- From bar marquees to bandwagon fans to Red Line stops, SI's resident Chicagoans give their perspective on the city's unlikely March Madness success story.
Loyola-Chicago is in the Final Four, and no one is more surprised than ... Chicago. After decades of taking a backseat to countless teams and sports nearby, the Missouri Valley Conference champions have brought a basketball-obsessed city along for the ride as they head to San Antonio with eyes on the Ramblers’ first national championship since 1963.
The SI staff has no shortage of writers and editors with Windy City ties, from alums of area schools to Chicago natives to transplants. With the buzz generated by the lowest-seeded Final Four team since 2011 sweeping the city, they each had a story to share about the ripple effect of a Loyola takeover none of them saw coming.
Michael Beller: I grew up in Skokie, about eight miles from Loyola’s Rogers Park campus. I now live in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, about six miles south of Loyola. I’ve spent about 27 of my 33 years on this planet living in Chicago, and I cannot believe how strongly the city has rallied behind the Ramblers. North, South or West, it seems everyone is captivated by this team and claiming it as their own as it sits two wins away from a national championship. The only other things I can think of that enjoy this brand of unanimous affection from Chicagoans are Chicago summers, Revolution Brewing, and Italian beef with giardineira. Loyola just completed the city’s Mount Rushmore of unanimous affection.
I’m guilty of it, too. I’ve proudly told friends in other cities that I attended Loyola games this season, outside of my role as a Sports Illustrated staff writer. I have a few friends who went to Loyola, including one of my best friends in the world, with whom I’ve been close since second grade. I’ve heard some rumblings from these friends about Loyola over the years, but never any Ramblings, if you catch my drift. They’ll all be in San Antonio this weekend. The rest of us are back here in Chicago, a tableau of maroon and gold the city hasn’t seen in more than 50 years. Over the last few years, Northwestern has trotted out the slogan “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” Anyone who lives here knows that was never going to catch on, thanks largely to the abundance of other Big Ten alumni in the city, many of them born-and-bred Chicagoans. By bringing the city its first Final Four team since 1978–79 DePaul, and by virtue of being outside the Big Ten, Loyola has made itself, at least for now, Chicago’s college basketball team.
Kalyn Kahler: My dad’s best friend, whom I call Uncle Pete, owns a bar called Candlelite Chicago in Rogers Park, a ten-minute drive from Loyola’s campus. Uncle Pete likes to update the giant marquee out front with clever shoutouts to local sports teams, everything from the Bears to the Blackhawks to nearby high schools. When the Cubs won, it read HELL HAS FROZEN OVER. Until Loyola made the Final Four, the sign had only ever mentioned the Ramblers when referring to Loyola Academy’s high school football team, which is also nicknamed the Ramblers.
Uncle Pete jokes that Loyola Academy’s football team has had more televised games than the university’s basketball team (LUC does not have varsity football). At the end of the season this year, he tried to play Loyola basketball games at the bar, but he couldn’t find them on local TV until the Missouri Valley Conference championship game. “Some people would ask—not a lot—and we couldn’t find them,” he says. “And we have all the sports channels.”
The Candelite’s marquee sign, which now reads SISTER JEAN YOUR PARTY OF FOUR IS READY, was featured on local TV and radio in Chicago, because I guess they couldn’t find a real Ramblers bar. Darren Rovell even tweeted out a photo of the marquee, and the first reply to his tweet was “Ironically thats a Northwestern bar way moreso than a Loyola bar.” This is all to say that Uncle Pete and his bar are a great representation of how the city has enthusiastically jumped onto the Ramblers bandwagon. For the most part, no one is trying to hide the fact that we never paid attention to Loyola basketball before.
I went to college at Northwestern, and though we are just a short drive up Sheridan Road from Loyola’s campus, I don’t remember ever thinking about the Ramblers basketball team, or the school in general. The only time I was reminded of its existence was after nights out downtown when I would Uber back up to Evanston and pass the campus directly. Northwestern hasn’t played Loyola in 21 years, which probably explains that, but we do play other Chicago mid-majors like DePaul and University of Illinois-Chicago semi-regularly. Hopefully the two rejuvenated basketball programs can schedule a game in the next decade.
As a fan of all Chicago sports (except the Sox), I am wholeheartedly on board the Loyola train. But as a Northwestern fan, I can’t help feeling a little bit jealous. It’s like when your little sister steals your favorite shirt and looks better than you in it. Loyola is a better Cinderella than Northwestern was last year because they’ve made it all the way to the Final Four, and they have Sister Jean, who is a way more meme-worthy team representative than Crying Northwestern Kid. I’m happy for my Sheridan Road neighbors, but I can’t help thinking that could have and should have been Northwestern last year, advancing to the Sweet 16 and beyond, if not for an egregious missed goaltending call…
But enough of that. Two consecutive years of Chicago-area Cinderellas is great for Chicago sports (and great for business at the Candlelite, especially since the Blackhawks failed to make the playoffs). And Loyola represents Chicago in a way that Northwestern doesn't. Loyola is geographically Chicago, and more importantly, the Ramblers have Donte Ingram and Lucas Williamson, two Chicago Public School grads who are building on the city’s reputation as a basketball hotbed.
DeAntae Prince: I lived in a suburb called Riverdale, which sits right on the border of Chicago’s South Side, for the first 18 years of my life. That didn’t stop the city from serving as the epicenter of my basketball upbringing. My brothers and I feasted on the Bulls, Illinois, DePaul and UIC.
Why wasn’t Loyola-Chicago included in that list? I barely knew it existed. The school’s central location and rich history—they won the 1963 title with four black players in the starting lineup—should have been enough to place the Ramblers on my radar, but it wasn’t.
Of course, they’ve rolled to the Final Four in spite of Chicago loyalists who were blissfully unaware of their existence. With Illinois in a rut and the Bulls tanking, Loyola-Chicago is playing the best basketball in the state. Because of this tournament run—and Sister Jean—kids growing up now will have a different set of basketball priorities than I did. They could become the new Butler, a small private school nestled within a major city that plays big-time basketball. Their place in Chicago’s hierarchy is already set in stone, but a title could really tilt the scales in their direction and create a powerhouse.
Joan Niesen: In Chicago, people put a ton of stock on the train line you live on. My friends, in particular, are divided between Blue Line People and Red Line People. Someone I know recently almost passed on a great apartment because she, a Blue Line devotee, couldn’t imagine her husband having to take the Red everyday to work.
I am a proud Red Line Person, and 11 stops north of me, Loyola is a Red Line College. That, I’ve decided, is my claim to allegiance to the Ramblers this March—well, that plus the fact that if I were to become a nun, Sister Jean and I would be one vowel away from identical names. I’m just fine with the flippant nature of my allegiance, and it’s not like I join every Red Line bandwagon; as a Cardinals fan, I still find the Red Line Baseball Teams (one in particular) odious.
I’d venture to guess that 95% of people in Chicago, a city struck recently with Rambler fever, are newly minted fans—even the people who hold Loyola diplomas. And that’s just fine in my book. The city is committed. Though signs supporting the basketball team are scant on Loyola’s main campus, every light post on the school’s downtown campus flies a “Go Ramblers” banner—in an area that sees 100 times the non-student foot traffic. Buildings downtown are lit up with messages of support. When I used the city’s official parking app to pay my meter on Monday, a message popped up when the charge went through: “Loyola Wins! Congratulations to the Final Four bound Loyola Ramblers.” We’re taking this bandwagon seriously, you see.
I’m not sure if the parking app is still so congratulatory. I haven’t driven since. I’ve only taken the Red Line.
Chris Chavez: I mainly knew of Loyola-Chicago as the alma mater of my friend Declan Murray, who was a standout runner for the Ramblers. His family is what you’d consider a Loyola Dynasty: He is the second of four kids who all went to Loyola, three as track athletes and one to play soccer. From 2007 to ’17, at least one Murray was enrolled at Loyola. Longtime fans have welcomed the bandwagon-jumpers with open arms and seem happy to share their history with basketball fans who didn't know about The Game of Change and the 1963 team until this week.
(Personally, I’m on the bandwagon because of my Jesuit ties from my days at Xavier High School in New York City and Marquette University.)
The city seemed to have rallied behind Northwestern in their first ever tournament appearance last year and it has carried on with Loyola. And if we’ve learned anything from the Blackhawks and Cubs, Chicago loves its championship parades.
Charlotte Carroll: I graduated last year from Illinois, which hasn’t exactly been a factor in the NCAA tournament conversation of late. Football hasn’t been our strong suit either. We’re more of a golf school anyway. So one of this March’s highlights for my friends and I—I’d guess a lot of other Illini fans feel similarly—has been hailing Loyola as Chicago’s Big Ten team. Any day we can get a slight in at Northwestern is a good day.
Plus, Sister Jean is making all of my South Side Irish Catholic relatives very proud. My traitor sister goes to Michigan and my dad will likely be putting on the maize and blue on Saturday to cheer her team on despite graduating from Illinois himself. All I know is Dad should know better than to mess with the power of a 98-year-old nun.
Jeremy Woo: Having been born and raised within the physical city limits, I feel comfortable stating that Chicago will never be a college sports town, even if Loyola wins four straight titles in 2040 while being led by Michael Jordan’s unborn grandson. That said, Porter Moser’s butt accidentally touched my laptop as he leapt over a table on press row and ran to celebrate with his family on Saturday, and watching Loyola beat the crap out of a legitimately tough Kansas State team in person was fun. Anyway, don’t let me ramble.