When Billy Donovan arrived home from the Advocate Center on Tuesday, he flipped on the TV to catch Illinois playing at Minnesota.
Donovan, as he does with many in the coaching fraternity, goes way back with Illinois coach Brad Underwood.
“I had heard that that was the best start in the Big 10 for Brad,” Donovan said following Illinois’ victory that pushed them to 3-0 in the conference.
So of course, Donovan had a playful question for rookie Ayo Dosunmu at Wednesday’s Chicago Bulls practice.
“I asked him why he couldn’t help (Underwood) get off to a better start last year,” Donovan cracked.
The joke landed, because Dosunmu's decorated collegiate career is well-documented. On Thursday night, Illinois will honor him before its game against Maryland in Champaign, placing him in the school’s “honored jerseys” program.
Dosunmu, who averaged 20.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists last season and earned first-team All-American, Bob Cousy point guard of the year and USA Today national player of the year honors, will be the 34th player in school history to have his jersey in the rafters.
“I’m excited,” Dosunmu said. “That’s a dream come true. Being a kid in Chicago, your jersey retired in the banners forever in my home state, that’s very exciting.”
The rookie has carved out a spot in Donovan’s rotation with many of the same traits that defined his three seasons while playing for Underwood. Tough, physical defense, the fortitude take and sometimes make big shots, and an ability to be unfazed by big challenges.
“Brad and I after the draft talked a lot about Ayo and Brad’s got an enormous amount of respect for him,” Donovan said. “Everything Brad and I talked about as it relates to Ayo, he was 100 percent on point in all the things he says he was as a competitor and as a team guy and as a worker.
“Obviously, Brad and the people there did a great job. And obviously he comes from a great family to have the kind of character and the kind of person that he is besides the basketball player. So he’s had a lot of really good influences.”
Two of them, in varying ways, are Kendall Gill and Derrick Rose, according to Dosunmu. The former is another Illinois great — and current NBC Sports Chicago analyst — who also has his number in the honored jerseys program. The other stirred this city’s basketball passion by winning most valuable player and leading the Bulls to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals.
Dosunmu said Gill is neighbors with his aunt and offered him tips about how to be a professional during a draft process that watched him unexpectedly drop to the second round — and his hometown franchise.
As for Rose, Dosunmu was a fan like so many in Chicago.
“The excitement he brought to the league, it was something you had to be here to witness,” he said. “When you play video games and you see LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul and all those great players, and you realize, ‘Wow, we have one of those guys right here in front of us.’ It made us enjoy what he did for the city. It was a very good thing to watch.”
Dosunmu added that “it’s crazy” how those Rose-era Bulls produced the best records in the Eastern Conference and that’s where these current Bulls sit, at least for now. In that way, the rookie said his experience at Illinois is similar to his rookie NBA season.
“When I came into the program, we weren’t very good record-wise. But we had the culture,” Dosunmu said. “So to be a part of changing the culture is something that’s very exciting. That’s something you look forward to and enjoy doing because it takes more than just talent or executing Xs and Os. I felt I was a big piece of that. I accepted that challenge.
“[The Bulls’ success] is very exciting. Just being a part of a culture change, that’s something you love to do. It’s something you can’t see visibly. But every day you just feel it when you come in the gym and you watch film or play those games. Eight (victories) in a row here. The culture Coach Billy established back in training camp, to see guys buying into it and seeing us get success is very encouraging.”
Dosunmu said he watches every Illinois game he can and stays in close contact with his former teammates and coaches. With his ties to that program and the number of alumni living in Chicago, as well as Dosunmu’s hometown ties, he quickly has become a fan favorite.
Loud ovations greet Dosunmu at every United Center check-in.
“A lot of people here recognize me and I love to show love to those people,” Dosunmu said. “It’s a blessing. Every day I wake up and come here, I feel blessed. I’m doing what I love in my dream, in my home state, in my home city.
“When I go out to restaurants, I always try to show love to pretty much anybody I see. I always be polite because that one interaction I have with one person could be a life-changer.”