In 1996, Malik Rose recruited me to Drexel University. Not in person, but through a 17-inch TV set. The invite came in the form of slam dunks and jump shots. I was living in Oregon, looking for an east coast school to attend, and there was this 6-foot-7 guy, leading the Dragons to a 12-over-5 upset over Memphis in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. I hadn't heard of this little school from the North Atlantic Conference, even though I'd driven across the campus before. I hadn't even known I was on a campus; that's how well it blended into the landscape of West Philadelphia. But here was a two-hour Drexel infomercial on CBS.
...Malik Rose was long gone by the time I arrived at Drexel. The Charlotte Hornets chose him with their second round pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. He only spent a season there, and then he went on to win two championships with the San Antonio Spurs, in 1999 and 2003. He was a true Philadelphia native (Drexel recruited him out of Overbrook High, the same prep school Wilt Chamberlain attended), so he would come by campus every so often to show off his rings. They were very shiny.
Back in the American 19th Century, before any widespread fever for intercollegiate sports, an academic reputation was all a school needed. But in the 21st, athletics would be so important to self-image that athletes became more important ambassadors than academics, wins more important than white papers. Sports had been such an afterthought for Drexel's engineers that the school dropped football in 1973 for lack of attendance. The basketball program began in 1894, went through 10 coaches in 30 years, and five of those couldn't equal the nine wins the school managed over the eight seasons during which there was no coach at all.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Drexel gained strength in Division II (then known as the "college division," as opposed to the "university division"), as head coach Samuel Cozen took the Dragons to four national tournaments, winning 70 percent of his games over 16 years. That first burst of upward athletic mobility empowered the school to move up to Division I in 1973, and into a 2,300-seat, low-ceilinged multipurpose facility. The Dragons were playing in a league called the Middle Atlantic Conference at the time, a double-decker league that had both a college and university division. A year after Drexel crossed the line from the D-II to the D-I side, it joined a mass exodus of the bigger schools, which left to form the East Coast Conference. This group included Philadelphia stalwarts Saint Joseph's, Temple and La Salle. Even though both were league peers of Drexel, the Dragons were still too small-time to join the Big 5, remaining a distant No. 6.
In the early 1980s, Temple and Saint Joe's became the Philadelphia axis of another new league, helping the Eastern 8 grow into an Atlantic 10. La Salle and Drexel would stay together in the ECC for another decade, until La Salle left for a short stint in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference with Xavier and Butler. Xavier and La Salle ended up in the A-10 in 1995. Through all of this, Drexel was left behind.
from "One Beautiful Season"
CHICAGO -- Basketball was so important when I moved to Philadelphia. I really didn't know that many people in town when I arrived there in 1997, especially anybody who shared my advanced college age. The first successful method I found to make friends was to be part of a small but loyal group who went to every single Dragons home game. There were no more than 15 of us, and no more than a few hundred others in the other seats, there in the building that would eventually be known as the Daskalaskis Athletic Center.
College is full of endless anxiety, even for degree-holders going back to the buffet table for seconds. The general, creeping unease is a big reason why so many students eat so much and gain so much extra weight. For me, it manifested itself in sleeplessness. I'd lay awake night after night wondering if I'd made the right decision to move back east, if this school with no basketball fans was the right one, if I was on the right path. There were major and minor changes, dropped classes, second-guessing. Finally, less than a year away from completion, a bunch of us in the iSchool left early and started a company.
I remember the last time something like this happened. It was right about this time of year, a cold December a full Olympiad ago. I got drunk and irrationally exuberant, as anybody would about their old school winning a virtually meaningless basketball game. Even though I was responsible for generating national basketball hype myself at that point, I turned on the television just to hear people talk about Drexel beating Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, and I went to all the newspapers and websites to read the accounts and opinions. Even then, I wondered why I was doing it. It seemed silly and shallow, to wait for somebody to just go ahead and say it: Drexel (and its 7-2 record) was actually a good team, and maybe (just maybe) the Orange weren't quite as good as the poll voters thought they were. I just wanted to hear that it wasn't a fluke.
Last night, it happened again at the new Yum! Center in Louisville. When the Dragons rose up and earned more rebounds than the Cardinals' point total, a lot of those feelings came back. But after years of The Mid-Majority and continually experiencing the joy of Red Line Upsets through others, I understood those feelings better. When your old tiny school takes down a big known name, especially in a hostile building, it's more than puffy pride or a blind desire for the approval of strangers.
It all goes back to that original choice, the decision to buy in and attend a certain school. This gets more and more important as one gets older. Life is a series of wrong turns and bad bets. We marry the wrong people, live in the wrong cities, take bad jobs, raise kids that resent us, pick stocks and mortgages that do us in. We wonder what would have happened if we'd gone the other way, seized any of those lost days on discarded calendars. But every so often, like last night or the night before or tonight, there's validation on a basketball court. Perhaps we're not so bad at making choices after all.
(Also, D.S. forever.)
Red Line Upsets
Oakland 89, at Tennessee 82 -- Drexel was merely the second giant-killer on Tuesday in ESPNU's fateful televised doubleheader. The Golden Grizzlies of the Badlands, who we've felt had an RLU in them for a month now, shot 54 percent and put on a late 11-0 run over three and a half minutes to turn a 76-70 Volunteer lead into an 81-76 advantage. Oakland used explosive offense to rip Bruce Pearl's previously undefeated team apart: 89 points in 72 possessions (1.23 PPP) and a stunning 1.28 points per shot. Keith Benson, the senior 6-foot-10 thunderman, shot 9-for-16 for 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. On TV, too, so he probably just jumped a couple spots in the 2011 NBA Draft (if it happens). And that Oakland RLU we predicted wasn't this one; they're at Michigan on Saturday, with a chance to make it two in a row.
Game! Of! The! Night!
Charleston vs. Charleston Southern North Charleston, SC (Neutral Court) 7:30 EST
It's another thin Finals Week Wednesday night in mid-December, when more basketball players are being students rather than athletes. There are still a few small gems to be found in the lineup, like this Palmetto State city throwdown. This is no less than the "Charleston Clash," brought to you by a local car dealership. The game will be held on the north side of town, but Charleston Southern will be the home team. The College of Charleston (Charleston Middle?) is off to a 7-3 start, and features one of the most prolific scorers in the Southern Conference, much less the country. At 24.1 ppg (seventh in Division I), senior guard Andrew Goudelock is making 48 percent of his shots and 40.7 percent of his threes, and if you want to get tempo-free about it, he's 16th nationally with 27.2 points every forty minutes. And ageless head coach Bobby Cremins, who's come within six total points of Red Line Upsets of Maryland and UNC this season, is still a sexy sexy man.
Chuck S. has so far been repeating its normal early-season pattern: break even by losing to Division I teams and beating those from the lower levels. The 5-5 mark includes big victories over Milligan, Toccoa Falls and Montreat, three of the basic food groups for Big South teams in non-conference play. Chances are that the Buccaneers will struggle once the league games start again, seeing that they are throwing lots of underclassmen out there. Bright spots: excellent team three-point shooting (39.7 percent) and 5-foot-11 senior guard Jamarco Warren, who can occasionally go off for 20 points. Depends on the context, though. In one November week, he shot 10-for-16 (29 points) against Montreat, and also put in shooting nights of 2-for-6 (vs. The Citadel) and 2-for-9 (Southern Illinois).