VESTAL, N.Y. -- The first time I visited Binghamton University for a basketball game was in early 2005. Season One. It was number 34
of the original 100 Games Project. My goodness, how simpler times were back then. The Bearcats, in their fourth year of Division I membership, drew 2,700 people to the Events Center on a cold January Sunday, and sent them all back into the snow after a nine-point loss to New Hampshire. Under Al Walker, the team did relatively well considering its relative newbie status. Unlike a lot of transitionals, Binghamton won half its games.
I won't insult anybody's intelligence and assume that it's not widely known what happened next. Walker, a solid yet unspectacular coach who graduated players but couldn't win games in March, was fired in 2007 after compiling a 92-108 record at the school. Or, rather, it was agreed that he would step aside.
In came Kevin Broadus from Georgetown, a brash and stubborn man, and he signed a series of transfer players who were talented yet troubled. The objective was to win a championship, and then more championships, and put Binghamton on the basketball map. There was a severe administrative culture shift, a string of arrests, gross academic and ethical misconduct, and a series of exposé articles in the New York Times
written by an intrepid reporter with something resembling a vendetta.
Despite all that, the plan worked. On the court, the 2008-09 Binghamton team won 23 times including 13 of 16 America East games, and claimed the conference championship with wins in March over Hartford, UNH, and the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. The final reward was strikingly similar to that of many small-conference title-winners: a 24-point loss to Duke in the NCAA Tournament's first round. In the fall, the team's leading scorer was arrested for selling crack, five players were suspended, The fallout from the ensuing audit and investigation led to the indefinite suspension of Broadus and the dismissal of the school's athletic director. It was later found that nearly every conceivable rule in college athletics had been broken at Binghamton, and the scandal was deep and wide enough for its own Wikipedia page.
At one point, the very existence of the program was in doubt. New interim head coach Mark Macon, who'd brought honor to the Temple program as a player, had to hold open tryouts to fill out his 2009-10 roster. The team qualified for the 2010 America East tournament, but chose not to participate for reasons that were never fully made public.
On Tuesday night, I returned to the Binghamton Events Center after three years away. The 2010-11 Bearcats are, quite simply, one of the worst and most inept Division I basketball teams I have ever seen. Last weekend against my old school, Drexel, they scored 39 points. In the first half at home against Canisius of the Metro Atlantic, the team managed just 12. I cannot recall ever witnessing a situation quite like the one that unfolded in the second half: every time a Bearcat went into the lane, contact or not, the nearest Canisius player was whistled for a foul. I have never seen an officiating crew take pity on a team like that.
And mercy on the Binghamton offense was necessary. Players stumbled as they dribbled, would not take widely open shots, and wandered aimlessly in concentric circles as the point guard stood at the top of the key pretending to direct traffic. After the 55-45 Golden Griffins victory
was sealed, the winning head coach was asked about what he thought of the odd foul parade. "I'm really glad you asked that question," Tom Parrotta replied before dispensing the most politically correct response he could muster.
When it was the Bearcats' turn to explain, Greer Wright, a senior guard who wears number 5 and scored 23 points, came to the microphone. "We don't believe in moral victories," came the measured and oft-repeated reasoning. "We just want to win. We don't care about anything else than W's. We have to get W's." For their first six games, Binghamton has a single win over Colgate against five losses. A quick glance at the upcoming schedule -- including Hofstra, Manhattan, and a three-game road trip -- indicated that that next W might not come until at least January. And maybe not even then.
Coach Macon spoke next. "There's victory in losing," he said. "It's the opportunity to get better. That's not a 'moral' victory, you know. It's getting better."
None of the other reporters scribbled that down into their notebooks. Perhaps it was all moment and framework and Big Picture, but it was one of the most Mid-Majority things I've ever heard a coach say. It was the acknowledgment that winning and losing aren't really everything, it's the context that counts. Coubertin was right: it's the taking part, the opportunity to keep playing
and potentially improve. The most important thing in all of this is that a there is such a thing as a Binghamton men's basketball program in 2010. Winning and losing isn't even possible if there's no team to play for. Neither can occur without existence.
On Saturday, March 19, 2009, I watched the America East championship contest between Binghamton and UMBC on television in a hotel room in downtown Cleveland, where I was attending the Mid-American Conference tournament. An hour after the game, I was curled up on the bathroom floor, shaking, my head throbbing, coughing up blood. Another seizure. There was nothing particularly special or remarkable about this, because it was happening just about every day. I later found out that it was related to carbon monoxide poisoning, but I knew then that this was all self-inflicted. I was sleeping in the car with the engine running too much on my way to basketball games.
Why am I doing this.
That was my mantra during the hours it took to recover from these episodes. I don't know why I'm doing this. Why am I doing this.
It would take one calendar year for the answers to reveal themselves, moment by moment, pixel by pixel and one at a time. Then, connected dots connect, lines formed. Star, star, star, and there
, finally, a constellation. In that size and shape, the message that the site has fulfilled and completed its purpose, and that these seven years mean something.
In the Events Center, there are two banners that commemorate the championship accomplishments of the 2008-09 team: America East title, NCAA appearance. They're like most banners in a gym: they're not the first things you notice when you arrive, or the second, or the tenth. They're just there. Meanwhile, there was a good crowd for a Tuesday night. The Screamin' Green band shook the rafters. There was a time out gimmick with goofy giant dice, and another one with an inflatable money machine that a contestant went inside for 15 clocked seconds.
None of us, participants or observers, truly know the reason for Binghamton basketball right now. It's hard to imagine that anything beautiful could come after such ugliness; the reason for existence, after all that happened, is unclear. But someday, something small and great and true will come from here. When it does, the lines between the stars will be bright and clearly defined. When the moment comes, there will be no question that all this struggle was worth it for the chance to get better. Just trust me on this one.