CHICAGO—When the Bulls won their most recent NBA championship, Lucas Williamson wasn’t born. Donte Ingram was a toddler. None of Loyola’s other three Chicago-area players was old enough to recall the era that defined their city’s sports identity, but they grew up in an environment that the Michael Jordan-led teams of the 1980s and ‘90s defined.
It’ll be two decades this June since a Chicago basketball team last won a title, 20 years since the Bulls ruled the hoops world. The Windy City still holds strong to its identity as a basketball city, but in the meantime, it’s seen three Stanley Cups and two World Series titles. The Bulls have made the playoffs but never gotten so far as the NBA Finals. When Northwestern made its first NCAA tournament a year ago, Chicago came alive, charmed by coach Chris Collins (son of former Bulls coach Doug Collins) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the stands cheering her son. The city was giddy at the thought of a tournament team, even one that was out the first weekend of the dance—and now it has an unlikely contender.
This spring, coach Porter Moser’s Loyola-Chicago Ramblers have become the darlings of a basketball-crazed city, the spunky Cinderellas who don’t particularly care for that designation. They’ve been playing this way all season, they say, even if it’s only now that the country—and even their city—has caught on. Halfway through the team’s 25–5 regular season, you’d have been hard-pressed to find the Ramblers televised in any Chicago bar. Four of their games weren’t even available on local TV, and the bulk of the rest appeared on streaming platform ESPN3 and NBC Sports, Chicago’s secondary “plus” channel. Also: Fans weren’t exactly clamoring for anyone to change the channel from the struggling Blackhawks and Bulls.
That changed in an instant when the Ramblers won the Missouri Valley’s conference championship tournament, beating Illinois State on March 4. They were in, an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and by the evening after the selection committee granted the team a No. 11 seed, lightposts on Loyola’s downtown Chicago campus were adorned with flags cheering on the team. (It mattered little, of course, that many of the people who walked past those flags that night—including this writer—had to pause for a second to consider who the Ramblers might be.) That Thursday, the country fell in love with Sister Jean, and Chicago has been on board ever since, in ways both obscure and expected. After Loyola won its Elite Eight game, the city’s parking app began to flash a message of support for the Ramblers after users paid their meters. At the same time, the city’s skyline lit up in the school’s maroon and gold; at the highest point, the Willis Tower’s antennae, there were the Ramblers’ colors.
Loyola’s main campus, though, sits about eight miles north of downtown Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan. It’s about a half-hour train ride—sit on the west-facing seats of the L, and you’ll get a glimpse of the Wrigley Field façade—and is a far cry from the skyscrapers that beamed support into the night. Rogers Park is a quiet urban enclave, home to older brick buildings and lakeside views, just outside the ritzy borders of nearby Evanston. The week Loyola heads to San Antonio for the Final Four, campus is relatively quiet. It’s not quite spring yet, and Easter break starts on Thursday, two days before the Ramblers’ next game. There are no such lightpost flags, and on the trip from the L tracks across Sheridan Road to campus, the only sign expressing support for Loyola hoops is in the hands of a woman protesting social justice inequities. The small bookstore in the student center is busy, a table of Final Four t-shirts crowding the entryway, but that’s all that’s even a little bit remarkable. The grand gestures are left for downtown; on campus, players tell stories of tests—Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Clayton Custer had one in a business class on Tuesday—and of being stopped repeatedly and told good luck. Still, Custer, a point guard, says he was able to focus and study in the library on Monday night. This year’s players have become celebrities on campus, but they’re still students—and in greater Chicago, they’re still relatively unknown.
On Wednesday afternoon, a video from Twitter user @Riley_counihan showed a bus driver instructing riders to cheer for Loyola—without knowing Custer was one of his passengers. This is the same Custer who said on a broadcast over the weekend that he’d been asked in an Atlanta hotel to take a photo of his teammates by a woman with no clue he was on the roster. It’s easy to imagine something similar unfolding in Chicago, where fans continue to come out of the woodwork every day. There hasn’t been a reason to dream of a championship—be it Loyola, Northwestern, DePaul, the Bulls—so late in the spring in several years, and if nothing else, the Ramblers are a great reason to head to the corner bar. If Chicago fans do one thing well, it’s drinking and watching sports, which beats complaining about the weather. It’s the perfect confluence: Loyola is a good time, and its story tugs at the hoops mania that’s ingrained in this place—plus, the Bulls are in the midst of a major rebuild. “I just know that Chicago takes pride in its basketball,” Williamson says, “and for me to be able to bring home a national championship for Chicago and show Chicago in a positive light, it’s an opportunity that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”
Williamson, a guard, didn’t choose Loyola because he thought his face would wind up on a billboard this spring. He’s still incredulous when friends and family text that they’ve passed his blown-up image on their way to work or to dinner. For now, at least, he and his team have become the face of Chicago, which is no small feat. It doesn’t matter that this is a generation of players who bought Jordan jerseys after he retired—or while he was a Wizard, even—or that they barely remember the University of Illinois’s last Final Four run, in 2005. They understand the legacy of basketball in their city, thanks in part to Moser, who was born and raised in the Chicago area attending Bulls, Blackhawks, Cubs and Bears games—and whom fans are hoping feels tied enough to the city that he won’t be lured away after this fairytale season. “I love the Chicago pride, and it’s really had a huge impact on me, seeing the last couple of days, videos of people and then the sincere alumni coming up with tears in their eyes, bear-hugging me,” he says. “Pride’s a powerful feeling, and it means a lot being from here.”
Moser has now signed three recruits from Chicago’s Public League, the athletic arm of the city’s underfunded public school district: Williamson, Ingram and Milton Doyle, who signed with the Nets after going undrafted last summer. Before Moser took over the Ramblers job in 2011, Loyola had barely any recruiting inroads among CPS programs, but seven years in, that’s changing. The Ramblers roster is studded with Chicago (and greater Illinois) talent, powered by players like Williamson who knew little about Loyola as children. For most players in the Chicago Public League, many of whom come from the city’s struggling south and west sides, the school is too far north, on the opposite side of the subway’s Red Line. But Moser—and this run—are changing that. For now, at least, Chicago has its basketball team, even if it’s the last one anyone would have expected.