’t been able to do that for the longest time. So if they can recruit here, that’s a good start.”
Rose was one of many alumni who attended the home finale, all of whom expressed similar concerns about the program’s present and future, and who recalled the early days at the former Rosemont Horizon when seats would be filled to capacity to watch high-stakes college basketball.
“First game was Dec. 1, 1980 when they played [Gonzaga], and we’re here for the last game today,” said Mary Kosinski (’82). “It was an unbelievable experience before Michael Jordan-era basketball — this was the place to be, when there was not a seat open. It was an amazing experience back then.”
Throughout the men’s basketball team’s last tumultuous decade in Allstate Arena, the program suffered declining attendance and waning enthusiasm from fans. As the team prepares to move to the new Wintrust Arena in the South Loop’s McCormick Square district for the 2017-18 season, uncertainty prevails.
“I just hope the team can solidify its fanbase,” Robbie Rose (‘82) said. “We need to put a good product on the court to entice people to come, to make that journey. Hopefully it’ll work out, hopefully they rebuild and win.”
“The team’s in Chicago, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to get a couple decent local guys,” Bob Keller (‘94) said. “Find a nice base to start with.”
During breaks in the action, the video board above the court played old highlights from the glory days at the Rosemont Horizon/Allstate Arena. In one clip, the capacity crowd appeared hysterical as No. 1 DePaul throttled No. 3 UCLA 93-77 on Dec. 27, 1980.
“I would love to see someday the team get to .500. I don’t have anything beyond that,” Jim Gorman (‘71) said. Considering teams from the ’70s and ’80s were routinely in the National Championship discussion, especially under legendary head coach Ray Meyer, Gorman’s hopes are a steep contrast to those days.
“I was around in ’79 when they went to the Final Four,” he added.
The cost of convenience
One potential drawback to the move into the city? Convenience for alumni, many of whom will now have to commute from Rosemont’s neighboring suburbs to the South Loop. Picture a Tuesday night game in the city, with traffic — any given alumni may be reluctant to make the drive.
“I understand the move downtown, but I happen to live on the Northwest Side, so it’s more convenient for me to come here [to Allstate Arena],” Gorman said. “But I tell you, I haven’t been coming here lately. I’ve been following the women’s team.”
Gorman, an auctioneer for the Chicago White Sox, planned to make the journey to Milwaukee to see DePaul’s much more successful women’s basketball team in the upcoming Big East tournament. Since the 2006-07 season, the women are 263-109. By comparison, the men’s team is 120-229.
“I’m probably not going to go to as many games as I used to,” said Keller, who remembered attending packed city-wide tournaments at the Rosemont Horizon with his father. “It’s farther away, gonna be another $10 for parking, tickets will cost more — it’s gonna be different.”
“The arena’s still kinda out there, and I know they’re pushing the start times of games back to 8 p.m. They’re trying to do that for alumni, especially those coming from the ’burbs commuting into the city,” Rose said. “That’s great, I just don’t know that it’s going to work.”
One of the most common laments among fans was the difference in the atmosphere between Allstate now and Allstate then. Games in this stadium used to mean something more — there were real stakes in the competition, a chance to contend for the NCAA Tournament. DePaul basketball still provides an opportunity for the community to gather and represent the schools and its values as one, but the burden of nine consecutive losing seasons weighs not only on the team, but on the fans.
“When they have a good team, the place fills up. But it’s always been a nice place to come — we’ve been doing this for years,” Keller said. “It’s a nice break in the action in the middle of the week, nice non-confrontational crowd.”
How is a home team supposed to intimidate its opponent in a “non-confrontational crowd?” The phrase “home court advantage” exists for a reason, and it’s leverage for DePaul’s squad that has fallen by the wayside.
“[There is] no comparison from then to now,” Kosinski said. “But the mission continues and I’m always happy when I see young kids here, it’s still a local connection. That was always the mission, community work done locally.”
Now, that mission moves to the South Loop, where a new home offers a much-desired fresh start.
“In a way I’m sad to see this exit,” Gorman said. “But it’s been ending for years.”