ALBANY, N.Y. -- There's a city that's 136 miles south down the Hudson that might be in an "Empire State of Mind," but this is the Empire State of Reality. Most of the laws and budgets that New York City must live with are written up here, in New York's true capital. Albany is one of the most important places in this country's history, its power and prestige dating back to a time when the States weren't United yet. It's so old that its tri
centennial was two decades ago. Albany is a throwback to a time when being along a river was far more important than proximity to highways or train tracks.
In more recent times, New York's Capital District
has given us Andy Rooney, the first-ever NBC-TV affiliate, and the dude who made millions off L. Frank Baum fan fiction
. But there haven't been any famous rappers from Albany, nobody to "represent" or lift the name up to the rest of America. That is, until its mid-major basketball ambassadors started bringing glory to this city four years ago.
Albany is one of Hoops Nation's most vital strongholds. Last year, it hosted the tourneys for both the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and America East. The University at Albany won the AE in 2006 and 2007, and in the former year came about as close as any team to pulling off the first 16-over-1 upset in NCAA history. The Great Danes were up by as many as 12 points in the second half
before UConn came roaring back for the win. And then there's Siena.
Since 2008, the Saints have broken into the national hoops consciousness, and not even the most casual sports fan or blabbermouth sportz radio host can deny their power. Two consecutive MAAC double-championships, two NCAA first round wins (over Vanderbilt and Ohio State), and a double-overtime thriller against the Buckeyes
that earned a double order of Onions
. The Saints have become so dominant over its conference that the MAAC has become "Siena's league" -- a real Synecdoche, New York.
On a Tuesday evening at decade's end, I drove past an endless series of Stewart's Shops and Hoffman Car Washes (it's always time) towards the MAAC's power locus, the Times Union Center. There were plenty of digital LED billboards all around the city encouraging me to "See Siena," and I intended to. On a night when Siena faced off with Saint Joseph's at the TUC, it was cold enough to freeze your face off. That didn't matter to the thousands of fans who lined up along Pearl Street to provide a strong walkup crowd.
Even though the end sections of the 15,500-seat hall were tarped off, the arena formerly known as Knickerbocker and Pepsi was packed to a diminished 8,000-seat capacity. The fans were whipped into a Franciscan frenzy by tipoff, a hot and loud buzz that signified the game's real religious importance. These were two of the very best Catholic mid-major teams in the country, both with strong recent NCAA histories. Both teams fought hard through a close, tooth-for-tooth first half.
Siena rose to the Division I level in 1976, but most of the banners that hang in its outsized hoops home celebrate accomplishments of the last two years. There were a couple of postseason appearances at the turn of the century, and there was that four-day stretch in March 2002 when magic happened in spite of itself. The sixth-seeded Saints left a 9-9 regular season record behind and won four games in four days at the MAAC tourney to become league champions, then beat Alcorn State in the P.I.G. to become just the second team with an overall losing record to win an NCAA game. But most of the Saints' D-I life has been spent on the flat rollercoaster of mediocrity, an underachieving team that could always draw rabid five-figure crowds in a place remote enough to qualify as a "captive audience."
Albany is a city where the streets weren't built for bandwagons. For the tens of thousands of Saints fans who suffered through springboarding coaches, then Bob Beyer and Rob Lanier, the sustained success under Fran McCaffery is well-celebrated and well-earned.
And, as they have so many times in recent years, Siena gave its fans the best show in town. In the second half against Saint Joseph's, the Saints unleashed a long string of sweet shots and devastating dunks, turning a close game into an And1-style exhibition. Siena outscored the Hawks 49-33 for a 92-75 thrashing. Half an hour after the buzzer, the streets were cold and empty, under the kind of brown-grey sky that signals an imminent Upstate snowstorm.
But I could have sworn there were 8,000 people stuffed into the sports bar next to the TUC. Broadway Joe's was full of holiday-week party people raising glasses to their team's latest big win.
West of downtown along Interstate 90, past places with storybook names like Corporate Woods and the Slingerlands, is the State University of New York at Albany, better known in basketball circles as simply "Albany." The Great Danes are celebrating their 10th year in Division I (with a logo and everything), and they've already won two conference championships and matching NCAA autobids. That's the kind of .200 batting average that Mario Mendoza would have been proud to compile.
UAlbany plays its home games in the SEFCU Arena which is hard enough to pronounce that it's better to call it by its old name, the RACC. Like many buildings in the America East, the arena has collapsible bleachers -- but the the spectator entry gate is at the higher level, so it's not possible to go down to courtside unless the seats are out. It's a very interesting place, the home of the Scoobies and the DANEger Zone student section.
The Danes' first home game of 2010 was a final non-conference tuneup against Yale. Student break, a 4-10 record and a foot of snow kept the crowd size down on a Sunday afternoon, but a similar script to the Siena game played out. After a tight first 20 minutes, the home team exploded for 50 second-half minutes to put the Bulldogs away, 89-68. Perhaps this pair of games were meant as pageant-style reenactments of the city's very history, played out in the kind of poetry only basketball can provide: a reputation that precedes, a period of struggle, then a burst of new energy into a hopeful future.
It's a city that's become defined by its basketball. And for the past decade, the green and gold have played the purple and gold in an annual gatebuster
game that decides which team is the Division I king of the capital. Since both teams have been at the NCAA's top flight, Siena won the first three, but their state-school brothers served notice in 2004 with a stunning 86-65 blowout. It was one of the more humiliating results from a 6-24 Saint season that spelled the end of Lanier's tenure as head coach. But for UAlbany, it was the school's first championship of its Division I era.
"Albany is a great college sports town," ninth-year UA head coach Will Brown explained after the Yale game. "We have arena football, minor-league hockey and single-A baseball, but Siena and Albany basketball has become the central focus during the winters. That game has become a huge deal, a real hate game for our alumni. You hear about 'Rivalry Week,' you know? They should show our game on national TV. We're always going to have over 13,000 people in the Times Union Center for that game, screaming their lungs out. I just wish more people got to see it."
Since the Great Dane breakthrough in 2004, Albany hasn't won the city game since. But most have been close. From 2005 through 2008, each featured a single-digit split, including the 76-75 double-overtime classic in 2006. This year's edition, however, wasn't close
. Siena won 83-54 to tighten its stranglehold on the three century-old metropolis.
"We're babies, we've only been D-I for a decade," said Coach Brown. "They've been at this level since the Seventies. I have tremendous respect for their program and for everything Fran's done, and I hope they have respect for us too."
Albany is no Cinderella city. There's very little that's romantic or beautiful about it. Inside its rectangular block buildings, laws are made and deals are brokered. With no natural exportable resources or major manufacturing, the Capital Region is hinging its non-legislative future on nanotechnology and homeland security technology. It doesn't pretend to be pretty, and it doesn't have much time or patience for bullshit.
But people in this area love their college basketball, and they know what being underdogs is all about. Albany is the capital of a state that contains the capital of the universe, and it bears its odd place in the world with a measure of resignation and grudging acceptance. For each of the past four years, however, the city has sent basketball ambassadors out onto the national stage. When Siena and UAlbany have lost the close ones, they've done Albany proud. And when they win, they do so for the whole city.