May 4, 2006

Cornell's Greatest Brain Speaks

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It was my 20th birthday and it was drizzling. It was one of those quiet nights where nothing was going on. Besides, 20 is the worst age anyway.

Suddenly, my phone rang. I picked it up. It was Nate Brown – our then-editor-in-chief. A paraphrased summary of our conversation:

Nate: We just found out that Bill Clinton will be this year’s convocation speaker and we need you to write it. Can you come down?

Me: Umm, I’d prefer not to. I mean, it’s my birthday and…

Nate: Yeah, I know … I’m sorry. But if you come down, umm … I’ll buy you a bottle of gin.

It wasn’t really the gin that drew me in. I’m more of a Southern Comfort kind of guy. But, that same feeling that has gotten me so many times was there. It eats at you – the rush of another story. I then repeated the words I said oh so many times: “Yeah, OK. I’ll do it.”

I told my roommate Nick about it. Without my knowledge, poor Nick and my floormates ordered a whole platter of Wings Over Ithaca for me – my favorite food at the time.

“I’ll be back soon,” I told him.

This was a common theme. I picked up stories pretty much every single day, interviewing Bill Gates, reporting on President Lehman’s arrival, the Ithaca Police apparently finding the Collegetown Creeper. It was exhilarating – the fact that there’s always a new story, always something to tell your readers about when they wake up and pick up the paper the next morning.

So I took my coat and left. Homework can wait. The story and The Sun can’t.


It’s not a typo by the way.

It’s supposed to be “The Life of Brain.”

The story is simple. I’ve been called “Brain” since my freshman year ever since my byline on a story about a lecture by Robert Kennedy (during my days working for news) read on the front page – “By Brain Tsao.”

It’s evolved since then. Besides “Brain” and “Tsao,” I’ve been called “Brain Train,” “Tsao Sauce,” “Tsao-ah Baby,” “Zao,” “Sour Baby” and “Michael Chang” among others. Sometimes I forget what my real name is. What is it again?

When I was given a column, I saw a huge problem at The Sun: a lot of writers who seem to have trouble grasping that they are not Bill Simmons, Mike Lupica or even Stephen A. Smith, that they do not have the inside track in getting that big interview with Kobe Bryant or Barry Bonds and still seem committed to thinking that their predominantly mundane (and often, poorly articulated) ideas about national sports are original. But really, they are not.

The Life of Brain (in most cases) is thus not supposed to be about me (though, I’ll take this column as the token exception to that). It is not supposed to about my tribulations with being the short, pudgy Asian kid playing second base, my epic story lasting a New York minute as a tennis player in Singapore or my weakness for a good Kelly Clarkson tune. I enjoy “Since You’ve Been Gone,” by the way.

Instead, I have tried to examine in detail those individuals around Cornell Athletics, seeing who these people are, what makes them tick, how they become successful, what their nicknames among friends are. Kind of like me – I’m Brain.

Covering the student-athlete at Cornell, or perhaps any Ivy League school, is undoubtedly quite different than writing for a huge Division I program. When I moved to sports two years ago, I came under the impression that athletes’ lives at Cornell were somehow different, just because they were athletes. What is it like to be a Cornell men’s hockey player? Must be pretty cool, huh?

Well, it is pretty cool to a certain extent. However, at the same time, being a student-athlete here is pretty much equivalent to, well, being a regular student. They go to many of the same classes you do. They still have to study under tough Cornell standards (and I don’t buy the whole deal that some get off easy because they are in easier majors – it’s crap, especially when some of these kids have over 4.0 GPAs). These are the people who you’ll see out drinking beers or taking shots (in the off-season and Saturday nights, of course…) right next to you, walking around on campus, in your group projects, and having the same thoughts cursing the incomparable Ithaca weather.

As a fellow student, it’s especially hard to write critically of these individuals, because, in the end, they face the same pressures you do. That bratty girlfriend. The 10-page paper due in a few hours. Figuring out what to do after graduation. When talking to people like Travis Lee, Kyle Miller and David McKee – all of whom have more talent and heart than most walking around this campus – when the headgear is off, the stick is put down and the pads are removed, they are you – one of the 20,000 kids roaming around in Middle of Nowhere, New York.

So perhaps my coverage in my column and in The Sun sports section has been light-handed at times. Forgive me. These guys do not play for scholarships, and rarely have a glimmer of making it to the big time. They work their butts off in-season and off-season for one reason – they love their sport.

I could relate in part to this. I have strained relationships with my responsibilities and friends, missed events I probably should’ve been at and surely could’ve accomplished more in other aspects of my life. Yet, I look forward to getting my articles out there every day, meeting new people and finding out new facts and stories at any time. If I were in this for the money, I’d make more washing dishes at a diner downtown. However, that’s not the point. I do it because I love working at The Sun. And for the last four years, part of that is what the Life of Brian “Brain” Tsao has been all about.


Now to the people who have made my life as a journalist extremely easy. Bear with me here.

First, some of the athletes who have helped me out (and there might be some that I might forget and I’m sorry): Kyle Georgalas, Kyle Miller, Kevin Rex, Kevin Boothe, Ryan Kuhn, Joel Sussman, Andre Hardaway, Matt Moulson, Chris Abbott, David McKee, Joe Boulukos, Cam Marchant, Derek Haswell, Kevin Scelfo and David Mahoney.

I have to give a collective shoutout to the wrestling team because I figured that if I started naming names, I’d forget someone and be put in a figure-four leg lock. Perhaps it’s a little bit of a conflict of interest to say that this was the best beat to cover, but it was. You guys were all great interviews (Tyler Baier is probably the best-spoken athlete I’ve talked to), hilarious and a lot of fun. Most of all, you guys are all in the midst of the beginning of a dynasty and your being a part of that is special. So congrats guys and thanks.

Coach Scales, despite the fact that your team did not go through the best of times when I was covering you, you were always willing to talk, for which I am grateful. And it was fun talking about European soccer with you. For leading the most scrutinized sport on campus, like his team’s play, Coach Schafer handled every one of my questions directly and without frills – something I appreciate.

Coach Tambroni and the entire men’s lacrosse coaching staff: covering your team for two years, it is evident that you run your program instilling character and dignity in your players at a time when the game of lacrosse is being tarnished by other issues. It’s been a pleasure to work with you and watch your guys compete.

What can I say about Coach Koll? I could walk into his office and he could start talking about his 133-pound weight class or the team’s marketing campaign or American Idol. My suggestion to you would be to ignore advice of being “less flippant” and continue being frank, honest and up-front. Despite the fact that I get called a loser an average of four times per visit, it’s always been great.

Jeremy Hartigan, Julie Greco, Tyler Denison, Marlene Crockford and the former employees known as Brian Kelley and Eric Lawrence in Athletic Communications: As former editors and writers can attest, going into your guys’ office and just talking about Cornell or any other sport is a favorite pastime. And whenever I do have some sort of newspaper reason for going in there, you guys have always been better than top-class, looking out for the sterling publication known as The Cornell Sun. So thank you.

Additionally, Andy Noel must be on this list. Always under the eye of scrutinizing alumni and students, it’s plain to see how much you love Cornell sports and I’m excited to see the Red to emerge in years to come.

Now, Sunnies (and this list is long).

Amy Green has to be the first person because if it weren’t for her – one of my best friend’s ex-girlfriend’s best friends – I wouldn’t be on The Sun. She was the one who sent me that e-mail telling me to join The Sun and my life at Cornell changed ever since. So thank you for that and all of the fun times.

Like any little freshman, I was scared. But thanks to people like Marc Zawel (who trained me), Laura Rowntree and Maggie Frank, I always got great stories and learning from them helped me prosper as a writer. I’ll always appreciate and remember that.

I think the next three people should probably be together: Andy Guess was the news writer I admired when I first came to Cornell for his direct reporting and excellent prose. Working with Pete Norlander was unbelievable because he is that intrepid reporter you see on television. He’s in India now, probably digging up another great story. And Freda Ready, I’m sorry I left for sports. Unlike what Erica Temel says, it was not because Sports was more fun. You were an unbelievable managing editor, always so supportive and you kneeing E.J. in the crotch will always be a top-5 moment.

I loved Diana Lo because she was always up for a good drink or two (though she’d be done after “two”) and was always so much fun. Erica Fink is going to do a wonderful job as editor-in-chief and I have no doubt in my mind that she’s going to run NBC one day. And Eric Finkelstein and Melissa Korn: trivia was always great. Winning is even better, but still, with Eric’s random knowledge and Melissa’s expert-level skills at Scrabble, it was always going to be an unstoppable team.

Erica Temel: If I was going to create the most pleasant, neurotic girl in the world, I would make an Erica Temel. Let’s get a power lunch sometime.

Carl Menzel, meow meow. And Michael Morisy, my other sort-of protégé type: I will always remember creeping the “IPD: Collegetown Creeper” with you. I will not be surprised if, in 10 years, you’ll be one of the most well-known journalists in America (for good reasons, of course). Some people in this field don’t get it, but you do – more than anyone else.

Carlos Maycotte: We are on opposite sites of a spectrum. You like Mexico soccer. I like United States soccer. You like the Braves. I love the Mets. Can’t we just agree on a team, root together and just get along?

Zach Jones: I was going to write something rude, but your comment in your column yesterday made me turn Asian red. I think if film doesn’t ever work out, you should continue writing – your pieces were my favorite thing in the whole paper to read every week.

Adam Sinovsky, I’m sorry for drinking your gin, but I’m glad I bring some sanity to the Asian race for you. And Rob Bonow, I think I could say this on behalf of most people on The Sun that you should shove whatever doctor stuff you’re planning on doing up you know where and continue shooting. You are the most talented person on The Sun.

Ali Pivoda: Some of my best memories are hanging out with you on all of our road trips and making trouble. The more I think about it, opening a Palms in Brooklyn sounds like a great idea. Or, we can just call it, BLEUE?!.

My sports predecessors who had a role in enticing me to join the dark side, Alex Ip and Scott Jones, were inspirational in their love for Cornell and sports in general.

E.J. Hullverson and Kyle Sheahen: I think as Owen said last year, meeting guys like you makes a part of me regret not rushing and joining a house. I’m not sure if I’d met a pair of crazier characters – one who would bring tasty “beverages” down to desk, the other who thought it would be a good idea to hold a $1,600 bar tab. Unbelievable. Josh Perlin and Ted Nyman: this is the type of legacy you guys have to live up to, but it’s been great working with you.

Per Ostman: You are the youngest 44-year-old I know. Wait, typo. 24. Same idea. On a more serious note, I was worried about writing my last column after your masterpiece last week, but it goes to prove that your victory lap as a writer should not come to an end anytime soon.

Bryan Pepper: If we weren’t lucky, you wouldn’t be in Italy and I wouldn’t be sitting at my desk here in Ithaca. We’d be stuck in Central New York next to a woman’s prison still hunting for food. You, Jimmy and I will all go grill sometime.

Owen Bochner: It was you who officially swept me away from News and it’s a decision I haven’t regretted ever since. We’ve had a lot of great times and you must stop self-loathing and get me World Series tickets when the Mets go this year. I’ll bring the Sparks.

Paul Testa: To the most stylish man on The Sun who can rock the blazer and pink tie, fling out the funniest one-liners about anything and could perhaps have been my best beat partner and Dunbar’s buddy, just one question: what’s making you so damn moody?

Tim Kuhls: Check it out. All the pong, golf and other games have been fun. Learn how to putt and chip when I’m gone and perhaps, you will be able to take me in the Invitational.

Olivia Dwyer: For the most part, I’ve probably spent so much time with you that you’re probably my pseudo-girlfriend, only four inches taller. However, I guess the best way to describe it is that is, “It’s been GREAT.” Your enthusiasm is so infectious in everything you do and I know I’m going to really miss you.

Chris Mascaro: The Beef, bringing up the bottom of the order like a Robinson Cano. Although perhaps not as agile or aerodynamic as Cano, I don’t think anyone has the innate sense of humor that you do. We had some great times on road trips, especially doing Pepper impressions and talking about secret Sports information. It’s been a great ride and I was proud to be your right hand man.

To the rest of the people on the 124th, you guys have been already doing a spectacular job and I’m going to miss being around next year. To my loyal friends (you know who you are), I’m so lucky and I don’t think I could’ve gone through these past four years without you. And Schroeder, I always had fun joshing with you and hopefully the next time I’m back in Ithaca, you’ll have the Spandau Ballet ready for me.


Going back to my story, by the time I got back home, my wings were cold. It was late, Nick was up doing homework and I started picking at my dinner with a fork before dumping it in the microwave. My 20th birthday came and went in a dash – just like these last four years.

Nate never gave me that bottle of gin. But as I slid into my bed that night, I was happy for the same reasons which make me sad as I finish writing this final sentence.

On that night, it was just another moment in the Life of Brain.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Senior Writer. Life of Brain has appeared every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao