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All part of the plan

Close-knit family doubles as Dosunmu's inner circle

  • 11 min to read
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CHAMPAIGN — A single video changed the course of the 2020-21 Illinois men’s basketball season. Raised the floor and ceiling of what the Illini might accomplish.

The 90-second video posted to Twitter on the final day of July ends with a simple phrase that caught the Illinois fan base up in a storm of possibilities. Year three.

Ayo Dosunmu was back.

How that video came together is just a small part of the story of how Dosunmu became the face of the Illinois basketball program.

How NBA dreams were put on hold one more time. And how Dosunmu has carefully crafted his image thanks to a group — solely comprised of his close-knit family — in pursuit of each successive goal.

Mostly, though, it was all part of a well-orchestrated plan.

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Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) is introduced in their NCAA basketball game at the State Farm Center in Champaign on Saturday, January 2, 2021.

Long-term thinking

Jamarra Dosunmu can still recite one of her mother’s sayings verbatim. Knows her sister can, too.

“You have a plan A, B, C, D, E, F and G,” Jamarra said. “You always plan for what might happen and what might happen after that and after that and after that.”

Then she joked that the only aspect in her life that wasn’t always planned was when she and husband Quam had their children. That timing on that, she said, was sometimes a surprise.

Then it was back to the plan. For all four kids. Sisters Joselynn and Khadijat and brothers Kube and Ayo. Where the family would live and why. Where the kids would go to school.

All planned with what was best for the family in mind.

“That’s something that has been instilled into all four of our children,” Jamarra said. “Ayo is the baby of four. I know everyone knows his siblings from going to the games. All of our children are successful in their prospective careers and education. Ayo’s just in the spotlight.

“Planning is probably at the premise of all things important. Everything we do is planned out. Nothing that we do is off the fly. It’s all very well planned out, very well mapped out. We’ve researched. None of it is we wake up and say, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ That’s not how we operate.”

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Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) in a NCAA basketball game at Welsh-Ryan Arena at Northwestern in Evanston on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2021.

All by design

So Ayo’s basketball career, of course, has come with a plan. From his move from Westinghouse to Morgan Park after his freshman season of high school basketball. Through the entirety of his college recruitment. From deciding to stay in-state and play at Illinois and then deciding — twice now — to return to Champaign in pursuit of some still-elusive goals.

There’s a reason the video announcing his return — the “year three” final moment — was preceded by Ayo outlining the NBA could wait while he helped Illinois pursue a national championship.

Basketball was always part of the plan. Quam was a coach. Ayo was always at his side.

“If you see Coach Q, Ayo’s only five steps behind him,” Quam said was what he heard from people all the time.

That was by design.

“It kept away the distraction,” Quam said. “It kept away the outside noise. We were able to focus on what we need to do just being very visible as a parent. Especially in Chicago where a lot of our boys play basketball, there’s a lot of wolves that want to take advantage. You have to be very visible in order to be successful.”

When Ayo made the commitment that basketball was his passion, that he wanted to pursue that as a career, then the plan just took another step.

“My thing was, ‘OK, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it the right way,’” Quam said he told his youngest son. “‘You’re going to be educated. You’re going to know the business aspect of it. You’re going to know the physical and mental aspect of it.’ I started preparing him for that.”

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Ayo Dosunmu receives a pregame massage from Illinois strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher before Thursday night’s game at Northwestern. This season, Dosunmu is leading the 12th-ranked Illini to heights the program hasn’t seen in some time, with the 6-foot-5 guard averaging a team-high 22.3 points along with 6.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists entering Sunday’s game against Maryland.

Support system

The Dosunmu family made Ayo’s path forward to professional basketball a family business. The 10-person group that makes up the inner circle is family. It’s Jamarra and Quam, their four kids, and then Jamarra’s sister and brother-in-law and Quam’s brother and sister-in-law.

That’s the group that was involved in 90-minute or two-hour long Zoom calls this past spring and summer as Ayo decided — with his family’s counsel — whether to return to Illinois for his junior season or keep his name in the 2020 NBA draft. They discussed the interviews he had with different NBA organizations and what would be the best path forward.

They all have a role. Ayo’s sisters are tuned in to social media and how to utilize it. One of his aunts has a public relations background, and his uncles are attorneys. Quam’s basketball background is key, too.

“We’re not a family of people who just love him,” Jamarra said. “These are things we’re all good at. Everybody has a part. We all play our part and come together and make it work.”

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Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) during their NCAA basketball game at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.

Stay or go?

That 10-person group was at the heart of getting the return video made. Well, both videos made. A second video declaring Ayo’s intent to pursue the NBA was shot at the same time. Just in case.

The video was shot less than 24 hours before it was released. Ayo’s concern, Jamarra said, was the longer both existed unreleased, the more likely it might be leaked. It also gave him a bit of a hard deadline to make his decision, which didn’t come until the hours before the video was released and his return was announced.

The video — or something like it — was deemed a necessity by Ayo’s inner circle. The same decision was made a year prior when he announced his “Unfinished Business” hashtag on Twitter in returning for his sophomore season with the Illini.

“There were many Zoom calls,” Jamarra said. “FaceTime calls. Text messages threads on different ideas. How do we do this? What’s something that hasn’t been done before? Without being too over hyped. We don’t want to be too simple, but unique. We didn’t want to do something crazy and outrageous. Didn’t want to drag it out, lead people on. Just like his recruitment. Real clean, easy, no drama.”

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Illinois signee Ayo Dosunmu of Chicago Morgan Park.

Keeping it simple

Ayo’s recruitment — particularly the end — was as “no fuss, no muss” as recruitments go. On a chilly October night in 2017, clad in a bright white “Block I” Illinois polo shirt, Ayo emerged from a back room inside the Jordan Brand store in downtown Chicago to some rather enthusiastic cheers from the nearly 100 people in attendance.

It was the epitome of a moment for the Illinois basketball program and a recruiting coup for still-new coach Brad Underwood. In-state recruiting — particularly in Chicago — had lagged in the John Groce era. Dosunmu’s decision to stay home reverberated throughout the state and the fan base.

Ayo made his decision clear. He picked Illinois not only to help return the program to the national college basketball conversation, but also for what it could mean about his own legacy.

A 17-year-old.

Thinking legacy.

“It’s real easy for guys to go to what has been the traditional power, let’s say, or the traditional school,” Underwood said. “To set out and have such a determined, narrow-minded goal to help your state university come back to greatness and to be a part of that and want to be the main cog in that? Wow, that’s pretty rare.”

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Ayo Dosunmu won two IHSA state championships at Morgan Park.

Being an ambassador

The way Ayo spoke about Illinois basketball as a program when he committed and the way he continued to do so at every turn when he could stay or go also caught the attention of former Illini, too.

Marcus Liberty understands what a Chicago high school basketball star choosing Illinois means. The former standout at Chicago King, who won News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year honors in 1987 and also Mr. Basketball accolades that same year, played two seasons with the Illini before a four-year NBA career.

To hear another Chicago kid with the same kind of drive decades later struck a chord.

“He knows the history of Chicago basketball and at the University of Illinois,” Liberty said. “He wants that. When you hear the kid speak, he knows he wants whatever comes with it. … He did say he came here to give that recognition back to the University of Illinois. I remember when he said it, and he did it.

“He has a cockiness about him, which you need. Every player needs that. He wants to take the big shots in the big games. He’s a winner. I’m just going to say it — a typical Chicago kid. The grind, the grit and never settling. That’s Ayo.”

Deon Thomas was still an assistant coach at Illinois-Chicago when Ayo was just starting his high school career.

“He popped up on my radar probably his freshman year,” said Thomas, the all-time leading scorer in Illinois history and former high school standout at Chicago Simeon. “A lot of it was talking about his maturity. A lot of that was talking about how hard he worked. Those same traits that are being labeled on him today.”

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Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) hits the game winning shot by shooting over Michigan’s guard Zavier Simpson (3) and leaving .5 seconds on the clock in Illinois win in a NCAA basketball game at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020.

One of the nation’s best

Ayo’s evolution into the face of the Illinois basketball program started day one his freshman year. Typical first-year struggles ensued — particularly early on in the 2018-19 season — but by the end of the season, he was the team’s leading scorer. The first freshman in program history to claim that honor.

The string of game-winning shots in 2019-20 further elevated Ayo’s status. Already sky high among Illinois fans, his name became consistently more known on the national stage. The decision to return for year three — with preseason All-American honors to boot — cemented Ayo’s status as one of the best players in the country.

“It means hard work — his dedication, his commitment,” Quam said. “All this was planned and executed. This was something Ayo wanted when he made the commitment and said, ‘Dad, I want to be a professional basketball player.’ The hard work, the training. It was our responsibility to get him there. Right now, it’s just his hard work paying off.”

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Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili, left, and guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) are swarmed by fans after the team's NCAA college basketball game against Michigan State in Champaign, Ill., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. Illinois won 79-74.

Embracing notoriety

The 2020-21 season is different, of course. Fans don’t have the same type of access they used to, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forcing games to happen in mostly empty arenas. The autograph seekers, fans ready to snap a quick selfie, would have been out in force. Even more so than in previous years, which Ayo ultimately grew to embrace.

Just not at first. Not as a teenager in the bright lights of the basketball world that is the city of Chicago.

Jamarra has no trouble remembering back to a time early in Ayo’s high school career. He was already known on the basketball scene. A simple wish to get in a workout at the Quest Multisport complex proved anything but.

“He walked through and there was some type of tournament for young kids going on,” Jamarra said. “They saw him, and they all flocked to him. They all flocked to the workout room that was all glass windows. He was sitting there with his towel on his face. My husband said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he was like, ‘Dad, I just want to work out. I really don’t want this attention.’

“We told him that was the beginning. Dude, you can’t not acknowledge these babies. They’re admiring you like you would be admiring Kobe (Bryant) or Derrick Rose if he was in the gym. This comes with it.”

That was a moment where Ayo, who is a bit shy by nature according to his mom, started to open up. He embraced his fans. Embraced signing autographs and taking photos with kids.

“It’s been a very rewarding progression for me, as a mom, to see him open up and be excited about it,” Jamarra said. “Even when we’re out. When I took him back to school and we were shopping in Wal-Mart, I understand when people say, ‘I just want to walk in Wal-Mart.’

“Every single person that came up to him and said, ‘Can I have a picture, can I have an autograph?’ he didn’t hesitate. He was like, ‘Ma, this is what it is. If I don’t want to deal with this, I’d order it to be delivered to me.’”

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Ayo Dosunmu gets fired up during the starting lineup introductions before Illinois played Chicago State on Nov. 26 at State Farm Center in Champaign. Dosunmu is the Illini’s best player this season and potential first-round pick in the 2021 NBA draft, but the 20-year-old has also built up his brand — from his social media savvy to how he handles interacting with fans in public — with the help of his close-knit family. ‘Everybody has a part,’ said Jamarra Dosunmu, Ayo’s mother.

Building a brand

There could come a time — perhaps in the near future — where college athletes could benefit financially off their popularity. Multiple states are pursuing legislation to allow for college athletes to profit on their own name, image and likeness, which could ultimately force the NCAA’s hand.

Ayo, of course, will be long gone from Illinois by the time that happens. The potential for what NIL rights would have meant to him, though, is notable.

Dustin Maguire, who played college basketball at Saint Louis and Northern Kentucky and is now a lawyer, has taken an interest in NIL rights as they might apply to college athletes. While he practices family law in Edwardsville, Maguire has also created a company that would provide legal and marketing services for college athletes.

Maguire sees Dosunmu as someone who could have benefited from having those NIL rights. That includes his followers on social media, but is tied more to the fact that he’s a two-time IHSA state champion and Chicago native that stayed home to play at Illinois. The former would have provided some endorsement opportunities. The latter would have put him in “high demand” for camps, clinics, youth training lessons, autographs and personal appearances.

“Even though he is a national level player, for Ayo, what he could do with his NIL rights here in Illinois is the story,” Maguire said. “He is a good example of what is possible for nationally-rated recruits who are considering staying in state to attend the University of Illinois. Too many great Chicago high school basketball players have gone out of state to join programs like Duke and Kansas. Illini basketball fans should be excited about the future of their program in the ‘NIL era.’”

Ayo wields social media more as a tool. He doesn’t regularly post on either Twitter or Instagram — especially during the season — but he has more than 60,000 followers combined on the two platforms. It’s there he posted his video announcing his return to Illinois last summer.

“Ayo is not a big social media fan in the sense of a million followers on Instagram,” Quam said. “He doesn’t get into all that. Realistically, he’s not a social-media type of person. He’s a blue collar, I want to work, get my job done person. If you put my highlight on, that’s fine, I like it. If you talk about me, I like it. He’s not chasing clout. He’s just doing his job. That’s how I look at it.”

Careful use of social media has helped forge the brand around Ayo. It’s something Thomas wishes he had in his playing days for that purpose. Even minimal use has allowed a glimpse into who he is for Illinois fans.

“From the time he was making his choice to come to Illinois to the statement he made about why he came to Illinois to his decision to come back to Illinois, he’s put it all out there for people to see,” Thomas said. “It’s really a family unit. They’ve built a brand around their family. All I could say is I wish when I was coming along I had that same kind of support. It’s amazing the way that family unit is.”

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The family of Illinois guard Ayo Dosnumu — shown on the videoboard at State Farm Center in Champaign on Thursday — introduces him before Thursday’s game against Chicago State.

The family business

The Dosunmu family has missed out on nearly half of year three. All but one of Illinois’ games has been played without fans. Tough for a group that has made up a fairly serious travel party — and filled a small section at State Farm Center almost on their own — the past two years.

The support, though, is still there. The plan is in place anyhow, which has Ayo on the precipice of the next step of his basketball career.

“It’s been really rewarding,” Jamarra said. “To know young Ayo and see 20-year-old Ayo is like night and day.”

“This is our family business now,” Quam added. “We have to approach it and take it like that. Just not for Ayo, but for my younger nephews and nieces coming up in sports or want to be attorneys or want to be in the business world. We take this seriously.”

It shows in how Ayo has attacked every stage of his Illinois career with the NBA as the goal at the end. How he worked to shore up his weakness. How he worked to become a leader.

“When you have an opportunity to meet the young guy, an opportunity to talk to him or interview him, you see how he portrays himself and handles himself,” Thomas said. “Then when you look at his family, pull the covers back and see how supportive they are of the him and of the athletic program in general, then you really see how he has cemented himself. He’s become a household name — especially for Illini fans.”

{p class=”card-about”}Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).