November 20, 2007

’88 M. Basketball Team Remembers Historic Run

Print More

Two runners cut through the chilled autumn air as they ran along East Hill, overlooking the basin of Ithaca covered in tumbling burnt orange leaves. One of the runners was Athletic Director Andy Noel. But here, in this flashback, he is not the athletic director. He is the head coach of the wrestling team at Cornell, and the year is 1987.
The other runner is the head coach of the men’s basketball team, Mike Dement.
“1987-88, that was my last year as the head wrestling coach, and my best friend in Ithaca at Cornell University happened to be Mike Dement,” recalled Noel.
Every day, at lunch, the two men ran five to seven miles then lifted weights. And every day, Dement came prepared with a different aspect of his squad to talk to Noel about.
“Every day that we would run, he would tell me about different things, different guys on the team, how the dynamics were working, what it looked like, what he had to do to win the championship,” Noel said.
When Dement was finished talking about his aspirations for his team, and the two dropped the last weight back onto the rack they did the same thing every day — “go to Wendy’s for a salad and a baked potato. And we got to be very, very dear friends,” Noel said.
At this, the crowd that was gathered around the podium Noel spoke from broke into a comfortable laughter. The majority of the people listening were members of the basketball team that year — members of the last Cornell basketball team to win an Ivy League championship.
“We both won titles that year and it was just a special time,” Noel said as the laughter died down.
For the basketball program, though, there hasn’t been another special year to rival that one since.
“It’s not that long ago,” joked Sam Jacobs ’88, who was an All-Ivy first teamer that season. “No, it’s a long time. I tell you what I remember the most. You look back and the guys obviously you remember … and going through the practices every single day. I can remember it like it was yesterday.”
Since 1959, only three teams not named Penn or Princeton have won the Ivy League title outright. Now, 20 years later, the 1987-88 Cornell squad — one of the three — reunited in Ithaca to watch the Red’s season opener and celebrate something that seemed so impossible at the time.
“I looked at the ’88 team, and I try to give our guys lessons as often as I can, even life lessons,” said head coach Steve Donahue to the gathered crowd. “A simple thing like your season and what you overcame to win [can teach so much].”
The Red had graduated one of its best players the year before in John Bajusz ’87. Bajusz graduated as Cornell’s all-time leading scorer, finishing with more field goals than anyone else. He shot .537 for his career — the second best mark at the time. He still tops the first two lists and claims two of the top-10 scoring seasons of all time.
“So you come back, and you’re not picked to win it,” Donahue said to the assembly. “Dartmouth is picked to win it. And then you open up with Dartmouth at your place thinking, ‘Well, we have to take care of business here.’ Well, they don’t. Dartmouth beats them here. So then you’re thinking ‘Wow, we’re really behind the eight-ball now.’ They go on the road to Lafayette and lose by 40,” he paused for emphasis before repeating, “40.”
From the crowd, Jacobs corrects Donahue, “41!”
“Sorry ‘bout that Sam,” Donahue said amid laughter. “I’m just trying to give you a break there.”
As the people on the concourse overlooking center court at Newman Arena quieted down, Donahue continued.
“So they’re thinking our season’s done, right? No, they go on an 11-game winning streak. It just tells you that you have to,” and he paused to punch out the next word, “stay with stuff, you have to believe in each other. I’m sure they were shaking after that 40-point loss, but the coaches never lost it, [the players] never lost it and they went on and won 11 straight and an Ivy League championship.”
Earlier in the evening, Wolfy Florin ’88, towering over most of the other guests with his spiked hair, but sporting an easy smile and an orange floral pattern shirt, discussed why that team was able to stay so composed and finish with its league best 11-3 Ivy record.
“I think we were a team in the true sense,” Florin said. “We just really had a very close knit group of guys on and off the court and that’s something I think was very important. We were always together. We were friends on the court and off the court. Being able to have that relationship is what gave us a tremendous amount of success.”
Donahue talked about the way these relationships played out on the court with a reverential tone.
“I watched all the film,” he said. “They played fast, played hard, played unselfish, all the things that we want to do.”
“We had five or six or seven guys who could play,” Jacobs said. “Even the guys that didn’t start could have started for a lot of other good teams. Our mentality was to spread the ball around. It makes every team have to play everybody. … One night somebody would score 20 and the next night a different guy would score 20, and that’s what made us successful.”
And the tight-knit atmosphere that has built up over the years now returns in the form of the alumni backing the program.
“This is your program,” Donahue said, scanning the faces of the alumni scattered around his podium. “Guys who are playing now and guys who played before.”
“I really see a lot of similarities in the potential of the team that’s here right now,” Florin said. “There are a lot of comparisons to our team and the support in the program with not just the players but the coaching staff and the people that are supporting the program. I think that’s important because a lot more goes into a winning team than the actual players.”
While the deep talent applies to the current incarnation of the Red, the former players noted the disorganization, at times, or a young team that still hasn’t gelled.
“We were a little different because we were very structured,” Jacobs said. “These guys play a different game [a little more uptempo]. We ran up and down the court, but everything was based on a secondary break, or a structure. … We had a lot of big guys. They would just come in waves and waves. Our guys were 6-9, 6-8, 6-7 and we had one guy after another. So it was different and every guy that came in was able to get the ball in the basket. A lot of [my teammates] shot over 50 percent for their career so you look at that and we were able to spread the ball around.”
Donahue wanted his players to learn something else from the ’88 squad.
“My job here is to win basketball games,” he said. “The other thing is that I want them to have the same experience that I know you had — have the relationships like you had with each other. And hopefully 10, 15, 20 years from now these guys can have the same bonding relationship, knowing your kids and your families and all those things that you enjoy with each other. I try to build that as a family atmosphere here.”
For the ’88 team, family is an inescapable, wonderful reality. Both Donahue and the players understand that some things are more important than basketball. Jacobs couldn’t escape it as he leaned against the railing rising up from the top row of the seats in Newman, discussing the memories that have stuck with him.
“Practice, you never forget that. It was a great experience, and to be able to be part of it was unbelieva…” he got cut off mid word. A small girl with the same intense black hair that Jacobs has was pulling on his leg.
“Daddy, can I play with your phone?”
“Not now sweetie.” He continued, “It was interesting the practices every day were just…
“Daddy, I want to go.”
“Hold on sweetie, just a little longer. They were just like a war,” he forged on. “Every single day. That’s the way it had to be. And if it wasn’t that way you weren’t playing.”
Despite whatever lessons the players took with them, or whatever lessons the current team can take from them, one thing is for sure — the ’88 team proved that Cornell could prevail.
“They’ve provided us with a benchmark for what we expect and what we hope for in the future,” Noel said in closing. “And we want this to be a motivation for the young men on the current team who we expect to do what pundits are saying we are going to do. And that is to win this Ivy championship and make a little bit of an advancement into the NCAA tournament.”
A yell from the audience cut through the voice on the microphone.
“Final Four, guys.”
And with the memories of the ’88 team’s 90-50 first-round loss to Arizona buried in the past, cheers went up from the audience and several faces broke into smiles.