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DePaul Stars Recall Memories of Rosemont

Once the final buzzer sounds in DePaul’s matchup with the Xavier Musketeers on Saturday, the Blue Demons will have played their final game at the 36-year-old abode, transitioning to Wintrust Arena next season.

Nevertheless, Allstate Arena has provided the program with a wealth of memories for more than three-and-a-half decades. Over that span, many players and coaches garnered a rush of exhilaration while stepping on the stadium’s hardwood. For Mark Aguirre, who played for the Blue Demons from 1978-81, the 15 games he suited up for at the venue delivered an eye-opening experience.

When DePaul first shifted from Alumni Hall, located on the Lincoln Park campus, to the then-Rosemont Horizon on Dec. 1, 1980, the 6-foot-6 DePaul legend says he and his teammates were stunned to see a jam-packed arena on opening night. From the opening tip against Gonzaga until he departed for the NBA draft, the DePaul legend considered it a major homecourt advantage.

“It was constantly loud for two hours straight,” Aguirre said. “It (the noise) just never stopped. If you (opponents) weren’t used to that kind of crowd, you didn’t want to come in here for that.”

In that same season, Aguirre was named the Sporting News Men’s College Basketball Player of the Year, as he amassed a team-high 23 points per contest.

Although Aguirre relished the moments when fans would scream his name, he says those cheers would just blend in with the ambiance of the 17,500-seat arena. Moreover, last-second tickets were almost impossible for fans to find, especially against the Blue Demons’ arch-rivals, like Marquette and Notre Dame.

Following three campaigns after Aguirre’s departure, Joey Meyer, who served as an assistant coach on his father Ray Meyer’s staff from 1972-84, accepted the head coaching position at DePaul. His dad led the program for 43 seasons, collecting an asstounding 724 wins in the process. He sadly passed away in March 2006 at 92 years old.

“If  he (Ray Meyer) could say goodbye (to Allstate Arena), he would say, ‘Let’s get on with the game,’” Meyer said. “In his final game at Allstate (against Marquette), he was handed the mic after a long pregame introduction, and those were the only words he uttered.”

In the 1986-87 season, the Blue Demons played in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at Allstate Arena. Their second game came against St. John’s, and Meyer says he has never heard more of a raucous crowd than throughout that affair. Despite facing a four-point deficit with less than 19 seconds left, DePaul fought back and came away with a 85-78 victory in overtime, advancing to the Sweet 16.

“I thought we had a chance to go to the Final Four that year, but it’s hard to single anybody out,” he said.

During Meyer’s 13 seasons as the lead dog on the sidelines, guard Tom Kleinschmidt, who played at DePaul from 1992-95, exemplified one of his most talented players. In Kleinschmidt’s junior campaign, he averaged 21.4 points and 5.5 rebounds, leading to him winning the Great Midwest Conference Player of the Year Award.

Amid that 1994-95 campaign, DePaul faced off against Louisville at the Rosemont Horizon on Feb. 25. With under 20 seconds to go, the Blue Demons trailed 81-78, possessing one final opportunity to knot up the score.

The 6-5 Kleinschmidt then sent the crowd to its feet, connecting on a three-pointer, along with drawing a foul. He subsequently knocked the free-throw with 11.4 seconds remaining to hand his team a thrilling one-point victory.

“It (attempting the shot) was just natural instinct,” Kleinschmidt said. “It wasn’t like I was trying to shoot a three. I knew we just needed to get a score, and I had an opportunity (at the improbable 4-point play) once the kid touched me on the elbow.”

In his three seasons with the program, Kleinschmidt became enamored with the fan base. He says plenty of those in attendance grew up watching the Blue Demons. Hence, the same folks, who witnessed Aguirre, Tyrone Corbin and Dallas Comegys on the court, were also present to see him, Will Macon and Brandon Cole.

“It (the arena) was more of a family atmosphere,” he said. “It was more of a relaxed atmosphere with the security during shootaround, so they (fans) were ready to go. When you came out (of the tunnel), they were up on the court, either calling your name or calling you over.”

One of those eventual diehard supporters would be Drake Diener, who ended up playing for the university from 2001-05.

Ever since Diener was six years old, he and his family drove past the arena on the way to many of their road trips from his hometown of Fond du Lac, Wis. However, he says he never imagined that he would step on its floor as an 18-year-old student.

“Hey boy, there’s where DePaul plays,” he remembered his father saying. “Once I began looking at schools (to play for), the name DePaul carried some weight for me.”

After the 1998-1999 season, Allstate signed a 10-year contract with the facility to switch its name to Allstate Arena. Therefore, once Diener committed to DePaul in September 2000, he was a part of a fairly fresh phase within the stadium’s history.  

Three years later, the arena altered the team’s locker room, which Diener says barely possessed a a DePaul-like flavor for the home squad previously. Once it was renovated with new lockers, a Blue Demons’ logo on the floor, as well as pictures of the top players to ever boast a scarlet, royal blue and white uniform, he and his fellow co-workers felt extra pride while entering their sacred space.

In the 2003-04 campaign, Diener helped the team reel in a Conference USA title, sending the Blue Demons to the NCAA tournament. He says his favorite moment as a junior occurred on March 4, 2004, as DePaul gathered a 55-50 win over then-ranked No. 13 Cincinnati. In the contest, the guard tied for a team-high 17 points.

“In games like that (against Cincinnati), it was so electric in there,” he said. “We played really tough defensively and rebounding wise under Coach (Dave) Leitao (for the fans).”

Since that campaign, DePaul has failed to return to March Madness. Yet, Diener believes the transition from the Allstate to Wintrust Arena could assist the program in bringing in Chicago’s top basketball recruits because of its location in the South Loop.

“To be able to promote that (arena) in the downtown area is going to add plenty of excitement for the university,” Diener said.

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