COLUMN: Illini Fans Know They’ve Already Said Goodbye To Ayo

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- For the most part, fans of University of Illinois athletics cladded in orange and blue either in State Farm Center or around a television across the country, knew what the whole experience of March 8th was.

It was goodbye.

Sure, it was a Senior Day celebration and he wasn’t one of them, but that whole day was a goodbye from fans toward Ayo Dosunmu.

Before we all embarked on a COVID-19 world centered on confusion, isolationism, fear and unfortunately, death, Dosunmu wasn’t ever going to play one more single second of basketball in Champaign. After showcasing his skills in the Big Ten Conference Tournament and NCAA Tournament, Dosunmu was headed to the NBA. And it would be a glorious sight to see for all involved. 

The unfortunate result of the coronavirus on sports since mid-March has resulted in Dosunmu never having a proper national stage while representing his home state, home school and home fans. And that is absolutely frustrating. It’s also not a reason to pause the next stage of your life.

The uncertainty of the sports landscape and calendar did create this possibility Dosunmu would return to Illinois for his junior season. And Dosunmu’s announcement Wednesday night included the fact he’s not signed with an agent.

However, his language, whether in his announcement or his interview with Yahoo! Sports reporter Jon Rothstein, certainly doesn’t sound like a young man thinking about enrolling in fall semester classes. When Dosunmu says he’s “100 percent locked in”, it would take monumental news to get him to change his mind. This is a young man who was “locked in” on turning around an Illini program and he did it. He was “locked in” while calling and speaking during that early-season, players-only meeting that changed the momentum of the 2019-20 campaign. Trust me, Illini fans, if there is a 2020 NBA Draft that takes place, Dosunmu is “locked in” on being a player selected in it.

So, following a 78-76 win over Iowa in the regular season finale on March 8, which would turn out to be the final college basketball game for both teams, Dosunmu went to center court of the State Farm Center to acknowledge a standing ovation. Illini fans knew in unison that moment was about finding a way to say one thing to the player that had led once again a reestablishment of this program as a national brand in the college basketball landscape.

They were saying goodbye. And had smiles and possibly tears on their faces while doing it.

Brad Underwood, the coach who started the journey of taking Illini basketball out of the wilderness and back into the promised land with the signing of the highly-coveted Chicago product, knew what the moment was. He knew it was goodbye.

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Illinois head coach Brad Underwood knew after the 78-76 win over Iowa on March 8 that he'd likely coached Ayo Dosunmu for the last time in State Farm Center.Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The sophomore star gave a huge man-hug to his head coach and then did a lap around the playing surface to acknowledge the fans. And as I witnessed this whole thing, I KNEW what it was. I knew it was a goodbye. And one hell of a special one it was. Dosunmu acknowledged what this fan base meant to him and his family and attempted to reciprocate the appreciation as well.

In what was an unorganized moment by a student fan section of emotion that bled into nearly the entire crowd staying around their seats, Illinois fans will never get to say “you know, we didn’t give Ayo a proper sendoff”.

Illinois’ three-lettered hero is now headed to the three-letter league. Message received and appreciated. 

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