CHAMPAIGN — Even though his Illinois career has ended, it was still Ayo Dosunmu’s night at the State Farm Center.
The Chicago Bulls rookie guard and former All-American Illini guard became the 34th player to have his number hung up in the rafters during a halftime ceremony of the team’s win over Maryland on Thursday.
Dosunmu was given his introduction as a guard from Chicago before his ceremony, and the Morgan Park graduate got a warm welcome as the returning hometown hero.
“To be able to do it the way I did it, I don’t think I could’ve (drawn) that up during my recruitment,” Dosunmu said. “To look back ... at the commitment I gave this university and now look at the success I had, it’s crazy. It wasn’t easy. It was very hard.”
Dosunmu was the first player since Dee Brown, another dynamic guard who wore No. 11, to get his jersey retired.
“All the people up there, I’m blessed to be up there with them,” Dosunmu said. “I know it’s not easy to get your jersey retired. I’m just honored.”
People are also reading…
There were 5,000 black masks lined on seats to pay homage to his stretch as the “masked mamba” last season after suffering a broken nose.
All-Star teammate DeMar DeRozan was in attendance next to him, showing how much the team values its first-year guard who has quickly gone from a second-round pick to a key rotation piece, playing 18.6 minutes per game.
“It’s special,” Dosunmu said. “It just shows the type of person he is to come out here and be there for me in this special time. For him to be here, it shows what kind of person and leader he is.”
Dosunmu, who brought his family with him back to Champaign, has been following Illinois this season from afar. He still exchanges texts with Brad Underwood about the team’s season.
Dosunmu’s imprint is still seen on this year’s team, with coaches and players making a video expressing congratulations to him and telling him how much he meant to the program.
During his three-year career, he and the Illini improved each season before his junior year ended with a Big Ten title after the team went 12-21 his freshman year.
“I wanted to build a legacy,” Dosunmu said. “And to build a legacy, it takes more than one year. It takes patience. It takes a lot of long nights, takes a lot of mental toughness. You have to be locked in mentally. I’m definitely excited to know where this program is (now).”
“He’s a guy that chose to come to us when we weren’t winning,” Underwood said. “We stunk. We were a bad basketball team. He’s the definition of everything we want our program to be about. It’s no surprise he’s having a great NBA career, and he’ll have a long one.”
Dosunmu still has contact with current Illini players and, along with DeRozan, jumped up after a Cockburn slam in the second half. Cockburn said the team couldn’t lose on the night Ayo’s jersey was hung. He said he's still close friends with Dosunmu.
The State Farm Center crowd welcomed him with open arms, and Underwood said he and his family would always be welcome back.
“Just knowing the legacy and mark I left here, not just on the court but building the relationship with guys and the coaching staff, players, that’s what it’s all about,” Dosunmu said. “Building bonds and relationships that can never be taken away and then last forever. I thought I did that here with Illinois.”
Follow Anderson Kimball on Twitter: byAndyKimball