May 4, 2006

Sun Continues to Talk Ivy Basketball With Orton

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In the second part of her interview with The Sun, Kathy Orton of The Washington Post ruminates on where the Ivy League is headed – including athletic scholarships, its chances in the NCAA tournament, a postseason tournament of its own, and which teams have a shot at the title next year. She also talks about having open heart surgery in the middle of the season, what she shares with the late Maggie Dixon, and where women’s college basketball is headed.

The Sun: Do you think an Ivy League school will ever be able to make a run in the NCAA tournament like George Mason?
Kathy Orton: I think that’s become fairly commonplace now to see “mid-major” programs upsetting better-known or higher-regarded teams in the first round. … It’s the team like a George Mason going all the way to the Final Four, which is rare but I think it could definitely happen [again]. Do I think it could happen in the Ivy League? I would doubt it. I think if you look, it’s becoming harder and harder for Ivy League schools to get the kind of athletes that these schools are getting. George Mason had a lot of very talented players that developed and grew during their four years, and they stayed together for most of the time that they were able to get to the Final Four. If you looked at this year’s Ivy League, there were very few seniors. I think it’s very hard to stick it out all four years in the Ivy Legaue, play basketball and do well academically. And I think you would have to have a group of kids who could stay around for four years and develop their game over those four years and I just don’t see that happening. I think it’s too hard for kids to stick out – I think it’s amazing that kids stick out all four years playing basketball at an Ivy League school given all the other demands on them, and I think you’re going to continue to see fewer seniors. I think this year there were hardly any seniors in the Ivy League, and I think that’s going to be a trend in the future.
The Sun: Do you think the Ivy League will ever award athletic scholarships in an attempt to compete on the national sports scene?
Orton: Definitely I know that a lot of people would like to see them award scholarships. It would make recruiting a lot easier for the coaches, that’s for sure. Will they award scholarships? I would really doubt it, I don’t think the Ivy League presidents would ever go for that. I think there’s a lot of people in the Ivy League who question whether sports are an important part of an Ivy League education, and I think that will be a battle that will be constantly fought, so I don’t think they will ever get to the point where scholarships will be possible. A lot of people made this argument to me as I was writing the book – why should an athlete take the spot of a kid who is academically maybe more qualified to be there? I would argue that academics are only part of your education, that there’s a lot more to it than book smarts. But there [have] certainly been a lot smarter people who’ve put out books [and] arguments than I have as to why this is important. But I don’t know, as far as where the Ivy League is headed, I think it’s sort of at a crossroads right now as far as its mission with athletics.
The Sun: What do you think of a postseason tournament for the Ivy League?
Orton: Well, I know most people … will be against what I think on this, but I like it the way it is. Now, the players I’ve talked to and most of the coaches I’ve talked to want a postseason tournament, and in fact I’ve been in contact with someone who just wrote his dissertation on whether or not the Ivy League should have a tournament. He interviewed all of the coaches and players in the league this year, and an overwhelming majority, the head coaches want a tournament. Do I think one will happen? No, I don’t think the Ivy League presidents will ever go for it. The reason I would hate to see it go – and it’s purely for selfish reasons – [is] because I think the way the league is now is so great. … Every game is so important and I’d hate to see it lose it. That atmosphere the games have now – there’s just no game where you feel like, “Eh, you know, it’s just one game.” It’s all very intense and the Friday-Saturday turnaround is so hard, and I think if you felt like you could falter it would lose some of its luster. … I certainly know that these guys do want to play more games. They’re hampered by the fact that the league limits how many games they get to play in a season, and I think that’s unfortunate, because they do most of them love playing so much they want to play as much as possible. For a lot of them, one of the biggest things would be playing on television, which surprised me. Andy Pogach, who did the survey for his thesis [at North Carolina], found that like 80 percent of the kids, one of the reasons they wanted to play a conference tournament was that they could get on a national TV, like ESPN, and to me that’s like, no big deal to be on TV, but I guess for them that’s a really big deal for their friends and family to be able to see them on TV. So in that case maybe perhaps there’s something to be said for [a postseason tournament], but for me I kind of like it the way it is and I hope that they don’t change.
The Sun: What are your predictions for next season?
Orton: Well, it’ll be interesting now with Penn getting a new coach, with Fran Dunphy leaving and Glen Miller moving from Brown to Penn. That’s going to be really interesting, because you’d think that Penn would be favored to win the league again next year considering they did lose key seniors off that team but pretty much the core of that team is back, [and] Princeton finishing so very strong and losing just Scottie Greenman. … Which is no surprise, Penn and Princeton being near the top of the Ivy League is really going out on a limb by me. But as far as the other teams, it’s going to be interesting to see in some respects it’s hard to know who’s going to be on the roster come October because of the things I mentioned earlier where people tend to just stop playing basketball in the Ivy League. Other Division I schools always talk about how they lose players to the NBA, but in the Ivy League they’re losing players too, just not to the NBA – a lot of it is because of the academics. Not that they can’t handle the academics, but sometimes they choose that’s where their future is, so people decide rather than playing basketball it’s more important for me to continue to pursue my academics rather than my athletics. I certianly think [Cornell head] coach [Steve] Donahue always has such a strong team, he’s really built that program up to be such a strong team that Cornell would definitely be in the mix. Yale was a very young team but showed a lot of potential, I think they’ll definitely be in the mix for a contender. Harvard lost almost its entire team, I would be surprised if they did much next year. Dartmouth had a very young team and didn’t lose a lot of seniors, so they could be a strong team next year. Brown came on really strong towards the end there … it’ll all depend on who they hire. And Columbia has got a lot of good talent there as well so it’ll be interesting to see next year. It could be another interesting year for the Ivy League.
The Sun: In the middle of the 2005-06 basketball season, you took time off to have open heart surgery. How did you balance that with the work you were doing for your book?
Orton: This was something I had known about going into the season that I had this heart condition for a couple years now – actually, all my life, but it became an issue a couple years ago. And I had discovered in August before the season that I would need to have surgery sooner rather than later, and I scheduled the surgery for the two weeks in January when there aren’t a lot of games because of the Harvard and Princeton exam breaks – which is another unique thing about the Ivy League, that everybody gets put on hold while these schools have their exams. … I had surgery on January 10, so I missed like the Cornell-Columbia trip down to Penn-Princeton and then missed the first Cornell-Columbia game, so I did miss a few games. But I was fortunate that the players and coaches were so incredibly generous and were so willing to talk to me about those games that I missed, so I didn’t feel as though I missed a whole lot even though I wish I could have been there.
The Sun: You covered Maggie Dixon, head coach of the Army women’s basketball team, early in the season and then she tragically died in March from a condition similar to yours. How did you take that news?
Orton: Well it was quite a shock because I had written about her [and] had spoken to her on the phone. Obviously, I don’t think she had any idea when I was talking to her that she had this condition. And yes, it is almost identical to the condition that I have, so it did cause me to pause for a minute, because based on what I read from the autopsy report she had an enlarged heart and a valve problem and an arrhythmia, and I have all of that. My valve problem has been corrected, it was corrected by the open-heart surgery and also I have a defibrillator, which is similar to a pace-maker. So if she would have had that … I’m not sure but there might have been something, a better outcome for her. But having dealt with this, it is one of those things where you don’t ever feel sick. Even right up to my surgery I never felt any symptoms. Really I was asymptomatic, and I’m sure she if she felt anything it was tired, but you don’t think of tired as a symptom. So it’s one of those tragic, unfortunate things but I’m not sure that there’s anything she could have done differently that anyone could have know she had this. … I just feel awful for her family and for her players, the players up there just really, really thought the world of her, so it’s such a tragedy for someone that talented and warm and loving to have died so suddenly.
The Sun: You have also covered women’s college basketball and reported on the women’s NCAA tournament this year. How does the women’s game compare to the men’s?
Orton: I don’t know that it will ever get the same kind of crowds and the same kind of TV ratings and I don’t that’s something it should shoot for. I think it’s a different entity and I think one of the problems with women’s basketball is it either tries to be too much like the men or it tries to be completely separate from the men, and I think it should try to strike a middle balance. It is the same game, but I think it attracts a different interest and a different crowd – women’s crowds tend to be more family oriented and older and men’s crowds can be much more younger and male-oriented. So I think you just have to appreciate what you have and not be trying to be something you’re not.
The Sun: Did you think it was a big deal when Tennesse’s Candice Parker dunked against Army in the first round of the women’s NCAA tournament?
Orton: So much was made about that, and I think any time you turned on ESPN there for a while it was on a constant loop and you saw it every five seconds. You know, it’s great she can dunk, it’s great to see that there are women who have that athletic ability, but I don’t think it’s all of a sudden going to make people come to the game just because a women dunks. You either like women’s basketball for what it is or you don’t, but you’re not all of a sudden going to become a women’s basketball fan because one woman at one school dunked. I think you have to appreciate the game for what it is. And I think it’s great she dunked and it’s exciting – and I feel bad for the poor Army girl who had to be in the shot every other second getting dunked on. It’s nice but I don’t think it’s revolutionized the game; she certainly isn’t the first to dunk and she won’t be the last.

Archived article by Olivia Dwyer
Sun Sports Editor
And Paul Testa
Sun Assitant Sports Editor