Game 057:at Fordham 63, Massachusetts 56 Saturday, February 12, 2005 Rose Hill Gym - Bronx, NY
As alums, Atlantic-10 fanatics and trivia buffs can tell you, Fordham's Rose Hill Gymnasium is the oldest facility in Division I college basketball. Its beauty is undeniable - upon approach, you wonder if the stone and glass structure is really the university chapel, until you see the word "Gymnasium" in old-English letters lightly stenciled into the rockface. On an afternoon game like this one, the building's interior radiates with sunlight filtered through a large, high bank of white-frosted windows.
Fordham's general lack of historical success has kept the tiny 3000-seat cathedral from becoming a real hoops mecca. Before their disastrous run in the A-10 so far, they earned a NCAA Tournament spot in 1992, when they won the Patriot League. Aside from an extended 1971 Tournament run, most of the banners in the long string that lines the Rose Hill rafters say "NIT."
Many of the Ram fans in attendance today are wearing dark blue caps with the interlocking N and Y, and are probably more used to spending this time of year dreaming about spring training. Yankee Stadium is just a few subway stops away on the 4 line, and any Fordham grads who cared to suffer along with a basketball team that just wasn't quite good enough probably know how the other half were living for so long. But today, the gym is sold out - mostly because their team is going for their fifth home victory in a row, and it's against a team of
Massachusetts ambassadors from just west of Red Sox Nation's capital. If they win, the Rams also earn a share of third place in the A-10 East.
Yes, things might slowly be changing for the better at Fordham. But expectations are kept squarely in check, and nobody's expecting Tournament trips just yet. The screen-printed reverses of the student section's maroon "Sixth Man" t-shirts say it all: Passion and Patience.
The primary reason why they believe their patience will pay off is a recent head-coach hire. Dereck Whittenberg had successfully tapped into the New York City pipeline as an assistant at Georgia Tech (remember Stephon Marbury?), and his first big find as Fordham head coach is a muscular 6'8" Brooklyn kid named Bryant Dunston. Dunston just "checked in," so to speak - he's a freshman, and if he leaves the Bronx early it won't be for the same transfer-related disgruntlements that have claimed a lot of recent Rams. Folks around here are whispering and wondering if he might put up good enough numbers in a couple of years to get himself some notice up in the Association.
And in this game, Dunston is a monster - he wheels around and through a slump-shouldered UMass squad and tallies 18 points with 11 rebounds. The Rams lead throughout, and although the visitors cut the deficit to mere slivers on several occasions, it's hard to believe at any juncture that they'll pull it out of the fire.
Their coach Steve Lappas, widely reported to be living out his final days as a Minuteman, stomps and whinnies throughout, runs out on the floor to challenge every call that goes against his team. The officials stand calmly and nod, holding out their hands to keep him safely at bay, knowing that it's all only for show and no, you're not getting T'ed up. When Lappas screams instructions out at his team, they cast wary glances in his direction, look away, and simply chuck the ball down low to center Rashaun Freeman. Freeman seems to take every single UMass shot, and tonight he makes enough of them to keep his team in the game. No matter what the circumstances, there is nothing sadder (nor less amenable to winning) than giving up on your coach. Nobody wins.
And when the final buzzer sounds, the most endearing scene of the 100 Games Project so far. A break in the clouds outside brings a burst of natural light into historic old Rose Hill Gym. Coach Whittenberg leaps across the court, down to the south end. He jumps up and down like a round mound of pure happiness - "Heyyyy! Heyyyy!" He beckons the Fordham student section to come, to enjoy and celebrate the victory with him. And they do.
As a cameraman comes running over to capture what must be the telecast's outro shot, 50 maroon-shirted fans rush out onto the court, surround their beloved coach on all sides and group-hug him, bellowing joyously. Sometimes you just need a little passion with your patience.