UIC Keeps the Flame for One of its Biggest Fans
NEAR WEST SIDE — Off to its best start in 15 years, the University of Illinois at Chicago men's basketball team has extra inspiration this season.
"He was just so loyal to UIC athletics. He would be on Cloud Nine right now," said Moore, who has the 8-1 Flames off to their best start since 1997-1998.
The school plans to honor Ryan before Feb. 2's game against Cleveland State with a "Lighting the Flame" ceremony. Ryan's wife Sue and three daughters, Jenna, Sarah and Christina, will carry a symbolic torch onto the UIC Pavilion floor and light a cauldron while the school song is sung.
"It's nice that people will keep remembering his name and what he did at UIC," said Jenna Ryan, 23, a former Flames cheerleader who graduated in May and is currently teaching at Lawndale Elementary Community Academy.
Ryan grew up in the Back of the Yards and graduated from Gage Park High School before arriving at the Circle Campus in 1981. He was a standout on the Flames' baseball team, where he hit .350 for his career. That stat tied him with current Major League Baseball All-Star Curtis Granderson for 10th on the school's all-time list.
Ryan, who was elected to the UIC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985 and lived in Evergreen Park, purchased four season tickets in 1986 and upgraded to floor seats on the baseline near the Flames' bench in 1990. His family members were his constant companions.
When she and her sisters accompanied their father "my dad would introduce us to everyone he knew," said Sarah Ryan, 20, a graphic design major at UIC.
That included Mike DiVittorio, who played with Ryan on UIC's baseball team and had season tickets next to him in the front row for the past 20 years.
"It's a big loss for the basketball program," said DiVittorio, a Garfield Ridge resident. "Jim was a guy who made everybody happy around him."
But DiVittorio said Ryan had no problems barking at officials. Ryan's youngest daughter, Christina, said there were "multiple times he almost got kicked out."
"He would get people in his area riled up," said Ray Clay, the former Chicago Bulls and current Flames public address announcer who also is a UIC graduate.
Ryan showed a softer side by bringing the referees water during breaks. He helped by hawking 50-50 raffle tickets and was one of the most active members of the UIC Athletic Alumni Club. His wife of 26 years said he'd read Chicago's major daily newspapers, and when they didn't feature a Flames game report the next day, he'd call to complain.
Sue Ryan decided this season to halve her family's season tickets to two. But the remaining seats — Section 4, Row AA, Seats 36 and 37 — have respective signs with "Jim Ryan" and "Ryan Girls" on the back.
"He was a fixture in those seats," Clay said. "To see them go to somebody else, I don't think that would be proper."
It's sad and strange not having Jim at the games, his friends and family say.
During an exhibition against Wisconsin-Platteville on Nov. 7, Sarah Ryan was overwhelmed as the Flames ran from their locker room onto the court. Moore and the Flames' assistants stopped and hugged her instead of joining the players, she said.
"Jimmy's memory will last forever around here, but he's definitely missed," DiVittorio said.