With spring break approaching, the student section will be fairly desolate when the Yale men’s basketball team takes the court for its final two home games of the season this weekend. By the time Saturday night’s game against Columbia rolls around, John J. Lee Amphitheater figures to be a barren wasteland. Unfortunately, that match-up will be the last home game for Yale’s seniors — Alex Gamboa and Edwin Draughan.
Yup, I’m writing another column about the basketball team. Sorry, but it’s my last one. And, as a member of the class of 2005, I think it’s important to put down some final words about the Yale sports team that proved to be the most captivating during my four years here.
For everyone who was fortunate enough to witness the 2001-02 Ivy title run, these past three years have been frustrating. The seasons have been replete with an exhaustive array of unanswered questions. How did a championship team with no seniors manage to get worse in its next season? Why can’t this group play up to their talent level? Why is it impossible to beat Brown?
Even the Bulldogs’ occasional successes have only produced more questions. During the sweep of Princeton and Penn two weeks ago, it was apparent that Draughan had finally emerged as a dominant player. Most people loved his performance, but a lot of fans couldn’t help pondering where that has been for the last three seasons.
The problem is that we were all spoiled right away. The wins during the spring of 2002 were just too spectacular. I’ll never forget the delirium in the stands when the Bulldogs swept Penn and Princeton to take first place in the league. The poster of Ime Archibong ’03 dunking against the backdrop of fans rushing the court at the buzzer of the 60-50 win over Princeton stayed as my monitor’s wallpaper for a good year.
During the Ivy League playoff, it was so sweet to travel to the Palestra to watch the Bulldogs avenge an embarrassing loss at Jadwin Gym with a 76-60 dismantling of Princeton. For the NIT, I made the trip to Rutgers with my dad. I remember how the cocky sneers on the faces of Rutgers’ fans gradually transformed into stunned disbelief, culminating in seething rage, over the course of Yale’s 67-65 win (We had to run for the exits when the final buzzer sounded.)
It was a phenomenal season, and, with good cause, every senior who follows this team has been trying to relive it for the last three years. We were kept waiting like Rick Blaine at the Paris train station.
There were definitely hints of greatness. Yale had a few more memorable wins — a dramatic overtime thriller at Madison Square Garden over Manhattan at the beginning of the 2002-03 season and the most recent home sweep of Princeton and Penn come to mind. The Bulldogs also challenged No. 1 UConn last season and pushed Boston College to the brink during a double-overtime dogfight in December. But really, the magic of the 2001-02 campaign never came back.
When people look back on the 2001-02 season, they might consider the mediocre years that followed and decide that Yale’s share of the Ivy title was a fluke. Or maybe they’ll think Coach Jones just managed to trap lightning in a bottle for one year. Who cares? Whatever it was, it was great.
Once Gamboa and Draughan leave the court for the last time, the Bulldogs’ connections to the championship team will be severed. In three tries, the two seniors never led a team that came close to matching the expectations generated during their freshman year.
But lost in the face of expectations that were never met is the fact that we were lucky to have expectations in the first place. I’ve always been a huge college basketball fan. Upon coming to New Haven, I was resigned to the fact that the only meaningful college hoops games I would ever watch here would be on ESPN.
In 1999, James Jones inherited a team that had finished with an appalling 3-22 record against Division I competition. Even though he had built the program up to 10-17 by 2000-01, I wasn’t holding my breath. Yale’s basketball program had no recent history of success, and there was little reason to think the team would ever be good during my time here. I’m sure most of my classmates felt the same way. So it’s worth recognizing that it’s pretty amazing we ever received the opportunity to dream at all.
And Gamboa and Draughan deserve a lot of the credit. Yes, the team was improving when they arrived, but that freshman starting backcourt made the Bulldogs a winner. Not only did they help bring home Yale’s first Ivy title in 40 years and only postseason victory in team history, they also presided over the rise in the basketball program’s stature. During their tenure, Yale basketball went from a consistent bottom-dweller to a team expected to challenge for an NCAA tournament berth, and capable of competing with major conference powers like Oklahoma State, Wake Forest, UConn, and BC.
So maybe they never came close to another Ivy title. But, when the last two links to that championship team leave the amphitheater floor for the final time, I’d rather not have them think about falling short of expectations. Forget what might have been. What Gamboa and Draughan managed to achieve during their careers is terrific by itself. And, since many of us won’t be there on Saturday to see them off, I just wanted to say what we should have been thinking all along: Thank you.