CHICAGO — Ayo Dosunmu is no stranger to culture change. From his three years at the University of Illinois to his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls, it’s an experience Dosunmu craves — the opportunity to set a tone and define an era of a team.
Thursday marked the end of one era for Dosunmu when Illinois retired his college jersey, recognizing the All-American and USA Today National Player of the Year for his role in lifting the team to three winning seasons and a Big Ten Tournament title.
In Chicago, Dosunmu is taking on the same challenge — helping to rebuild the legacy of his hometown team.
“To be a part of changing a culture, that’s something that’s very exciting,” Dosunmu said. “I look forward to doing it. That’s something I enjoy doing because it takes more than talent, it takes more than being able to execute X’s and O’s on the court.”
In his first months with the Bulls since they selected him with the 38th pick in the July draft, Dosunmu quickly became the sixth man who offers length and defensive tenacity while averaging 6.1 points and 1.2 assists. But his role is about more than just providing depth.
Dosunmu’s rookie year has been all about adaptability — fitting in with different rotations during the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s also about responsibility as the 21-year-old studies how to become a professional. Even as a rookie, he has taken on a role as a get-back man on the court, tugging away veteran teammates such as DeMar DeRozan to defuse conflict in high-emotion moments.
Building an unselfish identity for the Bulls has been a key focus for Dosunmu and his teammates throughout the season. Although coach Billy Donovan first etched that goal in training camp, Dosunmu said it has been followed by an intangible shift as the Bulls embarked on their November and December winning streaks.
“It’s something that you can’t see visibly but every day you just feel it when you come in the gym,” Dosunmu said.
Dosunmu molded himself into a leader at Illinois, with whom he finished 15th all time in points in three seasons while effectively reinstating the team’s place on the NCAA basketball map.
Dosunmu misses plenty about Champaign — although not the food, he admitted sheepishly, adding that he spent most of his meals at the on-campus Chipotle. But the rookie hasn’t let himself wander too far from his college roots, watching every game of the team’s first season without him.
That legacy followed Dosunmu to Chicago — even to Bulls practices. Donovan teased the rookie Thursday for the fact Illini coach Brad Underwood is leading his best start in Big 10 history despite the loss of Dosunmu, who chose to forego his senior season.
Although Dosunmu is the youngest player on the Bulls, Donovan said he felt confident in trusting the rookie after watching him grow with Underwood.
“Everything Brad and I talked about as it relates to Ayo, he was 100 percent on point in all the things he said he was — as a competitor and as a team guy and as a worker,” Donovan said.
At the United Center, it’s never a question when Dosunmu checks into a game. From the moment he lines up at the scorer’s table, the crowd begins a low, excited rumble. When the rookie jogs onto the court, he is greeted with one of the loudest cheers of the night.
Not even a year into his professional career, Dosunmu quickly has become a point of pride for fans.
“You can see when he comes into the game there’s obviously a lot of Illini alumni and fans here in Chicago,” Donovan said. “People are really proud of what he’s done and what he’s accomplished.”
Dosumnu already was keenly aware of the long and storied history of Chicago basketball.
He grew up with Illinois legend and longtime NBA guard Kendall Gill living next door to his aunt, offering advice and encouragement as he rose from a high school hotshot to an NBA hopeful. As an 11-year-old, Dosunmu glued himself to the TV to watch Chicago native Derrick Rose’s MVP season with the Bulls, one that emphasized to Dosunmu the tangibility of an NBA career for any city kid willing to put in the work.
After a childhood spent following local legends, Dosunmu is keenly aware of his role representing both Chicago and Illinois.
“I love to show love to those people. It’s a blessing,” Dosunmu said. “Every day I wake up and come here it’s a blessing, living my dream and doing what I love in my home city.”