By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) So, big-time college basketball looks to finally be coming back to the Windy City.
Or, at least, DePaul basketball is.
But no matter how you view the caliber of Blue Demons hoops, the fact is, if reports of DePaul returning to play its games in Chicago — following three decades of self-imposed suburban exile — are indeed true, that’s great news for basketball fans throughout the city.
My only question: Is the news as great for DePaul students as it should be?
Last Friday at the Chicago College Basketball Luncheon, DePaul coach Oliver Purnell told the audience, “I’m very pleased that there are serious discussions about DePaul basketball being moved into the confines of Chicago,” according to Crain’s.
Those discussions reportedly include the possibility of constructing a new 15,000-seat arena in the South Loop near McCormick Place, sharing the United Center with the Chicago Bulls, or building a new arena near the UC that could also double as the Bulls’ practice facility.
What the discussions don’t appear to currently include, however, are talks to build a new arena within walking distance of DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus.
And, in my scorebook, that’s a bummer.
At the luncheon on Friday, Purnell also went on to add, “facilities are important. (Players) want to play on television, they want to play in great facilities. There are a lot of great players from this area … and we want to be Chicago’s team.”
Despite still staking that claim, the Blue Demons really haven’t been Chicago’s team since 1980. That was when, just one year removed from reaching the Final Four in 1979 behind the play of Mark Aguirre the coaching of legendary Ray Meyer, DePaul abandoned the 5,308-seat Alumni Hall on campus in Lincoln Park and moved its games 15 miles away to the 17,500-seat Rosemont Horizon, now known as Allstate Arena.
By uprooting its city connections, DePaul began to lose Chicago’s imagination. And after an abysmal 3-23 season in 1996-97 after which coach Joey Meyer – Ray’s son – was fired, the team began to lose the city’s attention completely.
These days, the Blue Demons don’t even really play in Rosemont. Rather, they languish there. And, meanwhile, in Chicago, college hoops fans languish in the city.
Remarkably enough, you cannot find a true major college basketball game anywhere in Chicago unless the Big Ten Tournament is in town (it returns in 2013) or the University of Illinois is hosting its one non-conference game a year at the United Center.
Loyola, UIC, University of Chicago and Chicago State don’t count. And Northwestern, despite its claims to be “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” is still located up in Evanston.
In June, for a story for ChicagoSideSports.com entitled “Dear DePaul: It’s Time To Bring Big-Time College Basketball Back To Chicago,” I visited the school’s Lincoln Park campus to investigate this bizarre dearth of city hoops options in a hoops-mad city.
And I found that while DePaul’s absence from the city sports scene has hurt interest among Chicago’s basketball fans, it’s been far more destructive on campus. There, student enthusiasm for Blue Demons basketball is nearly dead.
Danny DeCicco, a 21-year-old DePaul junior – and big basketball fan – told me, “I’ve been to one game. In three years.” He and his friend Joe Laskero, a 22-year-old senior, explained that most DePaul students simply don’t have the time, let alone the interest, to take the school’s free student fan bus all the way out to Allstate Arena – especially to watch a bad basketball team.
“People joke about it,” Laskero said. “They joke all the time how no one goes to games.”
But, Laskero also added, students would if DePaul played its games closer to campus, saying: “There would definitely be a better fan culture.”
According to the Sun-Times, DePaul has investigated at least two Lincoln Park sites for its arena: Finkl Steel at 2011 N. Southport and Morton Salt at 1357 N. Elston.
However, the community’s alderman, Michele Smith (43rd), has said DePaul has not consulted her on any new site, prompting the Sun-Times report, “an indication the two properties are not being actively pursued.” And I find that disappointing.
I understand, of course, that an arena near McCormick Place could increase overall activity near the convention center. I see how the Bulls and Blue Demons partnering up could certainly be a boon for both parties. And I know that playing games anywhere in the city as opposed to Rosemont would clearly elevate the fan convenience.
But I also think DePaul’s school spirit could use a serious boost. And I hope that when it comes time for the university to make its big basketball decision that it keeps its students top of mind.
And doesn’t just pass the ball over their heads.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.