Dave Corzine is legitimately excited about the future of the DePaul University men's basketball program. This is a new development.
Sitting along press row at a game in late December, the affable former Blue Demons star and 12-year NBA mainstay, with a giant tan blazer draped over his 6'11" frame, observes a team with potential—10-5 through January 6. The Demons' director of community outreach since 2008, he also knows his bosses in the athletic department are keen on reshaping the team in a way that recaptures some of its past glory. "I think all the stars are lining up right now for us to really establish ourselves," he says.
Chicagoans have a right to be skeptical of Corzine's sanguine prediction. After all, it's been decades since the city's only major-conference college hoops team was nationally relevant. The Blue Demons haven't registered a winning season in five years, and they've won just a single NCAA tournament contest since 1991. The team plays its home games at Rosemont's Allstate Arena, an antiseptic gym that overlooks I-90 and not much else. The building—more than 15 miles from the school's Lincoln Park campus—officially seats 18,500 people, though far fewer stream in when DePaul suits up. Those that do are primarily dads and children, most of whom seem more interested in the T-shirt toss than the pick-and-roll. Public-address announcements echo off the wooden ceiling and settle in the vacant upper deck. Beer vendors circulate aimlessly through empty blue rows in search of customers. The energy that makes college basketball so captivating is mostly absent.
Still, advanced stats suggest this year's squad has more experience and defensive mettle than any in recent years—certainly since Oliver Purnell took over three seasons ago as coach. And if history is a reliable guide, DePaul is due for its long-anticipated resurgence.
Once in a generation, DePaul fields a men's basketball team capable of beating any rival in the country. The program first made a name for itself nationally in the early 1940s with the arrival of the M and M Boys, player George Mikan and coach Ray Meyer. Both grew up humbly—Mikan in Joliet, the son of a tavern owner, and Meyer on Chicago's west side, the youngest of ten children born to a candy wholesaler. Both came to DePaul in 1942 with modest expectations. Meyer, who was a star player at Notre Dame and later joined its staff as an assistant coach, signed only a one-year contract at DePaul because, as he wrote in his 1987 autobiography, Coach, "I didn't know if I'd like the job or profession." Mikan, who didn't even play basketball during his freshman year, was a gangly prelaw student in horn-rimmed glasses; the 6'10" would-be center possessed almost no natural aptitude for basketball.
During their first few months together, the pair worked tirelessly in the gym. Mikan—who traveled 70 miles round-trip from Joliet by bus every day—would take 300 shots with each hand. He skipped rope, played catch with medicine balls, and ran with the track team. To improve his hand-eye coordination, Meyer made him practice what came to be known as the Mikan Drill. While standing underneath the rim, Mikan pushed off his left foot and shot with his right hand, caught the ball as it fell through the net, then pushed off his right foot and shot with his left, over and over and over again. After workouts, the 28-year-old coach would sweep the gym floor himself and Mikan would return to Joliet to study and work a shift behind his family's bar. "I was the slave driver," Meyer later wrote, impolitely, "and he was a willing slave."
The preparation paid off. During Mikan's three seasons in the Blue and Red, DePaul won 62 games and dropped just 12. Under Meyer, the team never lost at the DePaul Auditorium, a tiny former theater on Belden and Sheffield—nicknamed the Old Barn—where the Demons played a majority of their home games. Mikan earned first-team All-American honors three straight seasons and was named National Player of the Year in 1944 and 1945, tallying over 23 points per game both years. DePaul reached the Final Four in 1943 and, two years later, steamrolled three opponents to claim the prestigious National Invitational Tournament title at Madison Square Garden. Mikan scored 120 in that tournament, including a 53-point outburst in the semifinal against Rhode Island State. No man so tall had ever played so skillfully; the Associated Press would eventually name him the greatest basketball player in the first half of the 20th century. Riding Mikan's long coattails, Meyer quickly built a reputation as one of the best young coaches in America.