People would tell me, ‘Chicago is a pro sports town. You’re not going to get anywhere with college basketball,’ ” says Porter Moser, coach of the Loyola University men’s basketball team. “But I thought, Why not us?”
Never mind that the last local college team to make the NCAA Final Four was DePaul in 1979 and, before that, the racially groundbreaking 1963 Loyola team that won it all. For seven years, Moser applied his contagious enthusiasm to grassroots rebuilding, concentrating on luring high school championship players and “guys of character” — among them, Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, BFFs from the same Kansas high school. And with a full-court press of the Chicago Public League, he tapped Donte Ingram from Simeon and Lucas Williamson from Whitney Young. Williamson, a native Chicagoan, says he’d never heard of Loyola until his senior year of high school: “I’d never been that far north in the city.”
This spring, of course, all the hard work paid off. One by one, the Ramblers knocked down higher-seeded NCAA tournament opponents — Miami, Tennessee, Nevada, Kansas State — securing a Final Four berth. Moser attributes the team’s Cinderella run to a culture of unselfishness, and so do his players. “We had guys who could do different things,” says Ingram, “but we got to the point that we didn’t care who scored as long as we scored.”
“Go forth and set the world on fire.” The Ramblers took St. Ignatius of Loyola’s much-quoted exhortation to heart, with a locked-in defense and clutch 3-pointers. “We played like that all year,” says Ingram, who hit the buzzer beater against Miami in the opening round, “but not many people looked at us at first.” Early on, Moser was known to take handfuls of tickets and walk through the student union, asking people to come to the games.
Those days ended when the regular-season finale against Illinois State sold out. When scalpers lined the sidewalks near Gentile Arena. When, in March, the Willis Tower beamed out maroon and gold lights. When even the hated Chicago parking kiosks flashed “Go Ramblers!” When a city so frequently divided along fault lines of anger, fear, and violence came together in a lovefest.
The 2017–18 Ramblers showed that small (or mid-major, technically) can be mighty. They made their own history. And the city embraced them.