CHICAGO — Yes, but what exactly is this Loyola University Chicago?
Is it small? (Not really. It has 16,673 students.)
Is it urban-grimy? (No, it’s urban-gorgeous, with a rectangular West Quad and, just in case you didn’t fancy that quad, an egg-shaped East Quad.)
Where is it? (It’s umpteen stops up the “L” red line from downtown, north enough that you start to think about Northwestern even if you disembark before reaching Northwestern which, like many places, has one fewer men’s basketball national title than Loyola.)
Is it near Lake Michigan? (Yes, it backs right up to that beast, which snarled on Tuesday, when some wind gusts felt merely frigid, where others felt just plainly rude, where others felt barbarously, sadistically, ruthlessly, inhumanely, vilely disgusting.)
Has it any recent sports glory? (Yes, the men’s volleyball team won back-to-back national titles in 2014 and 2015.)
Why is the sudden presence of this LUC in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament so charming?
(How much time do you have?)
It’s that the announced home attendances this year included 1,135, 1,289, 1,133, 1,904, 1,914 and 1,501. It’s that as 2016 graduate Rachel Kelso worked in an Indianapolis sports bar a few months ago, and somebody pointed out that Loyola was on TV, she replied, “What? What are we doing on TV?”
It’s that when graduate and graduate student David Holmes and three friends watched Loyola’s 63-62 win over Tennessee in a downtown sports bar last Saturday, they were the lone clump of Loyola supporters in a St. Patrick’s Day swarm.
It’s that the last time Loyola so much as reached an NCAA tournament, it exited nobly with a Sweet 16 loss by 65-53 to Georgetown, which got 21 points and 14 rebounds from a Patrick Ewing. It’s that if you walk through a silent gumdrop of a gym, 22-year-old Joseph J. Gentile Arena, you might yearn to take a bleacher seat for a game night no matter how it impacted your spine.
It’s that this school is sports-unaddicted enough that student upon student will tell you they never even heard of Loyola’s 1963 basketball national title, one of the all-time March Madness doozies, with all-American Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter, Vic Rouse, Ron Miller and John Egan, the 60-58 overtime upset of Cincinnati from a 45-30 second-half deficit.
It’s that that title always warrants revisiting in part for its significance related to race, as in the arena lobby display case with the section about coach George Ireland, touting how his “demanding nature and insistence on excellence and effort from his players earned him the nickname, ‘The Man,’” while noting, “He was also ahead of his time in his attitudes on race within the college game, including defying the unwritten rule of playing only two black players at a time.”
It’s that Mike Ross, a senior Illinoisan biophysics major and the student president of Ireland’s, the stylish student-run pub beneath the Damen Student Center, said this: “We don’t even open the bar on the weekend, and that’s why I was a little bit hesitant to open the bar Saturday because I was worried nobody was going to show up.” (People did, in packed droves.) It’s a certain intimacy, as when Donte Ingram hit the winning shot last Thursday against Miami and one of the Ireland’s staff members said, as Ross recalled it, “Oh wow, Donte just hit that shot. He was in my business class yesterday.”
It’s that Ireland’s bartender Drew Vola, a junior international studies major from Rockford, worked distributing beer to the VIP section in the arena beginning in January, with sparse crowds, but began to notice those crowds thicken steadily. It’s that when, on Feb. 24, the Missouri Valley Conference champions closed the regular season with a win over Illinois State, a capacity crowd of 4,963 showed up at Joseph J. Gentile Arena, the largest since a renovation in 2011, such that when Carol Gentile learned of this down in Boca Raton, Fla., she spent the day teary. It’s that, by last Thursday, when Vola reached Ireland’s, he said, “I could barely get through” to work.
Then: “Every instant there was a new song, from, ‘Go, Ramblers, Go,’ and ‘defense’ chants. Seriously. It was kind of funny because, you know, they can’t hear you [in Dallas, where Loyola played]. But they were acting like it.”
By Saturday, when Clayton Custer’s winning shot against Tennessee made its quirky trip, glancing off the left side of the rim before finding its way in, the pub had a hush and then a roar.
Some of it, of course, owes to Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun who has become a fresh phenomenon, who has been a steadfast fixture of the Loyola student experience, and who appears in a large arena-lobby mural with a huddle of basketball players and a John Wooden quote: “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece.”
Kelso: “You first hear about her during your orientation. You’re like, ‘What?’ ”
And then, said Kelso: “You can’t find anyone [among Loyola students and alumni] who has anything negative or even ambivalent to say about her. Everyone adores her because she’s just such a light in people’s lives. She’s such a light of Loyola.”
And then, this oddball charm owes something to the way student life works here, a way different from most snow-globe Sweet 16 campuses, a way Kelson explained here: “We’re all over the city. We’re all over. Absolutely. It’s a unique college experience that I think is extremely valuable because real life isn’t isolated on college campuses . . . . There is what we call a ‘Loyola bubble,’ and there are ways to stay very sheltered and stay on campus and stay active, doing stuff, staying on campus. But it’s almost like you have to try hard to do that, because the Ventra [city transit] passes are part of our tuition, and so we’re able to get on the train, get on the bus and go anywhere. You can get into the Art Institute for no admission if you show your Loyola ID.
“They make an effort to get us out into the world and doing things and experiencing something that’s not just campus, and that’s such a great experience to have as a brand-new 18-year-old or even a 22-year-old about to graduate, because that’s what real life is, is seeing the world and experiencing things that are out of your comfort zone.”
Yet, suddenly, through the still-inexplicable magic of sports, this diffuse, dispersed group . . .
“It feels like we’re more of a unit,” Ross said.
“Everybody is more happy, has a little bit more pep in their step,” Vola said.
“On Thursday night,” Holmes said, “I was walking around, I had finished up a group project, I was walking around with this goofy smile on my face, and I’m high-fiving strangers for no reason and everybody’s just in this amazing mood and no words needed to be spoken.”
Further, it’s that this kind of thing always hearkens to the past, and to those both missed and missing a giddy present. Joseph J. Gentile (1923-2011), the arena namesake, earned a wealth of descriptions from his widow, Carol, all of them vivid. “A big voice and a big heart.” And: “Oh, boy, very boisterous, and have a little cigar hanging out his mouth, with a little mustache.” And: “He was loud, really loud, and he’d be the first to get everybody excited.” And: “If he met you at an event, he would put a business card in your pocket every time he saw you.”
His father had been a barber for 50 years on Van Buren and Racine streets. When the World War II veteran and 1948 Loyola graduate son wanted to stop teaching psychology at Loyola and switch careers, his father wailed, “You’re gonna quit teaching and go sell cars?” He sold cars with a rarefied expertise in Chicago’s suburbs. A local media personality named him “the Baron of Barrington.” He became “the top Buick salesman in the United States for 10 consecutive years,” Carol said.
He loved charities, causes. Carol used to ask him jokingly if he ran “the Joseph J. Gentile Chrysler dealership, or the Joseph J. Gentile charitable organization.” Each year, he took a batch of students from his beloved high school, St. Ignatius, to Wrigley Field for the Cubs. After he donated a reported $3.5 million for Loyola’s arena, he and Carol made the commute to all the games until they couldn’t. They went there to graduations and “cried our eyes out,” she said. Loyola once let him help coach an exhibition, and Joe “just lit up like a Christmas tree,” she said.
“He loved life,” she said. “He loved life.”
He also bought a radio station in 1994, loved talking on the air, and talked Loyola on it. He just couldn’t get other radio stations to report the Loyola scores in a town of Bears and Bulls and Cubs and Sox and Blackhawks. He yearned for more Loyola students to attend games, wondered if somebody should go classroom to classroom pitching the experience.
Look now. Reporters converge. Sister Jean is a national star who irresistibly reminds she’s an international star. Carol sees Sister Jean on “Good Morning America” and marvels. “Oh my gosh,” Carol Gentile said. “If he could be on the air when this happened, it would be Loyola 24-7. He’d be gloating and he’d be cheering. There’s thunder up there going on, because he would be elated, just elated, with what’s happened.”
More on the NCAA tournament: