Eight years ago, I became a senior walk-on to Yale’s basketball program, volunteering to serve as practice fodder for the freshman post players in the junior varsity program that then existed. I was able to rediscover a love for a sport I got away from as a high school junior, but my private enjoyment of the experience was mixed with an awareness that the program I joined was seriously ailing. It was enough for me just to pull on a Yale uniform, practice in the John J. Lee Amphitheater, and improve my game. Meanwhile, my classmates on the varsity team struggled through another disappointing season, and all around me were friends who had been ruined and left by the wayside of the Yale men’s basketball program.
Dropping out of the basketball program was commonplace throughout most of the 1990s. Some young people grew disappointed by the team’s inability to win. Others were frustrated by an offense that seemed unwilling to run even when the fast-break invited itself.
But the worst sin of Yale’s previous basketball regime was its destruction of young men’s confidence. I cannot count the number of players who were starters and even stars as freshmen, only to be diminished over the years to bit parts by a coach who seemed to choose all the wrong moments to yank kids from games, bench them, and ruin their senses of their own abilities. Yale’s head coach until 1999, Dick Kuchen, a man who never seemed to recognize my name or face as a member of his program, had lost his passion for the game and his young players.
It is for these reasons and so many more that basketball fans at Yale and in New Haven owe such big thanks to coach James Jones, his staff and their players for the wonders they have worked with Yale’s basketball program. The season culminating in Tuesday’s second-round National Invitation Tournament game against Tennessee Tech before 9,847 fans in the New Haven Coliseum reminded us all what joys a successful spectator sport can bring to the quality of life in a college town. Too many of us Yalies had turned our hoops attentions to Internet-abetted fanhood for the major conference teams of our hometowns, despairing that our Ivy League school could ever bring us packed gyms, rabid body-painted fans and high-flying dunks.
So thanks, coach Jones, for giving us reason to bring out the blue paint, pack the Lee Amphitheater, and jump up and down on the bleachers for our team. When, on Tuesday night, I could see my statistics professor, the Architecture School Dean, hundreds of Yale employees, thousands of community members, and hordes of students, I knew that Yale’s program had earned a great following.
The road to success over the last four years has been short and sweet. Yale finished building its gym of dreams, making for better practices, not to mention a cadre of pickup hoops junkies. Athletics Director Tom Beckett hired Jones, a good move in a sport that still gives too few African-Americans front-office jobs despite their pre-eminence on the court. Jones built an integrated and talented staff and team, promising recruit Ime Archibong ’03 that he would get an Ivy League championship before he graduated. Chris Leanza ’03 became Ivy freshman of the year in Jones’ first season, and Alex Gamboa ’05 captured the honor this year. Heading into the last weekend of last year’s Ivy season in contention for first place, Yale packed the gym against Princeton and took the game to the final minute. And soon after, the Southern California top-100 prep phenom Edwin Draughan ’05 made his decision to come to Yale.
Building off all the good momentum, this year’s season was magical, with Jones playing guys in two even platoons and 10 of them proving able to score double figures on any given night. Archibong matured as captain, dunking with a flourish and taking over offensively when the team needed a spark. A well-coached, well-conditioned team won against the Big Ten, ACC and Big East.
Thanks in advance to the whole program for next year. Maybe you’ll put together the streak of wins you need to be nationally ranked. Maybe two Ivy teams will make the Big Dance. Maybe we’ll see new growth, or star performances, from people we didn’t expect. But it’s nice to know you’ll all be there, so you should know we’ll be in the stands supporting your efforts in thanks for what you’ve brought us this year.
Jay Readey ’94 is a second-year student in the joint J.D.-M.B.A. program offered by the Yale Law School and the Yale School of Management.