Mark McNabola’s family ties to DePaul University run deep. The school’s Director of Athletics, Jean Lenti Ponsetto, said McNabola and his family “have been a fixture in DePaul Athletics.”
“Mark’s impact on DePaul has stretched across four University Presidents and has been integral in helping bring DePaul Athletic’s championship vision to reality whether it was with the construction of McGrath-Phillips Arena or currently with Wintrust Arena,” Lenti Ponsetto said.
McNabola’s father, Bill “Doc,” McNabola was the last surviving member of the Blue Demons’ 1945 NIT championship team.
Bill, a well-known surgeon who had a long run volunteering his time as DePaul’s team doctor, was married to the late Barbara “Bobbie” McNabola for 60 years. They had four boys and one girl.
“Doc was a great ambassador for DePaul,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “His DePaul experiences rival Forrest Gump … playing with basketball hall of famer George Mikan and being part of the 1945 NIT National Championship team … utilizing his DePaul education to advance him in the medical field … serving as the team doctor for legendary head Coach Ray Meyer’s teams during the program’s golden era in the 1970s and 80s. Doc always shared his stories of DePaul with a special passion and twinkle in his eye.”
Bobbie’s great uncle, a Vincentian priest named Rev. Edward Smith, C.M. made history four years after the Chicago Fire. Amidst an area near the intersection of what is now the intersection of Webster and Kenmore but was back then prairie land with dirt streets, truck farms, patches of corn and a few homes, according to DePaul, Fr. Smith purchased all the property from Western to Fullerton or $5,000 to build a new parish that would later become St. Vincent de Paul church.
“The McNabola family has a significant relationship with DePaul dating back to the institution’s founding,” Ponsetto Lenti said. “Mark has continued his father’s legacy as a student, distinguished alum and a consistent philanthropic leader for Blue Demon Athletics.”
The legacy of the McNabola family heritage was memorialized with a significant gift by Mark McNabola in honor of his father to the Event Center at McCormick Square fundraising campaign constructing the new Wintrust Arena for the DePaul Blue Demons.
Wintrust Arena, a $173 million project, is set to open soon, with the men’s basketball home opener against Notre Dame on Nov. 11 and the women’s hoops tilt against Connecticut on Dec. 8. Remaining games will be announced later this summer, according to Greg Greenwell, DePaul’s associate athletics director of communications.
Wintrust Arena features a 1,200-student seat section called the Demon Deck, plus locker rooms that the Chicago Tribune described as “NBA-caliber.” The arena also will have a large weight room, players lounge, meeting rooms and sports medicine facilities.
The Blue Demons had played the previous 36 seasons at Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont.
Colorful tales of Bill McNabola’s playing days at DePaul were passed down to Mark and his siblings. They can recall the pranks the Blue Demons used to pull off that included hiding the glasses on the team bus of their legendary 6-foot, 10-inch teammate George Mikan.
“When they were in New York, they got a call that somebody famous wanted to meet Mikan,” Mark McNabola, a 1981 DePaul graduate in communication with a DePaul law degree in 1985, told DePaul’s athletics department in 2016. “Turned out it was Babe Ruth, and he wanted to play cards with George. The year they won the NIT, the old-time marquee outside Madison Square Garden billed the title game as `George Mikan vs. St. John’s.’
“My dad was a 17-year-old freshman at the time and a little naïve. He would laugh and tell us how he walked through the hotel lobby in New York City one day and ran into these old guys wearing fedoras. They asked him how George was doing. At first, my dad thought: `What a nice, thoughtful bunch of guys worried about George’s health.’ Later, he figured out they were gamblers looking for inside information.”
Bill McNabola would always tell his kids how fortunate he was to have attended DePaul with the strong priests and nuns that molded him and instilled a hearty work ethic. Born to a family of Irish immigrants, Bill McNabola was entirely comfortable going to classes alongside the offspring of immigrants.
After graduating from DePaul, Bill McNabola served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and went to medical school after the war to become a general surgeon. From the mid-1960s to the mid-90s, he donated his time and served as the Blue Demon team physician as a way of giving back to the university.
“My dad became close friends with Ray and Marge Meyer and their family and with Father John Cortelyou,” Mark said in 2016. “He would often go out to dinner with Coach Ray. I remember going to my first DePaul game when I was seven years old.
“I remember my dad as a surgeon without an ego. He was an honorable guy who was well-liked by everybody. He would often go out into the community and make house calls to the less fortunate. He was part of what’s known as the Greatest Generation.
“My dad’s parents were immigrants, and the way he was raised, money wasn’t the goal — it was service to others. It was part of DePaul athletics that you learned to treat everyone the same. Being an outstanding student who would become a surgeon afforded him the opportunity to help people.
“He was a humble doctor who never had a big ego. He would treat people the same and had good friends who were janitors and good friends who were presidents of hospitals and CEOs. The hospitals he worked in were run by nuns. Doctors, and especially surgeons, were put on pedestals, but my dad was never like that.”
Bill McNabola played sports at De La Salle High School, and one of his teammates was a linebacker named George Connor who would go onto fame with Notre Dame and the Bears. Connor was honored with the inaugural Outland Trophy as college football’s top lineman in 1946.
“I remember going to games with my sister and brothers on Saturday nights,” Mark said. “Afterwards, we would go to White Castle and eat sliders on the drive back home to Wilmette.
“Back then in the 70s, there no video games or other forms of entertainment. For us, DePaul was the only game in town.”
Driving the Edens Expressway took on a more somber meaning during Mark McNabola’s career as one of the city’s leading personal injury lawyers and trial attorneys.
“During the Bulls’ title run of the early 1990s, there were some high school kids driving on the Edens,” Mark said. “A truck coming the other way lost a wheel that ran into the teenagers’ vehicle and caused a violent crash. Two 17-year-old boys died in that accident.
“I was the lead attorney on that case, and it was as if time stood still. The loss of those two boys’ lives was horrific, and there was all the collateral damage to loved ones. It had such a profound effect on so many people who loved them.
“It made you realize how blessed you are as those unfortunate people are confronted with unanswerable questions. I try to help people who have been completely devastated.”
Mark played his high school ball at Loyola Academy and was part of the 1976 team that finished third in the state. It was coached by Bill Gleason and starred Mark Feiereisel whose dad Ron was an All-American and Blue Demon women’s basketball coach. That team had a magical playoff run featuring upsets of powerhouses like St. Laurence with Kevin Boyle and Jim Stack and East Leyden with Glen Grunwald.
Although many of his teammates went on to play in college, the Rambler guard realized pretty quickly that he wasn’t going to suit up for the Blue Demons.
“I knew that the first time I saw the backcourt of Clyde Bradshaw and Gary Garland,” Mark said. “They were so fast and talented — I had never seen anything like that before.
“DePaul had a much smaller campus back then, and we all hung out together in Lincoln Park. Everyone had a job while we were in school. You could handle the academics so long as you put the effort into it. My favorite teacher was English Literature professor Hugh Ingrasci.”
Now Wintrust Arena will be a part of DePaul’s extended campus.
“Everyone is so excited about the new stadium,” Mark said. “It’s coming up so quickly and is going to be such a huge benefit for our basketball program and the university.”