COLUMN: Ayo The Hero - Illini Leader’s Courage Should Never Be Questioned

Matthew Stevens

By simply paying the least amount of attention at all, conclusions could and should already be reached about Ayo Dosunmu.

He has been blessed with immense talent. He is a late-game closer. He is the unquestioned leader of this 2019-20 version of Illinois basketball. His basketball intelligence is above the charts for a 20-year-old.

He had proven all of those qualities over time and specifically while dragging this Fighting Illini basketball program back to national relevance in this resurrection of a 2019-20 season.

Dosunmu put a big cross in another critical question box: Am I tough?

And maybe we should’ve known that already too but Tuesday night served as the final confirmation that this young man is part of a decades-long tradition of basketball talents who can be proud to call themselves ‘Chicago Tough’.

Less than a week ago, Dosunmu slipped and for a brief split-second saw his left leg bend and fold back behind his butt. Illinois head coach Brad Underwood stood and watched the player he identifies as his “Alpha” unable to get up on his power and needing to be carried into the State Farm Center unable to put any weight on his left leg. All of this happened just less than seven nights ago where a sold-out orange-clad crowd was silent in everything but their minds that were likely pronouncing the last rites for this Illini season.

Bedtime prayers showered the social media of Dosunmu and his entire family on that Feb. 11 night from desperate Illini fans that I imagine may have gone something like this: "Thank you for this daily bread, thank you for this roof over my head and please let Ayo’s leg heal fast. And if not, he can please have mine instead."

In a 15-point loss at Rutgers, Illinois looked like a group that was broken. It would’ve been a natural human reaction for them to look over to the visitor’s bench and see Dosunmu in a sweatsuit knowing they need their leader to come to save them. Why not? He already had done so in road wins at Wisconsin and Michigan already and there was a moment of long offensive constipation where Dosunmu’s ice-cold winning demeanor would’ve been perfect to counter Rutgers’ undefeated home streak.

And while I’m no medical professional or even a recent visitor of a Holiday Inn Express but you’ll get little argument from me that Dosunmu being forced to watch his teammates drown without him in New Jersey didn’t do wonders for his physical healing process.

Tuesday night’s win over a No. 9 Penn State, which had won eight in a row and was at that point the hottest Big Ten team, was a classic ‘Coach, I can walk so I can play’ game from Dosunmu. Did he look 100 percent healthy? No. You could tell the 6-foot-5 guard was being careful in the early minutes until you saw that step-back jumper resembling the late Kobe Bryant that Dosunmu has made a poster-worthy element of his game for his first two points. It was at that moment was when you knew Mr. “Day to Day” had found a locker room (they don’t have phone booths anymore), ripped off his sweatsuit and put on his No. 11 superhero costume because a hero was needed.

In a crossword puzzle clue of seven letters for “Chicago Tough” will always be answered with D-O-S-U-N-M-U in the same way six letters get answered with B-U-T-K-U-S or four letters get answered with D-E-O-N or three letters gets answered with D-E-E. 

If Illinois (17-9, 9-6 in Big Ten Conference) can find its groove that led to seven straight wins and a national ranking, what Ayo Dosunmu did in State College, Pennsylvania on a February night will likely be remembered as heroic. The scary thing for the rest of the Big Ten in this final month push of this revival season is maybe, just maybe, what this identified savior of Illini basketball did was a normal Tuesday night in a gym.