Game 043: at Rider 75, Manhattan 46Thursday, January 27, 2005
Alumni Gym - Lawrenceville, NJ
Nobody ever mistook Alumni Gym for a Hoops Cathedral. Thick clumps of dust and mold cling to its crusty stucco walls and ceiling, and the low-hanging fluorescent cage-lamps assure that a migraine headache will accompany you on your drive home. Most of its 1,650 seats are bone-hard, even the "contour" chairs on the alumni side (a term which, of course, refers to the natural contours of the human butt). Generally, the place is ill-equipped to handle the type of excitement generated by a winning basketball team.
And the Rider
hoopsters have traditionally been the very model of mediocrity - they're known as the Broncs, but they could assume the label of "Five Hundred" much better than that midsize sedan
ever could. A typical Rider season might see 15 or 16 wins - half gained in non-conference playdowns - and not too much March. The last time I was there, they threw a halftime gala for the 1994 team that stormed the Northeast Conference and lost to Connecticut
as a Tournament 15-seed. They all got fancy leather jackets, and a half-full Alumni Gym looked on blankly.
But this year has been different. The 2004-05 Broncs are an elegant, eye-pleasing squad that features a talented 7-foot-tall cornerstone named Steve Castleberry, and a phalanx of limber, rangy forwards who can shoot. They've broken out to a 6-2 start in the MAAC, and the modest little campus in Lawrenceville is buzzing about basketball for the first time in a long while.
I arrived at the Broncs' Zoo a few minutes late (I can never remember which way to go on US 206 off of I-95), so I found myself amongst a thundering herd of fans waiting in the atrium, outside the main doors. We all had to stand there until the first available stoppage, because the distance between the sideline and first row at Alumni Gym is just a couple of feet. So as not to disrupt play, there are friendly red-shirted "Zookeepers" who direct traffic and keep the sideline free of stampeding Broncs fans while the game is in progress.
When we all finally washed into the arena, the place was packed; anything resembling assigned-seating procedures were rendered completely irrelevant. It was basically "get in where you fit in," and I ended up jigsawing myself into the midst of a small clutch of students. It was immediately apparent that they had shown up to do one thing: yell.Whoooo! Go back to New York, you assholes! You're awful!
Well actually, sir, I'd have to say that winning your conference twice in a row and going a round in at the Tournament last year doesn't exactly qualify as "awful." Sure, Manhattan
is struggling a bit in the MAAC's early going, but they beat Wichita State
last month, and the Valley-leading Shockers certainly
aren't "awful." See those two mid-sized guys over there in street clothes? They're the Jaspers' two leading scorers. That's Peter Mulligan on the left, C.J. Anderson on the right. They're not playing 'cause they violated unspecified team rules. So the fact that Rider is up by ten isn't really a surprise - today we're learning a lesson about the kind of depth the Jaspers have this year.Let's! Go! Ri-der! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) C'mon, everybody, let's get loud!
But in the moment, I stayed silent. It was not my place, nor my role, to educate a bunch of exuberant fans who were all well over a decade my junior. I was just an impartial fan trying to watch a basketball game. Scanning the nearby crowd, I noticed a stiff-backed, white-haired man in a sweater-vest two seats down from me. He'd probably been herded into the section much like I was, I figured. I tried to offer a facial expression signaling sympatico, but his eyes were dead and cold. He seemed frightened of his surroundings, and spent a miserable halftime without unfreezing a single muscle. The kids, for their part, maintained their enthusiasm throughout the break.Leth! Go! Why-doff! Yeahhh, c'mon everyone, let's cheer real loud now!
And I think that was the moment when it finally dawned on me that there was more in their Gatorade bottles than complex carbohydrates.C'mon, puth your hand up in the air! Whoooo! Leth go Broncs! Whooooo!
The Broncs began pulling away when play resumed - Manhattan attempted to attack inside, but were constantly thwarted by a rotation of taller and more athletic Rider forwards. A 15-point lead quickly grew to 24 as the frustrated Jaspers began amassing technical fouls. The scared old gent two seats down made a break for it - he grabbed his coat, sped down the stairs and out the door as soon as the eight-minute media timeout began. Large chunks of the crowd began to tear off from the mass and take leave of the arena, but The Zoo was still open for business.We want the walk-on! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) We want the walk-on!
I finally snapped. I couldn't take it anymore.
"Hickman," I said to a young master seated beside me, who was decked out in a maroon Sixth Man '05
t-shirt. "His name is Hickman."
"His name isn't 'walk-on,' it's Kevin Hickman. He's the skinny guy at the end of the bench. See?"
"Oh."Ke-vin Hick-man! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) Ke-vin Hick-man!
The cheer began to spread slowly, but was effectively hemmed in by the cellular nature of the seated groups. And when the little scrawny freshman from Delaware was finally inserted into the game, the booze-fueled fans let out a mighty whoop.We! Love! Hick-man!
During the final media break, the small but spirited Rider band broke into a rendition of the Gary Glitter classic, "Rock & Roll, Part II." When the audience participation part came around, my immediate neighbor let out a screeching Howard Dean-like "Yeaaaarrrgh!"
"No, no," I said as I elbowed him gently. "Here."
He fixed me with a slackjawed, gauzy gaze as I waited for the chorus to come around again. When that ascending figure resurfaced out of the whole-noted verse, I raised an index finger, directed it squarely at the opposing bench. Then I intoned that sacred phrase uttered in hallowed hoop sanctuaries from the Palestra to the old Cole Fieldhouse. "Hey! You suck!"
His dim eyes lit up. He liked that.
But the buzzer sounded and the timeout was over. He didn't ask me who I was, or why I was talking to a stranger, or if I was some kind of pervert. He was too hungry for knowledge. "Got any more?"
"You know 'warm up the bus?'" I offered.
"Of course," he replied with all the heady confidence of someone who had recently ingested fifteen ounces of vodka. And so the classic blowout chant began.Warm up the bus! Warm up the bus!
I was never compensated for my services, or even formally thanked, but that's not important. There's a method to the madness of being a crazy college basketball fan - a language, a code, a legacy. It is up to us - we who have gone before - to share this wisdom with the younger generation. The children are indeed the future, and in a decade's time they will be the ones stomping all over the country trying to get to hundreds of games. We have an obligation to share what we know, to keep the great and cherished college basketball traditions alive.
On the way out those maroon-colored doors, I saw a stumbling, beer-bellied student stumbling into the cold night. He was talking loudly into his cell phone; I overheard him say groggily, "Hey Kevin, thanks for convincing me to get drunk first. That was awesome
Packing the Broncs' Zoo to the gills is a great first step, but soon Rider students will realize that you don't have to get sauced to have fun at the games. These Broncs look pretty damn good when you're sober, too.Photo Gallery