Thursday, January 20, 2005 Burt Kahn Court - Hamden, CT
If you're of a certain bent, this past Tuesday marked the 29th anniversary of the singular event to which the decline of Western civilization can be traced. On January 18, 1976 in Miami, a television crew covering the halftime show for Super Bowl X captured a nubile young woman in a bikini and a cowboy hat; she smiled sweetly at the camera and winked. The dancing, navel-baring Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders had existed for several years, but in one single bat of an eyelid they were national icons. Sports in America would never be the same after that.
Cheerleading had been around for decades, enjoying a slow and steady evolution. The "pom-pon" was pioneered in the Thirties, the WWII era saw women take over the sport while the men were off at war, and the UCLA cheer team's "Bruin High Step" style helped spur the school's basketball team to dynastic levels. But it was in the bowels of Texas Stadium where cheerleading was injected with dancing and sex. Nowadays, traditional cheer squads are usually supplemented at sporting events by a "dance team" that performs provocative choreography to uptempo music, wearing skimpy outfits.
When a Minnesota undergrad named Johnny Campbell became the father of American cheerleading in 1898 by standing before a crowd and yelling, "Rah, Rah, Rah! Sku-u-mar, Hoo-rah!", he surely could not have known how far it would go. And at last year's Big Saturday quadrupleheader at Madison Square Garden, it's impossible to know whether Campbell's spirit was hovering proudly or if he was spinning in his grave like a rotisserie chicken.
During the halftime of the first game, the Northeast Conference opener for 2004 between St. Francis (NY) and Quinnipiac, the 30-or-so QU cheerleaders came out for a series of tumbling runs and towers. Then the Quinnipiac dance team came out and performed a lock-step routine to a medley of Jock Jams full of abrupt, jarring song changes. As many know, this is the normal course of "halftime entertainment" at a college game.
But then there came another dance team, who performed a polished jazz-tap routine with a touch of class. And after that, a fourth squad! A high-energy crew wearing throwback NBA jerseys burst out onto the floor to get down to a seemingly random sampling from Jay-Z's Black Album.
The second half was delayed for two minutes because each of the four groups had team pictures taken at the World's Most Famous Arena's center court, right there on the Knicks logo. As the girls giggled uncontrollably and milled about on the Garden floor, the players stood in the aisles, shuffling their feet, dribbling basketballs in their warmups.
"Hey Joe," a guy seated behind me asked his buddy. "Where exactly is Quinnipiac, anyhow?"
"I dunno, Jersey or somethin'?" the other replied, using a prototypical puncture-proof New York deadpan. "I think it's one of those dancin' schools, like in that movie, Fame."
Actually, Joe, Quinnipiac is located just north of New Haven, Connecticut. It's a small private non-sectarian liberal arts school with an undergraduate population of 5,400, and its brick-and-glass buildings are sprinkled over a verdant campus nestled beside beautiful Sleeping Giant State Park. When you enroll there, many varying opportunities exist for you to display your Bobcat spirit: traditional cheerleading, the mainstream Dance Company, the hip-hop inspired Dance Mode, and the Broadway-style Kickline. A quick head count on the group photos reveals that there are a total of 104 students among the four squads. Do the math: roughly one out of every 55 Quinnipiac undergrads is gonna live forever.
That early January game, a 74-69 SFC win, was only partially indicative of how the NEC season would eventually play out. The Bobcats would only win four contests, and finish in 10th - dead last. The Brooklyn-based Terriers of St. Francis, powered by guard tandem Tory Cavalieri and John Quintana, would tie for the regular-season conference crown with Monmouth, and take a two-seed into the conference tournament. But they'd suffer a frightening first-round meltdown against seventh-place and eventual runner-up Central Connecticut State.
To venture to the Northeast Conference is to be like Gulliver - it's a little faraway land of tiny basketball, many miles away from the college game as many know it. It's only out of a kindly and adamant political correctness that we refer to the NEC a "mid-major" league. Six-three forwards are common, and that hulk-force who appears to tower over the gameplay is likely to be listed at 6'8" in your game program (you get used to it after your first five or six spit-takes). When these two teams resumed acquaintances last night, there wasn't a man over six-nine on either roster.
The trick to winning in this league is an athletic, rangy 6"7' forward who can draw double-teams and free up long-range shooters, or tap-dance happily through undersized zones. Someone like Monmouth's Blake Hamilton, for instance, or last year's Player of the Year, CCSU's Ron Robinson. Quinnipiac and St. Francis (NY) don't have the luxury of such a player, and so they make the most of their guard play.
Because limited resources require the removal of facets and nuances of basketball, a number of NEC teams have to make do with that most cringe-inducing offensive set of all - the point guard who takes most of the shots. St. Francis' blowout loss to Hamilton's Blue Devils in the conference two-seven game was a key in Quintana's decision to transfer out of the program on less-than-positive terms, leaving the Terriers in the hands of pointman Quintana. He has some help in the person of 6'1" St. John's transfer Tristan Smith, but he's still learning the ropes - coach John Ganulin's screams of "Tristan! Tristan!" are still echoing in my head as I write this a day later.
Quinnipiac has already been encountered twice already on the 100GP tour, and longtime Mid-Majority readers know of the Bobcats' ball-hogging point guard Rob Monroe, who has used his green light to pile up spectacular numbers and cop three conference player-of-the-week awards so far. Cavalieri and Monroe are very similar in a number of ways - both wear the number three, both play every minute of every game, both have elaborate and intricate arm tattoos, and both sport the same aerodynamic hairstyle (or lack thereof). They were chummy with each other during breaks in the action, as one might expect separated-at-birth conjoined twins to be.
Much of the game action consisted of simple possessions: the one-guard dribbling up the court, flashing some hand signals, and quickly jacking up a bomb. Monroe took 18 shots (21 points), and Cavalieri launched 17 (24 points), accounting for roughly one-third of each team's chances. It would have been much easier to let the two go one-on-one for forty minutes, and send everyone else home so they wouldn't miss "Joey."
Quinnipiac and SFC were locked together closely until there were five minutes remaining - the Terriers' first-half spurt was matched in turn by the Bobcats once the second stanza began, and the pair whirled and twirled to a 57-57 deadlock before the visitors broke free of the clutch. Despite the close loss, spirits are still high amongst the Quinnipiac faithful - their 3-2 record would give them the opportunity to wear their white suits in this year's NEC Championships if the season were to end suddenly.
But things have a way of evening themselves out - one-dimensional teams are severely punished by the long season, and the way towards March's Big Dance is won with complicated stepping and unselfish teamwork. This year's Bobcat team is much improved from last year's 9-20 trainwreck, but the only dancing in Quinnipiac still happens at halftime.