Dawn of a New Era in DePaul Basketball
Nov. 15, 2017
CHICAGO – They gathered from all corners of DePaul nation---former players and diehard fans, true-blue administrators and passionate supporters from all walks of life---to celebrate and rejoice in the dawn of a new era in Blue Demon basketball.
The festive and emotion-filled special occasion was the opening game of the brand-new Wintrust Arena last Saturday against longtime rival No. 14/14 Notre Dame.
But this went far beyond what one NBA scout called the best college basketball game of the day.
For people like Wintrust fundraising chair Dan Ustian, DePaul super fan and magnanimous donor Joni Phillips, ex-Blue Demons David Booth and Stephen Howard, their coach Joey Meyer, DePaul Athletics Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto, men's basketball coach Dave Leitao and women's basketball coach Doug Bruno---this was the moment all their hard work and sacrifice transformed a hopeful dream into a beautiful, glistening reality.
It really didn’t matter that DePaul came up short against one of the nation’s top teams. Those loyalists along with the other 10,188 fans that filled up Wintrust Arena came away realizing they were now a part of a basketball genesis.
“It’s electrifying and kind of hard to describe in words,” Ustian said. “What a great arena and the start of something special. The feeling today is even better than we all thought it would be.
“Bob Janis (DePaul vice-president), Jeanne--it’s unbelievable what these people have done to design a place like no other. I brought 40 friends and associates to the Chicago concert last week and brought 40 different people to the game.
“Every single one of them were amazed. And then they got to see the talent on our team.”
As much as junior guard Eli Cain wanted to score the first basket in the new facility after scoring the final basket at Allstate Arena, it was sophomore Devin Gage who went down in history with DePaul’s first field goal. There were times throughout the game when Gage, who led Public League power Curie to a state title, exhibited the fearlessness that defines Chicago point guards.
“I had to get it before Eli did,” Gage said with a laugh. “We were down by five, needed a basket and the shot clock was winding down. So, I drove the lane for a layup.
“I didn’t realize it was the first basket ever at Wintrust because I was in the moment. When I look back, it’s pretty amazing to be a part of history.”
Phillips was on her feet roaring her approval after Cain’s double-pump reverse layup tied the game 22-22 four minutes before halftime.
“This is unique, fantastic, and the crowd is awesome,” she said. “There is such an energy in the building. It feels like home and the return of a great tradition.
“I am so proud of Jeanne and so many others who have worked so hard to build this---the university administration, DePaul athletics, the MPEA (Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority) and the city of Chicago. This is a new beginning that is going to make everyone proud again.”
Booth is the second-leading scorer all-time with 1,993 points and led the Blue Demons to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances during his run in Lincoln Park form 1988 to 1992.
“This is the beginning of a new chapter in the book of DePaul and the day everyone has been waiting for,” said Booth, the director of player personnel for the New Orleans Pelicans. “It’s really exciting to see what the future holds, and it totally brings back memories of what it was like when I played.”
Those were the days when Booth, Stephen Howard, Terry Davis and Melvon Foster played before raucous partisan crowds in Rosemont and could match up with anyone on the collegiate landscape.
“I’ll never forget the time we upset Georgetown who had Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo,” Booth said. “Coach Joey had us practicing against teammates who were using broomsticks to block our shots.
“Seeing all these DePaul guys---Stephen Howard, Melvon Foster, Tommy Kleinschmidt, Howard Nathan and others---we still have that bond of a brotherhood.”
Howard, a well-respected basketball TV analyst, said he can’t wait to see the impact Wintrust Arena will have on the surrounding community and beyond.
“It’s going to rejuvenate the South Loop, the city of Chicago and DePaul University,” said Howard, No. 8 on the all-time scoring list with 1,691 points. “All the people I talk to from Chicago want the Blue Demons to be relevant again.
“From what I can see, this is a good group for that. There is an elevated athleticism on the team. We were down by just four at halftime to the No. 14 team in the country, and that tells you our defense is something you can hang your hat on. That can help sustain you on the nights when your shooting is off.
“I saw the increased threat of the three-point shot by Max Strus. Once he gets it going, it is going to be quite a weapon for DePaul. There’s a lot of pride in this beautiful facility, and all the former players who built a tradition are a part of this new building.”
Opening Day for Meyer was like old home week as he re-lived the fun times of coaching guys like Booth and Howard.
“It was fun to see all my former players and it brought back a lot of great memories,” said Meyer who succeeded his father, the legendary Ray Meyer and guided DePaul to seven NCAA tournament appearances. “You see what a beautiful building this is and wish you had been able to coach and play in it. Everyone on scout row was impressed with the new arena.
“As exciting as the new arena is, you’ve got to win. Despite the outcome Saturday, this was still one heck of a start. There’s a feeling that DePaul is on its way up.”
And when the Blue Demons ascend to the top of the mountain, the driving force behind the resurgence will simply sit back and smile.
“It was great to see the heart of DePaul, so many former men’s and women’s basketball players and alumni from other sports along with longtime season ticketholders and some who have come back into the fold,” Ponsetto said. “Everyone came together with our faculty and staff to celebrate this historic moment in DePaul athletics history.
“This was the culmination of many years anticipating when that moment would come when we would once again have our own facility in the city. I’m really grateful to Notre Dame coach Mike Brey for recognizing and appreciating the longtime rivalry between DePaul and Notre Dame and wanting to be a part of it.”
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