Eli backcourt returns for last chance to dance

James Jones has undoubtedly turned around the Yale men’s basketball program since taking over as head coach in 1999. But he has not had to do it alone.

For four seasons, Edwin Draughan ’05 and Alex Gamboa ’05 have shared the Yale backcourt, tremendous success and, in 2002, the John C. Cobb Memorial Award as the team’s most outstanding freshmen.

Jones knows that so many of his accomplishments are tied to his two senior starters.

“They really started it, in terms of the turnaround for our program,” Jones said. “Yale was sort of a doormat for the league until they stepped on campus.”

While swingman Casey Hughes ’07 lights up the court with high-flying slams and power forward Dexter Upshaw ’06 invigorates the crowd with his electrifying energy, Draughan and Gamboa, the faces of Yale basketball for four years, have consistently done the little things that win games.

Whether it is Gamboa barking out signals to set up the offense or Draughan forcing a turnover with blanketing defense, the two guards have been the driving force behind Yale’s success.

Forward Jason Abromaitis ’07 said it is hard to pinpoint any one memory of either player who stands out most in his head; every game, every practice, every day in the locker room, Draughan and Gamboa are there — as reliable as a Swiss timepiece.

“They are really the center of our team — both as players and as leaders,” Abromaitis said. “They’ve been everything you can hope for both as players and as leaders. Both as leading on the floor in every statistical category and in other things that don’t show up in the stats. And next year they’ll be sorely missed.”

But for all Gamboa has accomplished in his four years in New Haven, college in Connecticut was never something the Reno, Nev. native considered, and the adjustment was not without hardship.

“An Ivy League school was never a thought of mine until I was a sophomore or junior in high school coming from the West Coast,” Gamboa said. “At the time I was excited to get out. I wanted to get away. It proved to be pretty difficult. I have two younger sisters, and I have a close group of friends, and I’m close with my family.”

Needless to say, Gamboa overcame those obstacles. At Penn State three seasons ago, starting for the first time in his career, Gamboa and Draughan, Yale’s high scorers in the game, led the Elis to their first victory over a Big Ten team in Jones’ tenure — on the road, no less.

“I ended up starting the rest of the games that year,” Gamboa said. “It was definitely a jumping-off point for myself.”

That is about as much as Gamboa will talk about his achievements, however. Named the team captain before this season, the 2001-2002 Ivy League rookie of the year, who spends many of his free hours as a mentor for students at New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School, ends up discussing the team even when asked about himself.

“Personally it’s pretty simple: I just want to be solid and run the team well,” he said.

Draughan did not think he would end up at Yale, either. A prep star who teamed with Josh Childress of the Atlanta Hawks in high school and AAU ball, the 6-foot-5 Draughan originally had his sights set elsewhere.

“On my recruiting visit I really wasn’t thinking about Yale,” Draughan said. “Then when I got here, Coach Jones really sold me. I really liked the idea of going somewhere where I could get good education.”

Jones remembered Draughan, a California native who may be listed generously at 190 pounds, wearing a hooded sweatshirt on that visit, and on nearly every day of his freshman year as well.

“He was so skinny he was cold all the time,” Jones said.

Fortunately for Draughan, the John J. Lee Ampitheater is well-heated. So even when the weather was cold, Draughan could get hot for the Bulldogs. Early this season he became just the 20th player in school history to reach 1,000 points, and he has the opportunity this season to become just the third Yale player ever to lead his team in scoring for four seasons.

An American Studies major, Draughan plans to continue playing basketball after graduation, whether that is pursuing the dream of all dreams in the NBA or playing professionally overseas.

But like Gamboa, it is not about personal success for Draughan. The two both remember fondly Yale’s home sweep of Penn and Princeton in the 2001-2002 season, and neither says the team is done achieving yet.

“I expect us to contend for a league championship,” Draughan said. “We’ve never gotten to the NCAAs, and I’d like to.”

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