Last Thursday, the Yale Basketball team faced off against LSU in the first round of March Madness. Despite being outscored in a tight game by the high-powered SEC team, there’s a lot to be said for what these remarkable young men have done for our school and our community, giving everyone a great example to aspire to.
As a kid growing up in southern California, it was inevitable that I would be at least a casual Kobe Bryant fan. I was never any good at basketball, but I would still go out in the back yard every day and imitate the players I admired on the court, narrating the last play of the game, counting down the seconds, putting up that last shot just before the buzzer. I usually missed these shots, but you get the point. A new cast of names would enter these backyard games in March when UCLA played in the tournament. I might not have ever been much of a basketball player, but I still looked up to these players, as did most of the other kids I grew up with.
Today, my two biggest complaints with the NBA are the tendency toward genetic outliers (.000038% of the population is seven feet tall but 17% of seven footers are in the NBA) and the fact that so few of them (21%) actually graduate college. This isn’t the fault of the players; the game favors tall people, every sport has these genetic outliers, and the league pays so much that it would be highly irresponsible for top prospects to stay in school and risk injury. But I worry that young kids watching these games today might get the wrong message. Don’t bother playing the game if you’re not built for it, don’t bother too much with school, academics aren’t going to make you successful.
But last Thursday, Alex Copeland scored a game high 24 points against the top team in the SEC on national television. What did everyone think watching that game? Hopefully, they were impressed that someone so seemingly normal could ball out like that. All season long, the media has been flooded with coverage of Zion Williamson, the 6’8” Duke freshman projected to be the first overall pick in the next NBA draft. He’s averaging 22.5 points a game, so how did Alex Copeland put up 24 against LSU? He’s no giant. In fact, he’s much smaller than most other players on the court. He’s not even especially bouncy. Copeland holds his own because he worked his tail off to earn a seat at the table with all the other players in college basketball. That’s the promise that Yale Athletics makes, that we ought to not lose sight of. It promises that not only can you earn a life changing degree, but you can play your game at the highest level regardless of broader physical statistics in the league, regardless of the demands and personal sacrifices that degree requires. Losing sight of that vision means losing great contributors to our community in the future.
On that note, the recent admissions scandal has plenty of people picking on Yale about its admissions processes, and for good reason. Some even remarked that in the future, qualified students might not apply if they believe they don’t have a chance to get in. I know of at least one antidote. Our basketball team played on national television in front of thousands of people with YALE on their chest. They showed that anyone can get to the most competitive school, anyone can play their game at the highest level if they just work at it. Their parents aren’t celebrities. They didn’t buy their way into the school. They just worked.
When other students had all day to do homework and they had to go to practice first, they worked. When they got home exhausted and didn’t really feel like studying for the ACT, they worked. When their bodies were injured and the last thing they wanted to think about was writing a paper, they worked. And all that work in the classroom and on the court got them into one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, an opportunity I know they don’t take as lightly as many of their classmates.
Yale Basketball and Yale Athletics give a couple hundred qualified kids every year the chance of a lifetime. Not all, but many of them come from humble beginnings, under-resourced public schools, the inner city, you name it. It’s not to say that Ivy League sports aren’t whiter and wealthier than other leagues, but the fact remains that a lot of athletes get the chance to go to Yale who would have otherwise never thought about it. Once they arrive on campus, they face all the same problems as other Yale students (yes, even the student income contribution). They just have less time and energy to solve them. These guys took care of business as well as anybody, and I couldn’t have been prouder, regardless of the score. Going forward, I hope the Yale Basketball team gets all the support we can give them, I hope they play on television all the time, I hope they go to the tournament again, and I hope some kid in the middle of nowhere with a plastic hoop on the back porch thinks, “I want to do that someday, too.”
Alex Galland is a senior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .