When I entered Yale as a freshman, my father, a Yale graduate, told me three things about Yale sports.
Don’t worry about the football team. Even though it had struggled the past few years, Yale had a football tradition and the future of Yale football would be bright in the Bowl.
Don’t worry about the men’s ice hockey team. Coming off an NCAA tournament berth the year before, the team would make the Whale the place to be during the long New Haven winters.
And don’t worry about the Yale basketball team — losing was its only tradition. All the Ivy League basketball fun was down in Princeton and Pennsylvania. There was no joy in the John J. Lee Amphitheater.
My freshman year, my father’s words proved true. To put it kindly, the men’s basketball team struggled. It finished 4-22, and at one point the team was dead last in Division I — 310 out of 310. The one highlight of the season was a dramatic win over Princeton at home that broke the Tigers’ 35-game Ivy League winning streak. The win propelled the Elis out of last place — in Division I. Yale still owned the cellar in the Ivies.
Since I had missed seeing the win over Princeton, I went to the game against Penn the next night. Penn ate the Bulldogs for lunch. All the athletic talent on the floor belonged to the Quakers. The one Yale player that stuck in my mind was a freshman off the bench — Onaje Woodbine ’02. He would be someone to watch in the future, but past that, I could only guess at how Yale had beaten Princeton the night before.
That spring, Yale’s head coach of 13 years, Dick Kuchen, resigned. A few months later the team brought in a new coach, former assistant James Jones. Jones talked big and promised an Ivy League title. While the talk was nice, I figured he wouldn’t deliver during my time at Yale.
The next season began as the previous one ended — with lots of losses. In the non-conference schedule, even members of the administration complained they had never heard of some of the schools that beat Yale.
But at the start of Ivy League play, Yale topped Harvard at home and then beat a strong Dartmouth team in a thrilling 71-69 double overtime game. Woodbine’s late-game heroics made basketball exciting in the Elm City. He willed the Bulldogs to victory in style. The shooting guard sank the key shots when it counted and displayed a killer crossover into a pull-up jumper move that did not miss. The move, which Woodbine used in crunch time in games, soon earned the nickname “The Woodbine Special” from WYBC’s Zak Pines ’00.
The upstart Bulldogs streaked to 3-0 and first place in the league before struggles on the road resulted in a 5-9 finish.
But they were climbing, and with Woodbine and standout point guard Chris Leanza ’03, I began thinking about that Ivy League title Jones had promised. Ivy League basketball junkies agreed the Bulldogs were going to make a real splash. But uncertainty replaced my optimism when Woodbine announced at the beginning of the next year that he decided not to play for Yale.
Even with the loss of Woodbine, the team improved. Jones’ first recruiting class could play. Yale was in the mix for the Ivy League title in the last weekend of the season, only to fall short at 7-7.
That season Leanza continued to be a spark plug for the team, as he poured in three-pointers in bulk and handled the ball with authority. But his oft-injured shoulder had worsened and he struggled from the free-throw line in clutch situations.
The next season began with no seniors on the team and an injured Leanza on the bench, but Jones’ winning attitude and stellar pair of recruits in Edwin Draughan ’05 and Alex Gamboa ’05 made the obstacles seem irrelevant.
Yale made headlines early when it knocked off Penn State on the road. But for me, the excitement began a few weeks later when I announced two games at the Red Auerbach Colonial Classic at George Washington for WYBC.
After blowing out Stony Brook in the first round, the Bulldogs met George Washington in the finals. Yale led for most of the game. But in the last 10 minutes, the Colonials stormed back and, with a minute left, held a 10-point lead. What followed was the most exciting minute of basketball I have ever seen. Duke-Maryland 2001 had nothing on this frantic finish. With a flurry of fouls and clutch baskets, the Bulldogs, led by some wicked shooting on the part of their freshman floor leader Gamboa, took the game to overtime. They ultimately fell 116-102 because virtually all of their players fouled out in overtime, but this wasn’t my daddy’s Yale basketball team.
With Gamboa stepping up at point guard and leadership from captain Ime Archibong ’03 and T.J. McHugh ’03, the team was fun to watch.
Dunks became more regular. The team was scrappy on defense. The players dove for loose balls. They passed and played as a team, and they went 11 deep. I figured Yale would finish in the top half of the Ivy League, but I didn’t see them getting by Penn and winning the title. Jones proved me wrong.
In Ivy League play the team displayed its flair and showed its never-say-die attitude when it came back against a talented Harvard team up in Boston. Getting blown out at the half, Jones’ players rallied, and the team stunned the Crimson. The win was vital, and the momentum carried the Bulldogs to a sweep of the much-feared tandem of Princeton and Penn in two emotional games at the Lee Amphitheater.
Yale basketball was on the map. The Lee Amphitheater was rocking against Penn and Princeton. Yale fans made the Lee louder than Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. And they started travelling on the road with the team. Perhaps the fans heckled a bit too much, but basketball was fun, and Jones’ confident, winning attitude spread all over campus. March Madness was in the air. Yale basketball was the topic of conversation, and everybody was talking it — even ESPN’s Dick Vitale and Andy Katz.
With a 9-1 record, Yale controlled its own destiny in the Ivy League when it headed south to face the Tigers and the Quakers. Like many teams before them, the Elis could not snatch a win on the road against the perennial Ivy powerhouses and ultimately finished at 11-3 in the league. But this was good enough for a three-way tie atop the league with Princeton and Penn, and yes, it was good enough for an Ivy League championship — the team’s first since 1963.
Yale received a bid to the NIT, where it knocked off Rutgers on the road for its first-ever postseason win in its 107-year history.
The dream season ended the next game in a loss at home in a packed New Haven Coliseum to Tennessee Tech, but it did not diminish all the Bulldogs accomplished.
Jones had delivered on his promise, and the class of 2002 became the first-ever Yale class to graduate with Ivy championships in football, men’s ice hockey and yes, the unthinkable — men’s basketball.
Michael Horn is a senior in Pierson College and a former Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News.