Small College Hoops: Like A Moth To The Light (Gymnasium)

Brown University’s Freshman Sensation Sean McGonagill

We were young. We were giddy.

Wait, let me start again…

We were giddy. Blame it on Sean McGonagill.

Doc and I were still basking in the glow of one of the most unexpected treats we’d ever witnessed on a college basketball court – a freshman tossing in 39 points over, under and around everyone in sight, while wearing headgear from the Hannibal Lecter Collection.

So it was only natural that the seedling of an idea that had been germinating for a few days began to sprout and ripen at an alarming rate. I’m talking Jack and the Beanstalk stuff.

A little background…

See, way back at the beginning of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour’s Winter Sports Swing, the first casualty of fickle weather had been a scheduled pilgrimage to Ithaca, NY, where through a sepia-toned lens I planned to vicariously re-live my own college basketball “playing” days, if I may be somewhat expansive when using that term.

My good friend JC had agreed to go along as both witness to the event, and to serve as somewhat of a security detail charged with restraining me from suddenly trying to run out onto the court. “Trying to put yourself in the game without the coach noticing never worked back then either,” he reminded me. Point well taken.

As I prepared to pull out of JC’s driveway the morning after our snow-thwarted attempt to see an Ithaca game, JC posed the innocent question “Is there a chance you could come back for a game later in the Swing?” Sure enough, there was one conceivable schedule opening. But it would require hours of driving and precious little sleep – as well as the kind of luck with weather that had been missing of late. But it was theoretically possible.

Fast forward almost two weeks and “theoretically possible” had become “well, actually I kind of NEED to do this,” as I watched the Winter of 2011 wreak havoc on my carefully planned itinerary. I decided to suck it up and put in the road time, as all those who had set out on a quest to see 100 sporting events involving 50 different sports in less than one year had done before me. I called JC to confirm that he was still up for the role of sergeant at arms. We were back on.

I had mentioned this change of plans to Doc when I arrived in the Greater Pawtucket Area. He listened intently and then said “Just remember, trying to put yourself in the game without the coach noticing never worked back then either.” Why does everyone feel compelled to remind me of this?

But then he said something else intriguing – “Maybe I’ll go with you.”

Shortly thereafter, we went to the Sean McGonagill vs. Columbia University game and left not merely wanting to see more live college hoops – but craving it. Doc had just one condition:  “I’m doing all the driving – I’m a terrible bad-weather passenger.”

Me, I’m an excellent passenger. So then there were three.

“Let’s call Simmie and see if he wants to go down to Ithaca with us,” Doc said the next morning. And before I could respond, Simmie’s voice was booming over the speaker phone.

Unlike Doc, who tirelessly promotes Syracuse sports on a voluntary basis, Simmie is actually paid by the University to further the cause of Orangemen athletics – a responsibility he has faithfully and successfully seen to for many years. And duty called during the afternoon on which we were attempting to lure him out of town.

“But Donna The Buffalo is playing in Syracuse tomorrow night. Phil and I were already planning to see the show, and I’m sure I could get a few more tickets.”

Let’s recap.

In relatively blinding speed, a grinding detour of hundreds of miles, done primarily to stitch together the tattered IGTS Tour timetable, had morphed into…Road Trip! Replete with a basketball game, a concert, and a reunion of great friends not recently seen.

I ask you – is a love of sports not the greatest catalyst on the planet?

Not Too Shabby For A Small Upstate School

Just over 24 hours later, Doc, JC and I stood in the foyer outside of Ben Light Gymnasium and marveled at how thirty years later, in spite of massive additions and improvements to a now-sprawling Ithaca College campus, everything in that modest entryway stood apparently unchanged. And when we turned the corner moments later, the same was true. But while “unchanged” was “charming” in the foyer, it was simply “old” inside the gym itself.

It was much, much darker than I had remembered, and for some odd reason they had exacerbated this by hanging a huge black shroud that stretched to cover the far wall. Even Ithaca’s home uniforms, which used to be bright white, were now a more muted gold.

Things also felt imbalanced, perhaps because only the bleacher stacks along one side of the court had been pulled out for the game. On the other side sat little more than the scorer’s table and a row of chairs for each team. In the Olden Days, wide expanses of bleachers had beckoned on both sides.

Ahhh, The Old Stomping Grounds!

I know this because the team’s benches used to be on the bottom row of the right-hand bleachers. It was there I sat for many a game, just a short cab ride from a coach who had an alarming inability to remember who I was on game days. Thankfully, my concerns about his fading recall skills were usually allayed during the next practice when it was time for full-court defensive slide drills. Strangest thing.

The game between Ithaca and Utica College began shortly after we were settled, and it became quickly apparent that there’s sound reasoning behind having multiple divisions in college basketball. The quality of play that Doc and I had seen the night before in the Ivy League – which is generally considered on the low end of the Division I talent spectrum – was vastly superior to what we were witnessing here.

Which led me to consider two alternative thoughts:  (1) Wow, has Division III gone way downhill since I was here; or (2) Maybe, just maybe…we weren’t as good as I thought we were.

I bounced this off of Doc and JC, who had witnessed a good many IC games in the Olden Days, albeit from a seat not as consistently close to the action as mine. They deliberated for a nanosecond or two and said “Actually, these guys are a lot better than your teams were.”

“They’re a hell of a lot faster at the very least,” added JC. Thanks for the clarification.

Bomber’s White-Hot Jordan Marcus At The Line

Whatever they were, these players weren’t shy. Never has a team been named more aptly than the Ithaca Bombers. If the ball was over half-court, it was going up. Guard Jordan Marcus himself fired up six three-point attempts in the first six minutes of play – and damned if they didn’t all go in. Just like that, Ithaca led by a bunch, which was just about the best possible thing in the world for Utica.

See the thing about streak shooters is this – a hot stretch makes them feel like they’ll never miss again, and when they inevitably cool down, they tend to keep heaving anyway. Sure enough, Utica’s more patient approach (and by “patient” I mean “making two passes before a shot, rather than just the one”) began to pay dividends. It was Ithaca 49, Utica 47 at the half of this playground special.

During the intermission I just had to do it – I had to see if the world still looked the same from the old familiar spot. I wandered over to the Ithaca bench, now-empty except for a couple of student managers. I asked if they wouldn’t mind if I had a seat…you know, just for old time’s sake. Bemused, they consented.

It was good while it lasted. And, while still a little rusty, I could feel my natural skills returning. The ability to pop off the bench during timeouts without stressing my knee joints OR wrinkling my warm-up suit. My uncanny gift for appearing to watch the game while actually scanning the stands for girls. I clearly still had it. Maybe it was the headiness of the moment, but I felt that I could have suited up on the spot, and helped my team in the second half every bit as much as I had in the Olden Days.

The student manager interrupted my reverie. “If you don’t mind me asking, why’d you pick that seat to sit in?” I explained that the role I played on my particular Bomber team was more…strategic in nature – and I preferred to think of this “seat” adjacent to the water cooler as more my “game headquarters”.

“You didn’t play much, did you?” he said. “Hey, did you ever try putting yourself in the game without the coach noticing?”

Please. I patented that move.

Rusty, But Ready For Duty

This Bomber’s Got Promise – Note The Inspired Footwork

Oh, and about the game? Well, take a look for yourself…I’m busy planning my comeback.

Next Up:  Curling – Chess On Ice 

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