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CHICAGO — Even after Ayo Dosunmu finished the phone call he had waited all night to receive, his facial expression remained stoic. He was surrounded by approximately 200 friends and family members packed into a watch party at the Bracket Room in Chicago, and they had been waiting all night for their cue to celebrate.
“You’re staying home,” his agent had told him on a phone call, but he had to make sure it was official.
Perhaps sitting around for more than three hours, like the wait Dosunmu endured before his name was called during Thursday’s NBA draft, would give anyone reason for caution. But when the news finally flashed across the TV — that the Chicago Bulls selected Dosunmu with the No. 38 overall pick — the group erupted in a frenzy.
Dosunmu — a Chicago native who starred at Chicago's Morgan Park High School and led the Illini to the Big Ten Tournament title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season — had hoped to be a first-round pick, but that disappointment faded quickly after getting selected by his hometown team.
“You can’t plan this. This is a dream come true,” Dosunmu said. “To be able to play in my home state. There’s not 37 people better than me. I got a list already. But I’m blessed to be able to play for the Chicago Bulls, the team I watched growing up.”
Dosunmu, 21, considered entering the draft a year ago before he returned to Illinois for his junior season. He became a fan favorite in Champaign after leading the Illini to their most successful season since 2005 as a consensus first-team All-American and winner of the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard.
He averaged 20.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 39% on 3-pointers during his junior year, and his versatile game attracted the Bulls, who are searching for help at point guard.
“We interviewed him during the combine and found out how big of a Chicago Bulls fan he is,” said Bulls vice president Artūras Karnišovas on a videoconference call Thursday night. “We didn’t think he’d be there at 38, so it was kind of exciting to see him still up there. It was a long wait, but it was worth it.”
The wait felt even longer inside the Bracket Room.
Several mock drafts had Dosunmu projected as a mid-to-late first-round pick and he gathered family members and friends — all decked out in black and white — from every aspect of his life to celebrate the occasion.
The Dosunmus are a large, but tight-knit family, and Ayo is the youngest of six children. Illinois coach Brad Underwood and a few of his former Illini teammates, including center Kofi Cockburn, made the trip from Champaign to watch. High school teammates from Morgan Park and the AAU circuit were also in attendance. Displayed prominently throughout the night — on balloons, and T-shirts — was the hashtag #JL4L, a homage to his friend Darius Brown, who was killed by gun violence at 13. Even Chance the Rapper, who connected with Dosunmu after a game this past season, came through to show his support.
“Everybody here touched his life,” said his father, Quam Dosunmu. “Whether it’s immediate family, coaches, deans, teachers, everybody here, we all connected. Every last one of us. This is love.”
But as the picks continued to go by, an uneasy and nervous energy settled into the air. Quam, who admitted he experienced stress headaches Sunday, stood in the same spot for hours, his hand rested on a booth and his eyes fixed on the TV screen.
At one point near the start of the second round, a baby picture of Dosunmu flashed across the broadcast and the crowd exploded, so desperate for something to cheer for it took a moment for everyone to realize he had not actually been drafted yet.
Dosunmu’s expression throughout the night, however, remained calm and unchanged. Afterward, he said he knew patience would be key for this experience. Perhaps he was already making mental notes; he noted several times during a Zoom call with reporters that he did not think he was the 38th-best player in the draft.
“I know I’m a first-round talent,” he said. “But you can’t (ever know) what God has planned for you. And God wanted me to play for my city. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m embracing it. I’m grateful. I’m thankful to be in this position I’m in now. Now it’s just about getting to work.”
Karnišovas did not want to go into detail about the team’s plans for the offseason after the draft on Thursday night, but the Bulls could be set for some major roster overhauls between now and the start of next season. The team has been connected to several point guards with free agency set to begin next week, so they could still be seeking a veteran upgrade at that position.
Karnišovas did not want to place any expectations on Dosunmu right away. But after three years in college, Dosunmu could have an opportunity to contribute right away to the back of the Bulls’ rotation.
“He’s going to come here with a chip on his shoulder,” Karnišovas said. “Like I said, we didn’t expect him to be available at 38. I’m sure he was expecting to go higher. So he’s going to be motivated to come and work hard here.”
When he suits up next year, Dosunmu will become the 21st player in history born in the city of Chicago to also play for the Bulls. He recalled how he grew up watching nearly every Bulls game and called Stacey King his favorite announcer — “I can’t wait to hear what my nickname is,” he said with a laugh.
After he was drafted, “Homecoming” by Kanye West blared over the speakers at the Bracket Room as Dosunmu went to the stage to give a speech. His voice was barely audible over his friends and family, who were still cheering and celebrating that they would not have to go far to see his next game.
“When I was selected by Chicago, my home city, they knew the motivation I’m going to have, I’m going to play with,” Dosunmu said. “I’m going to enjoy it. It’s like a dream come true. This is a blessing in disguise so when they called my name and my family found out we were excited. It was a feeling I really can’t explain, but it was a great feeling.”