March 12, 2008

Love and Basketball

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Whatever semblance of journalistic integrity I had, it was gone. Call it a moment of weakness. Screw that. Call it a night of weakness (If only I didn’t have so many of those).
It was the second half of the men’s basketball game against Harvard. Cornell’s lead was insurmountable and it was just a matter of time until the buzzer sounded and the Ivy League title would reside on East Hill for the first time since I thought pooping my pants was the best way to relieve myself.
“I think I just lost all objectivity,” I said to the Harvard Crimson reporter next to me, a maniacal grin spread across my face.
“I would to,” he deadpanned.
I resisted the urge to grab him and shake him. Or hug him. I was so excited. I needed someone to share it with. Trembling, I tried to maintain some normalcy and take notes. My Microsoft Word document screamed at me.
Normally, I only use caps to write a question I want to remember to ask afterward, or an observation I want to stand out when I look back on my notes before writing a recap. Every single note I took after halftime was in caps.
What the crowd kept chanting.
What the guy behind me said as the clock wound down.
A feat in and of itself during a Cornell basketball game.
Me displaying my verbose, loquacious and effusive method of writing. When I scrolled back up, I noticed I had taken two full pages of notes in all capital letters — not a single lower case curve or line to be found.
And then I completely lost it. The buzzer sounded. Dress shirt, shoes and slacks flapping in the rush of people, I went hurdling over the press row table and onto the court. The players were towering above the crowd and wading through a sea of arms thrust in the air holding up one finger. Screaming, hugging, high-fives, signing “We Are The Champions” — it was pure euphoria.
Then I returned to the real world. I stumbled into the press conference, my face glistening with sweat, my shirt wrinkled and untucked, my shoes scratched and trampled on, but a look on my face that mixed childish joy with relieved satisfaction.
It was one of the best moments of my life — everything I dreamed it would be when I first started watching college basketball after Michael Jordan retired. It was everything I hoped I might experience when I decided to come to a school that didn’t have “big time” athletics.
It made me proud to be a Cornell student. It made me proud to see the student body so enthralled, so supportive. In the midst of the madness on the court after the game, there was perfection in uniting behind a common cause.
It may sound ridiculous, but sports are a unifying factor that can bridge many gaps. When I applied to schools, it was hard not to weigh athletics as a factor. If Northwestern hadn’t been 20 minutes away from where I grew up, I may very well be in my third year there largely because Northwestern is part of the Big 10. Duke and Stanford’s rich athletic histories are a significant factor in explaining why they are more popular, well-known schools than Cornell, despite mostly comparable academics.
This is in no way an indictment of Cornell, though. I am proud of our athletic department and what it has brought to my experience here. I honestly believe that mid-level athletic programs can more personally affect a campus of kids. I hit on this idea talking to men’s basketball head coach Steve Donahue in his office a few days after he clinched the Ivy title.
“The higher levels, it’s almost like they’re professionals,” he said, agreeing with me. “You don’t want to say that, but I would hope everyone on this campus feels very similar to what [the players] feel because they’re just one of them as well.”
I’m sure I didn’t feel exactly what the players did, but it was certainly in the same vein. I just could not get over how thrilled I was to be a Cornell student that night against Harvard — thrilled to be a part of something that cut across all boundaries on campus and brought everyone together.
Taking tests and going to class does not make me want to sport a Cornell hoodie when I’m at home. I often feel like people come to resent Cornell for the stress and work it dumps on you.
“You can’t help but think what a positive experience that was [for] … all those kids that were there,” Donahue said. “… That’s what you hope everybody else sees who doesn’t have a feel for athletics and where it fits into college. That’s where it fits. I think everyone has a little hop in their step walking to chemistry class today.”
This basketball season has simply reinforced to me how necessary a sense of community is to a college experience. And that community can be provided by any number of activities, not just athletics. I get some sort of perverted kick out of writing for this newspaper. However, experience has shown me that athletics seems to be the largest common denominator — the one activity that unites the most diverse groups of people (Slope Day excluded).
“When you’re in athletics all your life on a college campus, you constantly want others to feel that this is a great thing for all college kids to feel,” Donahue said. “The positiveness that comes out of it.”
I love Cornell (OK, maybe love/hate is more appropriate). But I don’t think I could say that if I hadn’t been able to be part of the bond that athletics gives us.