February 21, 2008

Red Takes National Stage From Atop the Ivy League

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Put most college kids in a comfortable chair for any length of time and chances are they’ll fall asleep at some point. That makes the men’s basketball team’s six-hour haul to Harvard last Friday the perfect time to get some shut-eye. And sleep was exactly what senior forward Jason Hartford had in mind.
“You’d fall asleep on the bus and you’d peek through your eye and he would be six inches away from your face taking pictures,” Hartford said.
No, the Red didn’t have a team member invading personal space for the love of amateur photography, in fact, he wasn’t even a part of the squad.
The man was Josh Haner, a New York Times photographer.
“He was just there clicking away the whole time — click, click, click,” Hartford said.
A Times’ photographer, on assignment, doing his job. Not something you expect to see on a typical Cornell basketball road trip.
“It was an experience, that’s for sure,” Hartford said. “Going through our motions and routines that we have with a guy with a camera right there the whole time.”
And Haner wasn’t alone. He was there accompanying Pete Thamel, who covers college basketball — which doesn’t typically include Cornell — for the Times. Their assignment: see what a weekend road trip with the Ivy League’s best team is like.
What became a feature piece in last Monday’s Times’ sports section was just the culmination of the increased attention the men’s basketball team has been receiving this year as a result of its perfect (thus far) Ivy record.
“It’s not like [the attention] has been with us the whole time,” Hartford said. “It’s kind of like jumping on the bandwagon.”
And the attention doesn’t look like it will be waning anytime soon. Especially as the accolades continue to build.
Cornell, despite dropping in the RPI after last weekend, received a vote in the AP top-25 poll yesterday, one of 11 unranked teams receiving votes. Although there is no official record, this is most likely the first time the Red has ever gotten such a vote since the 1953-54 season, when the team was nationally ranked.
Head coach Steve Donahue, although claiming he doesn’t read the papers and only uses the internet to check his email during the season, has noted the sense of excitement around this year’s team.
“I think we’re a young basketball team, so people might not be used to the idea [of us being successful],” Donahue said. “There’s way more [attention] here, just because we’re the only act in town.”
Not to mention the fact that Cornell hasn’t been particularly close to an Ivy title for the majority of the last generation.
“Oh, yeah, [it definitely makes it sweeter to have a chance to win the Ivy title at a school without much history of winning],” Hartford said. “Breaking tradition is always good. You have a chance to explore new frontiers, if you will.”
Without that tradition, though, the media attention is something the players certainly never anticipated when they committed to Cornell, making it the experience of having people writing about you even more surreal. Especially when Thamel was blogging on the Times’ website this past weekend about the team’s every move.
“It was interesting how quickly he blogged it,” Hartford said. “We have wireless on the bus and I remember [sophomore] Alex Tyler was sitting in front of me and he tapped me and said, ‘Hey Hart, look at this.’ It was, like, word-for-word what we had just had a conversation about. It was very weird, quite an experience. I think the guys enjoyed it, though.”
And as much as the players have enjoyed the attention, people outside the program have been much more attuned to it than the team.
“As I say to our guys, [the media attention is] really for the fans and friends of the program,” Donahue said. “The families and the student bodies get excited about it, but it doesn’t make our job any easier coming up this weekend.”
For the players this has meant increased recognition on campus.
“A lot of people come up to you and ask, ‘Hey man, are you on the basketball team,’” Hartford said. “I say ‘yeah,’ and they’re like ‘Can I get some tickets?’ I mean, they’re three dollars. I’m not going to give you free tickets. Somebody asked me for six comp tickets. … It’s a lot different than in years past.”
Hartford, in particular, has gotten flack from friends and family after Thamel mentioned in a blog entry how Hartford got mocked as the only senior on the team. When he saw the blogs go up so quickly, he mentioned that it waslike the scene in the Never Ending Story when the main character Bastian is reading a book that is being written about him, as the same things enfold in real time.
With several players confused as to what movie he was even talking about, junior Adam Gore quipped about the only senior on the team, “We’re not all 27.”
“I did get a lot of phone calls that night after he posted it about the Never Ending Story,” Hartford said. “My friends from back home, and even my parents commented on it. … I had three people [yesterday] come up and ask if I was really 27. I’m very mad, I’m only 22.”
Donahue knows, though, that the focused, hard working nature of the team means it will not get distracted by any of the outside attention.
“There’s very little change in their demeanor,” he said. “This team has been pretty level-headed throughout, even after our losses. For the most part when this team comes into practice, you don’t know if they won or lost the day before.”