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Chicago State Basketball Struggles Forward Amid School’s Budget Crisis

The Chicago State Cougars face the possibility of losing everything—their basketball careers, their scholarships, and their school—for reasons completely beyond their control.
March 2, 2016, 7:02pm
Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Sandra Green was already asleep one night last spring when her grandson Delundre Dixon barged into her bedroom, phone in hand. Chicago State basketball coach Tracy Dildy was on the line. "I'm waking up, and I hear him say, 'I accept your offer,'" Green recalls. "I was screaming and howling and thanking God. I was so excited. I was so proud. I can't tell you how proud I was that my grandson was going to go to college."

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Dixon grew up in Rockford, Illinois, a city 95 miles northwest of Chicago with one of the country's highest rates of black poverty and unemployment. His family sheltered him from drugs and violence by pushing him toward basketball, and coaches watched over him to ensure he remained on the proper path toward becoming his family's first college enrollee. "They all just kept me straight, made sure to keep me away from all the outside stuff and just kept a ball in my hand," Dixon, 18, recalls. "A ball and books."

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After averaging 10.5 points and 4.5 rebounds as a senior at Auburn High School, Dixon didn't have many options to continue his basketball career. He says he received several junior college and Division II offers, but only one Division I program came calling. "It was surreal," he says of the day he committed to Chicago State. "It was surreal. That's all I can really say about it. It was a dream come true."

But less than a year into Dixon's college career, he and all his Chicago State teammates face the possibility of losing everything—their basketball careers, their scholarships, and their school—for reasons completely beyond their control.

Delundre Dixon, center, in a game against Minnesota late last year. — Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago State, a publicly funded, predominantly black school of about 4,000 undergraduates located deep in Chicago's South Side, is caught in a messy impasse playing out 200 miles away in the state capitol. Illinois has been operating without a budget since Republican governor Bruce Rauner, who won election in 2014 by promising to slash costs, and the Democratic legislature failed to come to terms by the July 1, 2015 deadline.

No budget means no state money for any of Illinois' 57 public colleges and universities. While some of those schools have the endowments and reserves to withstand the temporary loss, Chicago State does not. University spokesman Tom Wogan says the school, which receives about a third of its funding from the state, will soon be unable to function in its current form if a budget doesn't pass. Already, Chicago State has been forced to declare a state of financial emergency, slash administrative costs by 20 percent, and cancel its spring break to accelerate the semester.

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The longer Illinois drifts on without a budget, the more programs and personnel Chicago State will be forced to cut, and the greater the chance that the school is forced to downsize dramatically or even close altogether. Last fall, Chicago State warned students that the university could not last past March 1, and though Wogan says the school will be able to scrounge enough to finish the semester in May, no one quite knows what will happen come September. Last week, the school issued layoff notices to all 900 of its employees, just in case.

The athletic department has not been immune to the pressures of the budget crisis. Chicago State athletic director Denisha Hendricks says much of the state funding allocated to sports goes toward scholarships; since the department won't skimp in that area, it has been forced to sacrifice in other ways. Hendricks talks about distinguishing "needs versus wants." That means the volleyball players don't get the team T-shirts they desire, coaches conduct recruiting visits via Skype, and staffing vacancies remain unfilled, forcing athletic department faculty to split the load on vital tasks like compliance.

Jones Convocation Center, home of the Cougars (at least for now). — Photo by User:TonyTheTiger/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA

Travel poses a particular challenge. The Cougars compete in the Western Athletic Conference, which includes not a single school within driving distance of Chicago. That arrangement is difficult enough under ideal circumstances, but with money so tight it's almost impossible. Hendricks says the department has sought out airlines with low baggage fees, cut restaurant coupons for team meals, and begged hotels for favorable group rates. Chicago State's basketball players taste the world of big-time college athletics, playing road games against power conference schools like Illinois, Iowa State, Marquette, and Northwestern, and then watch their coach haggle with diner managers over discounts. "You kind of have to suck up your pride," Dildy says. "But we're not going to ever compromise the experience for our students."

The Cougars play home games at Jones Convocation Center, an elegant, nine-year-old facility named for former Illinois Senate president Emil Jones, who long advocated for its construction while in office. The building is a point of pride for the athletic department and a bright and concrete example of what happens when the Illinois state government pays attention to a little school on the South Side.

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On February 13, Chicago State hosted New Mexico State, a conference powerhouse that has won the WAC Tournament and advanced to the NCAA tournament four years running. New Mexico State entered the game 8-1 in conference play; the Cougars stood 0-9, riding a 13-game losing streak that had dropped them to 4-22 on the season. Their last win, on December 19 against Western Illinois, was also their lone victory over a Division I opponent.

New Mexico State swaggered through pregame warm-ups, cracking jokes between swished threes. Star forward Pascal Siakam dunked forcefully during a post drill and his teammates whooped and cheered. Meanwhile across the court, Chicago State slogged through shootaround with slouched shoulders and sullen faces. After the game, some of them insisted the budget crisis never crosses their mind on the court, but Hendricks isn't so sure. "I don't see how they can not think about it sometimes," she says.

From the perspective of a spectator, the budget impasse hung over every aspect of the game.

As the teams prepared to take the court, Chicago State staff circled the arena distributing white T-shirts featuring an outline of Illinois and the phrase "Save Illinois Education." Dildy and his staff wore the shirts on the bench, as did the Chicago State players and cheerleaders and members of the school's baseball team, who sat together behind one of the baskets.

The message is now loud and clear!!! Spread the word!!! — ChicagoStateCougars (@ChiStateCougars)February 14, 2016

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At halftime, an announcement over the PA system implored fans to protest the legislative impasse, and then introduced a video produced by a Chicago State sophomore to rally the cause. The clip, played on the arena's two video boards, montaged newspaper headlines about the budget crisis and images of Chicago State students, over the soaring chords of John Legend and Common's Grammy-nominated protest song, "Glory." The hashtag #SaveCSU lingered in the corner of the screen.

Amid all this, the game felt almost secondary. Chicago State started strong, converting four of their first five field goals to take a 14-6 lead. But New Mexico State snapped into focus and soon grabbed the lead, pulling ahead 30-21 by halftime. The Cougars fell behind by as many as 22 points in the second half before rallying late to make it close; the final score 69-55. It was a valiant effort against a tough opponent, but the team's 14th straight loss nonetheless.

The losing streak now stands at 17 games. There have been some close calls, such as a February 5 game against Seattle decided by a buzzer-beating three-pointer, but mostly it's been routs: the Cougars have lost by double digits 13 times during the streak, falling by margins of 33, 25, 25 and 23. They are the 347th most efficient of 351 Division I teams, according to the statistical analysis site kenpom.com.

Chicago State is far from a traditional basketball power, but the Cougars are usually better than this. Last season, Dildy's team finished 4-10 in WAC play. Two years ago, in their first year in the conference, they went 8-8. Though the players deny it, Dildy says the budget crisis has affected the team's performance this season.

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"A lot of our situation is just attention to detail," Dildy said, sitting in an empty media room inside Jones Convocation Center after the loss to New Mexico State. "But they're full-time students dealing with this life situation. Basketball is just a game, but if the school is gonna close, that's a real life situation. It's a life-or-death situation. Basketball is a win-lose. It ain't life or death."

He leaned forward and raised his voice. "These guys have done everything they're supposed to. They've stayed out of trouble. They've worked extremely hard academically. They've been good citizens. That's supposed to be the formula for success. That's supposed to be the formula for the American Dream."

Cougars coach Tracy Dildy. — Photo by Joe Raymond-USA TODAY Sports

Among public universities in Illinois, Chicago State is unique in one notable way: it is a predominantly black school in a predominantly black neighborhood. According to Wogan, the school is 70 percent African-American, with a "nontraditional student body" composed largely of older students, single parents, and transfers taking one last shot at college education.

Asked if he could imagine a similar situation playing out downstate at the University of Illinois, Dildy was unequivocal.

"Never. Never ever," he said. "Not only the University of Illinois, the University of Illinois-Chicago, it would never happen. University of Illinois-Springfield it would never happen. Right now they're basically showing how they feel about the university that's the lowest on the totem pole. And it just happens to be the only predominantly black institution in the whole state of Illinois."

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"We've got slogans, 'Black Lives Matter,' which sounds good," Dildy said, "but the politicians, their actions are not lined up with those slogans."

Hendricks was more circumspect about the role race may be playing in the current budget impasse. "I couldn't say, but I hope that would not be true," Hendricks said. "Because at the end of the day these are citizens of the country and these are citizens of our state, and my hope is that every student, every person is valued for what they're trying to do."

(Governor Rauner, for his part, says Chicago State's predicament is the result of the school's own financial irresponsibility, not government neglect. The governor recently accused Chicago State of "throwing money down the toilet.")

To his players, Dildy projects optimism, preaching hope and prayer instead of worry, but wishing for the best only goes so far. The coach says a recent team meeting got emotional as Chicago State players worried aloud for the first time what they'd do if the school were to close. Some of the Cougars' better players might find scholarship offers elsewhere, but many of their academic credits might not transfer. Others would find themselves trapped alongside most of the student body, forced to return where they came from. "We got some guys on this team who, if it's not Chicago State, they're in the streets," Dildy says. "And there's not a lot really good coming out of these neighborhoods."

The players say they're holding out hope for Chicago State and won't formulate contingency plans until they have to.

"We go out on the court and give it our all, do our best in the classroom, so it's like, what more can we do?" says Trayvon Palmer, a 21-year-old junior forward from Milwaukee who leads the Cougars in rebounds. "You just kind of pray for the best."

Less than a year after watching her grandson fulfill his dream, Sandra Green's pride and excitement has turned to anger, frustration, and fear. Green says she wouldn't want Dixon to give up his education, but if Chicago State goes away, so does his scholarship, and there's certainly no guarantee another will be around the corner. How and when the budget crisis is resolved could determine whether Dixon and thousands of other students like him enter the workforce with college degrees or return home empty-handed.

Chicago State students have done their best to make their voices heard, holding several protests in downtown Chicago, but ultimately they're almost powerless to determine the future of their school. Governor Rauner has proposed cutting public university spending about $400 million, or 31.5 percent. The Democrats have offered a less drastic 6.5 percent cut, according to the Chicago Tribune. Last week, Representative Ken Dunkin introduced a bill that would send $160 million to state universities, including Chicago State, as a stopgap measure. Rauner, according to the Tribune, said he "could support that."

If Dixon had an audience with Rauner and the state legislature, he says he'd try to convey just how dramatically the impasse impacts people's lives. "Where we came from, growing up in those tough environments, you're just sending us right back," Dixon says. "We've seen New Mexico, Texas, I've been to California for the first time. All these places we've been, you get to see everything like that. And then you send us right back to where we started. Back to square one."