Game 048:at Columbia 57, Harvard 55 Sunday, January 30, 2005 Levien Gymnasium - New York, NY
Sunday afternoon was a cold and clear one, but after the bitingly frigid week that was it felt like spring had truly sprung. Folks streamed out onto the streets of upper Manhattan to enjoy the 30 degree temperatures: they skittered down streets with arms full of boutique shopping bags, they took their dogs for walks. A few enterprising souls even took advantage of the balmy climes by doing a little sidewalk hustling.
But for about a thousand of us, there was no time for any of that - we were headed down to a cramped basement underneath Columbia University to watch an Ivy League basketball game.
The Lions were wrapping up their annual Dartmouth-Harvard home weekend to start off the Ancient Eight season-proper, and they were in no mood to play nice. Their December results indicated that they were ready to jump from the mediocre middle to the Ivy elite, and they tried to act the part by pummelling a poor, hapless Harvard squad out of the gate. Even when they had the Crimson down by 16, they kept their appetite for blood intact. They unleashed a fierce full-court press, and the halftime buzzer provided sweet relief from the relentless pounding.
Before the Levien Gym crowd could catch their breath, though, it was time for the show. "And now for your halftime entertainment," the P.A. announcer boomed. "Please welcome... Mighty Mike!"
"Here I come to save the day," came the familiar strains over the speakers, with a jarring little spliced adjustment. "You know that Mighty [MIKE] is on his way!"
Mighty Mike Simmel is, in his words, "100% inspiration, 200% dedication and 300% perspiration." He charged out on the court with a goodie bag and a rack of basketballs. With high-octane music pumping in the background, the superpowered 5'9" dynamo went through a series of tricks, each one increasing in difficulty and skill. He juggled two basketballs, and then three... and then four. He tossed basketballs high up in the air and caught them between his shoulders.
It's hard to complete a 100 Games Project that contains games in the Northeast - or even a fifteener - without running into Mike. The little guy's been a staple at mid-major games for several years now - I've seen him at Drexel and Princeton too. At each game, the kids have gone wild for him.
Mike loves performing at small colleges. "Even though a school may be considered a 'mid-major' they still can have wonderful facilities and great staff that truly deserve recognition," he told me. "There are some really nice people out there at these schools."
In between entertaining crowds at games, performing with the Harlem Wizards, and stoking up kids at basketball camps around, Mike's hitting the road promoting awareness of the condition that victimized him as a child, epilepsy. Epilepsy is a neurological condition that occasionally disturbs normal brain function; these events are generally referred to seizures.
" The best way people can get involved in the fight against epilepsy is to educate themselves," he explained. "Understand, epilepsy is the most common neurological condition, yet it receives less research money and attention than other conditions affecting the brain. Many young people just come up to me and ask, 'What is epilepsy?' People just donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t understand."
Mike's 26 years old, and he's been seizure-free for three years. But he's not taking anything for granted.
"Battling and overcoming epilepsy has been a challenge but fulfilling experience," said Mike. "Still, as anyone in a similar situation would tell you, it's a constant fight... taking proper medications, getting blood levels taken, making sure I get my rest and eating right everyday. I cannot rest on your laurels for one minute, and have to make sure everything is under control."
The closing number in Mighty Mike's show, his signature act, the piece de resistance if you will, is a for-sure showstopper. He places a blindfold across his eyes and ties it behind his head, tests it to assure the crowd there's no light coming through, and then begins dribbling basketballs. First one, then two, then three... and finally, four. He keeps all four balls bouncing for several minutes, seemingly using some sort of magical hoop osmosis. How does he know where all the balls are? How does he do it?
"What keeps me from losing the balls and keeping everything in control is what I like to call my 'sixth sense,'" Mike said. "It's from all those years sleeping and traveling everywhere with my basketball when I was a little kid. I just know where the ball is by touch and can judge as my body movements work together. If you do not have a great 'feel' for the ball, I would not try this at home."
But that won't stop some folks from making the attempt. As I came back to the seating bowl after a late-halftime stroll, I overheard an exchange between a father and son.
"Dad, I want a basketball," the young boy said, his voice sharp and assured.
"But... you already have a basketball," his world-weary father replied.
"I want another one," the son demanded. "I want to juggle them."
And who knows? After a couple of years of practice, he'll probably be ready for a third.
When halftime ended, so did the entertainment. Columbia came out flat in the second half, their lead slowly evaporating to single digits, and eventually to a virtual nothing. It wasn't due to some increased effort on Harvard's part, though - the Crimson stood idly by as wave after wave of white-shirts ran themselves into unforced turnovers and highly questionable shots. Harvard would end up scoring 15 of the last 19 points of the day and make a run of 12-1, but it took them almost the entire final 10 minutes of the game.
And then, the final moments. With the score at 56-55 Columbia, Harvard had three chances to win the game. The Lions' intended final possession which began with the clock reading 0:24. Powder-blue frosh Mack Montgomery scooped away a rebound, and was promptly fouled with two ticks to go. On the other side of the court, Montgomery made the first free throw and intentionally bricked the second - Harvard scooped up the deflection and quickly called timeout before the final 1.8 seconds could expire. Thirty seconds later, Matt Stehle cranked up his arm and let fly a high-arcing full-court pass.
And then, a seven-foot Crimson player named Brian Cusworth awkwardly and inexplicably squatted his bird-like body low, spread his arms wide, and the ball gently grazed off the back of his neck. What was he doing? Was he trying to catch it or something?
It deflected out of bounds off a bewildered Columbia player. The Crimson's last-ditch heave with 0.9 seconds left went wide, but people in the Levien stairwells were talking less about the closeness of the score than about Cusworth's odd last-second maneuver.
"That sure was a crazy ending," the halftime entertainer said afterwards. But for anyone who caught the show, it was just a little extra Mighty Mike-style flavor.