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With or without the mask, you’ll soon know Ayo Dosunmu

The Illinois guard withdrew from the 2020 NBA draft to come back and improve his game

Author Marty Rubin penned the following phrase:

“Behind every mask, there is a face, and behind that a story.”

Living through the global pandemic, masks are essential for protection. Before 2020, masks were prominent accessories at Halloween parties or masquerade balls. Superheroes in comic books sport masks to conceal their identity from the general public.

In basketball, wearing a mask prevents further facial injuries. For Ayo Dosunmu, a black mask increased his influential persona in college basketball.

The Illinois Fighting Illini junior received a facial injury at the end of February after taking a hard foul from Michigan State Spartans freshman Mady Sissoko. Dosunmu returned for Illinois’ season finale against the Ohio State Buckeyes wearing the black facial gear.

The injury, the mask, the new appearance didn’t hinder Dosunmu’s stellar play on the court. In a contested game where the Illini defeated the Buckeyes 73-68, Dosunmu played 36 minutes, putting up 19 points. With the game tied at 68, the masked guard drove to the rim with ferocity, forcing the and-1 to give Illinois the go-ahead basket.

Fast-forward to the Big Ten championship game, with Illinois and Ohio State squaring off once again, and Dosunmu iced the contest for the Illini. He converted two free throws in the final seconds, part of his 16 points, paving the way for Illinois’ 91-88 Big Ten championship victory.

Dosunmu calls himself the “Masked Mamba,” a play on “The Black Mamba,” the nickname his idol Kobe Bryant created for himself. With his new facial gear, he channels Bryant’s competitive spirit. But Dosunmu doesn’t need a mask to prove his worth. He is a gifted athlete looking to bring a national championship to a city and state with historic ties to basketball.

“It’s hard to find anybody that works harder than him,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “When the game is on the line, he goes and makes every play. All of a sudden you look and he’s got 19.” 

‘I say what I mean and do what I say’

Drive around metropolitan Chicago and it’s impossible not to see public basketball courts filled with players. The city boasts more than 150 courts in its neighborhoods, giving kids a chance to hoop with their friends, dreaming of progressing up the basketball ranks.

As the subway zooms along the track, one-on-one battles take place at Clybourn (Archibald) Park. Or drive to Foster Avenue Beach Court, where larger pickup games take place, against the backdrop of Lake Michigan and Chicago’s city skyline. Basketball is forever entrenched in the heartbeat of Chicago’s vibrant history and culture.

Quamdeen “Ayo” Dosunmu was born in Chicago, two years removed from Michael Jordan’s sixth and final NBA championship with the Bulls. Thanks to the Bulls’ dynasty in the 1990s, basketball’s popularity increased across the city, permeating Chicago’s colleges and high schools.

Dosunmu entered this world, in the Windy City, at a perfect time. He is a descendant of the Yoruba people and his parents, Quam and Jamarra, immigrated to Chicago from Nigeria, seeking a better life for their family.

In the Yoruba language, the word “Ayo” means immense joy (pronounced “aa-y-o”). His parents’ name for their son was prophetic, given his joy and enthusiasm on the court.

For Dosunmu, family is central to his success. No job, no extenuating circumstance prevents Quam, Jamarra and siblings Joselynn, Khadijat and Kube from attending his games.

Family love makes up the fabric of the Yoruba culture. Dosunmu embraces his family’s support, which fuels his desire to play professional basketball.

“They’ve been with me through thick and thin, through the hard times to the best times,” Dosunmu said. “They push me each and every day to be the best player I can be, on and off the court. Their support on me definitely has helped me be the player I am.”

“The family is all in,” Underwood said. “He’s very committed to becoming the best player he can be. His family is very supportive and they do it in a positive and reinforcing way.” 

Dosunmu made his way up through the ranks in Chicago high school basketball, starting at Westinghouse College Prep. He attracted attention when he put up 40 points against Crane High School his freshman year.

When Dosunmu transferred to Morgan Park High School, his status as a top recruiting prospect soared. The Mustangs basketball team is a model for success in Chicago: nine consecutive regional championships (2011-19), three-time public league champions and winners of the IHSA championship five times.

The first thing I said to him was, ‘Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?’ Ayo said, ‘I want to be great.’ ”

Coach Nick Irvin

Nick Irvin, who coached Dosunmu at Morgan Park, remembers the energy and swagger the youngster brought to the team.

“He wanted to be a part of something special,” Irvin said. “He wanted to be a part of winning a state championship. The first thing I said to him was, ‘Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?’ Ayo said, ‘I want to be great.’ ”

Irvin said that for Dosunmu to be great, he needed to put in the work and be prepared for the tough times. This resulted in Dosunmu spending countless hours in the Morgan Park gym, and he not only became an elite scorer, but also a tough defender against the best players.

Irvin remembers Dosunmu in his junior year when he led the Morgan Park Mustangs to the Class 3A state championship. But in the semifinals, Dosunmu suffered an ankle injury, knocking him out of the championship game.

Despite not playing, Dosunmu never lost faith that he’d get his team back to this point. 

“He said, ‘I’m going to get us back down and win it again,’ ” Irvin remembered. “I said, ‘Man, it’s a big state.’ He said, ‘I say what I mean and do what I say.’ ”

Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (center) celebrates after being named tournament MVP after defeating Ohio State in overtime in an NCAA college basketball championship game at the Big Ten Conference tournament on March 14 in Indianapolis.

Michael Conroy/AP Photo

The following season, in Dosunmu’s senior year, the Mustangs became state champions once again. Dosunmu put up 28 points, an IHSA championship game record, a testament to his ability to focus the adversity of the previous year into coming back a better player.

“I always gave him this look,” Irvin said. “Come on, man, it’s go time. And Ayo said, ‘Let’s go win it.’ He put on an exhibition that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”

Dosunmu’s senior-year performance at Morgan Park earned him trips to compete in the Jordan Brand Classic at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, and the Iverson Roundball Classic All-American Game in Philadelphia. Playing among the best high school prospects in the country, Dosunmu wasn’t fazed by the spotlight. He thrived in it, earning consensus first-team all-state selection from the major national and Chicago newspapers.

Playing in these showcases allowed Dosunmu to prove again why Chicago is still a hotbed of promising young talent.

“Everybody wants to be a part of winners, not losers,” Irvin said. “Ayo is a phenomenal basketball player. If he wants to be mentioned with Michael Jordan and all the great ones, you got to do great things. And that’s what he’s doing right now.” 

An impact player from the start

Dosunmu elected to stay close to home, playing for the University of Illinois. He entered when the program was looking to return to its winning ways of the 2000s, when the Illini made nine NCAA tournament appearances, including the 2005 national championship game against North Carolina.

In his freshman year with Illinois, Dosunmu made an immediate impact, averaging 13.8 points and 3.3 assists per game, earning All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors. But the Illini finished with a 12-21 record, one of the worst in the program’s history.

That summer, Underwood and his staff recruited center Kofi Cockburn to bolster the team’s interior presence. Coupled with Dosunmu’s guard play, Illinois rebounded with a 21-10 record. The Illini looked to qualify for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013. However, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the college basketball season in 2020, ending Illinois’ chances for a deep tournament run.

Initially declaring for the 2020 NBA draft, Dosunmu withdrew, electing to come back for his junior year to increase his market value. The decision paid off; Dosunmu averaged 20.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game on 48.8% shooting from the field. Not only is Dosunmu a prolific shooter, but his court vision in transition is superb, creating offense for his teammates. He had 9 assists against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.

The Illini enter the NCAA tournament as one of the four No. 1 seeds, winning 14 of their last 15 games. The team is showing its ability to play a complete brand of basketball with Dosunmu as one of its leaders. Not only is the junior guard producing on the court, but he is displaying effective leadership away from the game with his teammates.

“He puts countless hours in the gym. I try to mock that because I see what he’s doing in the NCAA,” Illinois freshman point guard André Curbelo said. “Putting all that work in, it’s definitely going to pay off. Being a freshman, you can learn so much from him.” 

Senior Trent Frazier also recognizes Dosunmu’s impact on the program the last two years.

Illinois Fighting Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu is announced before the men’s Big Ten tournament game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on March 12 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

 “He’s not only unstoppable on offense, but he’s turning to that guy on defense, diving after loose balls, rebounding tremendously every game. He’s doing whatever it takes to help his team win,” Frazier said. 

As the college basketball world descends on Indiana, Dosunmu will be one of the standout players to watch in the tournament. With his family cheering in the stands, Dosunmu looks to play with pride for Chicago and Illinois, both of which have given the young prospect a chance to play the sport he loves.

“This is everything that I wish for,” Dosunmu said. “To go out there and try to win a national championship, being from Chicago, it’s an unreal feeling. I try to focus on the moment and embrace it. I’m going to look back and say this was a memorable season. I want to end it out on a bang.”

As the Masked Mamba dons his black mask ahead of Friday’s opening-round game against Drexel, the big stage won’t be too uncomfortable for him.

As Coach Underwood says, “That’s what he’s built for.”

Lukas Weese is a multiplatform sports journalist based in Toronto, Canada. Passionate about sports and storytelling, Lukas has bylines in USA Today, Toronto Star, Complex, Yahoo Sports, Sportsnet, The Hockey News, GOLF Magazine and Raptors Republic.