Sam Cooke is my favorite musical artist of all time. While ordinarily I'd be concerned that few people reading this would know who he was, I figure if you're reading a blog on mid-major basketball recaps there's a decent chance you may be awesome enough to have come across his music before. If not, no worries, as here's a quick primer:
Sam Cooke, the son of a Baptist minister, spearheaded the formation of the soul genre in the late 1950s to early 60s after starting his career as a member of the successful gospel group The Soul Stirrers. Beyond having an amazing voice, he was also an entrepreneur, starting his own record label in 1961. During his eight-year career, he charted 29 Top-40 Singles on the Billboard Pop Charts, including such well-known favorites as "You Send Me," "I'll Come Running Back to You," and "A Change is Gonna Come." Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 33 in 1964 after being shot by a motel manager under circumstances which were less than clear. He was selected as a charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and received a lifetime Grammy Award in 1999.
I only bring this up because as I drove myself home from Easton, Penn., following Lafayette 's 75-63 win over Army on January 9th, I couldn't stop thinking about one of my favorite Cooke tracks, "Nothing Can Change This Love." It seemed a fitting track to be be thinking of, as that was the night I rekindled my love for Our Game.
Now to be fair, that's a bit melodramatic. I've watched my fair share of college hoops over the last two years, but until I entered the Kirby Center that night, it had been 696 days since I had last seen a college basketball game in person. The last game I saw was on Valentine's Day 2010, as in lieu of any romantic plans, a friend of mine and I enjoyed an afternoon matinee at Patrick Gym.
Slightly over one million minutes passed before I entered another gym to witness another installment of Our Game.
The decision to go to the game was somewhat spur of the moment, as I had spent the bulk of my day staring blankly at my computer monitor trying to figure out what to write for graduate school applications. Unlike Mr. Cooke, the words weren't flowing easily out of my mouth and onto my keyboard, so I decided to take a break for the evening and Bally #23 and I took the relatively painless drive across the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border to the nearest D-1 school to my house: Lafayette College. I must add that LC had one of the easiest e-ticketing purchase experiences I have come across on buying tickets for anything ever. Within four clicks, I had reserved seats at the agreeable price of five bucks with no ridiculous surcharges to be found. Will-Call pickup was a breeze as well.
After tailing a couple who appeared to know where they were going (and who were sporting some fashionable Lafayette windbreakers) I found myself entering a gym that momentarily gave me flashbacks to the hallowed space of Patrick Gym, where I had seen countless Vermont games throughout my undergraduate days.
But after a few blinks, the similarities were less than at first glance. True, the Allan P. Kirby Sports Center had similar style fold-out bleachers, but it had bleachers on three sides instead of two, as well as an impressive overhead scoreboard at mid-court (apparently a gift from the class of 1993). The court was also in a larger venue, on the fourth side where there were no bleachers there was instead a small concession stand with a couple of sets of high bar tables (which I thought were a nifty addition for watching some #OMGDUNX while eating a hot dog) and one of those pullout divider walls reminiscent of high school gyms across America.
After examining the interior architecture, Bally and I continued my usual pregame ritual from years past and decided to sample the soft pretzel offering at the concession stand. The pretzel was a strange elongated figure eight shape, as opposed to the standard twist style. It was lukewarm at best, but it wasn't the worst soft pretzel I've ever had. I'd like to blame it on the fact that it was still about 20 minutes to game time when I had it, in hopes that maybe it just hadn't been heated long enough. If I sample another Lafayette game, I'll be sure to run a secondary analysis.
As I glanced over the game notes, I realized that I knew almost nothing about both the teams playing. And for once, I was fine with that. For the first time in quite possibly ever, I hadn't gone to a game in order to cheer for a team, but rather to simply watch what I hoped would be a an enjoyable basketball game. All I remembered from a quick glance at Basketball State before I left the house was that Lafayette had some decent balanced scoring, and that as the one-sentence BB State preview put it, Army was "offensively challenged." It was then as they were nearing the end of layup lines that a misthrown pass by Lafayette bounced over the stanchion and onto the bleachers right next to me. Picking up the basketball, I tossed it back to a Lafayette player before marveling to myself that that sort of thing doesn't happen while watching games from home.
After the national anthem was performed by a local sixth grader, the game tipped before what I'd consider a decent crowd for a Patriot League game in the middle of winter break. The attendance was officially listed at 1,544, but I'd have thought it was probably closer to 1,200 or 1,300. Whatever it was, the crowd was very pro-Lafayette, with the only exception being a small group behind the Army bench.
Had I took a closer look at the team stats page on BBstate I would have noticed a key statistic: Lafayette loves the #superhoop. This was easily apparent in the early goings of the game, as Lafayette hit their first six #superhoop attempts and opened up an 110point lead early in the first half. Army was nothing but determined though, and used some stout team defense (and a number of offensive charge calls against the Leopards) to claw their way back into it. The Black Knights were able to get the Leopards lead back down to three with around two minutes left in the half, but a lovely steal and layup at the buzzer by Leopards co-captain Tony Johnson (who was making his first appearance of the year after missing the first 16 games of the campaign with a back injury) pushed the Leopards lead to 36-28 at the half.
Lafeyette's mascot, who I'll refer to as Leo the Leopard, certainly kept himself busy throughout the evening. After giving me a high-five when I entered the gym, Leo came over during the under-four media timeout and seemed perplexed to see that I had a stuffed basketball sitting next to me on the bleachers. He picked Bally #23 up and gave him a cursory glance, almost as if trying to determine if Bally was with me or if some child had left him sitting their by accident, and or determining the caloric value of a stuffed basketball. I gave him a nod, which seemed to satisfy his inquiry and he returned Bally to me.
I did find it strange that there were no halftime contests or entertainment of any shape while at the game. I'm sure the cheerleaders were, like the rest of students, still on break, but there were no dizzy bat contests, shooting contests, or anything of the sort during the intermission. The only contest I remember clearly occurred during one of the late media timeouts in the second half, where Leo faced off against a couple of stereotypical college bros in a game of musical chairs. I'm sorry to report that the bros won, but the Leopard made a solid effort to knock one off the last chair before submitting to defeat.
The second half began in much the same way that the first half ended, with Army trying to get back into it. The Black Knights leading scorer on the year, Ella Ellis, tried to carry the load for the Knights, but every time he tried to get a shot off, a Lafayette defender was in his face. The Leopards had apparently decided they'd chance having someone else on Army make shots for a change, and on this evening that was largely not to be. Jullian Simmons was the recipient of many of these opportunities for Army, but he wasn't able to take advantage of it, going 2-for-10 from #Superhoopland. It seemed that Army's efforts to push the ball up the floor and play a quicker-paced game actually backfired on them, as it allowed Lafayette to get more possessions to launch #superhoops.
As ineffective as the Knights were from behind the arc, the Leopards were as hot from downtown. Lafayette hit 14 threes on the night and were able to pull away rather comfortably in the second half on their way to a 72-60 win. The game was decided in #superhoopland, where Army went 5-for-21 from distance, while Lafayette went 14-for-25. What impressed me most about Lafayette's effort was that there was lots of balance on their attempts, as eight different Leopards sunk threes on the night, led by junior Rob Delaney, who hit five and finished with a team-high 19 points.
As Bally and I drove home, I tried to reflect on what I missed most from countless days without basketball. In the end, I think it was the human element of the game I missed the most. The squeaks of shoes on the gym floor, the half-cooked pretzels, the oversized mascots prowling the arena. They all make up an experience greater than watching a game on any sized television ever can. Midway through the second half, a Lafayette defender knocked away a pass attempt and bellowed out "Oh yeah!" as he started off the other way. This simple exclamation was one of those little things that the TV cameras or the live stat feeds don't pick up, that make attending a live event wonderful.
While it's true that Our Game always ends in a Loss, that's no reason not to love it all the same.
ARMY 7-10 (0-2) -- E. Ellis 4-14 8-8 18; J. Simmons 4-18 2-3 12; J. Herbeck 2-5 0-0 5; M. Williams 2-3 2-2 6; M. Lenox 3-4 2-2 8; M. Washington 2-5 3-3 7; J. Springer 1-2 1-4 3; W. Thornton 0-0 0-0 0; A. Stire 1-1 0-1 2; J. Johnson 1-3 0-2 2. Totals 20-55 18-25 63. LAFAYETTE 7-10 (2-0) -- J. Mower 2-8 1-2 6; R. Delaney 6-13 2-3 19; R. Willen 3-7 6-6 13; J. Ptasinski 1-5 0-0 3; T. Johnson 1-3 1-2 3; L. Giese 4-6 0-1 10; N. Petkovich 2-4 0-0 6; D. Trist 2-3 1-3 5; S. Hinrichs 2-3 0-0 5; L. Smith 1-3 0-0 2; A. Flannigan 1-1 0-0 3; J. Pelham 0-1 0-0 0; J. Detmer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-57 11-17 75.
Three-point goals: ARMY 5-21 (J. Simmons 2-10; E. Ellis 2-7; J. Herbeck 1-4), LAF 14-25 (R. Delaney 5-8; J. Mower 1-3; N. Petkovich 2-3; R. Willen 1-2; L. Giese 2-3; L. Smith 0-1; J. Ptasinski 1-3; S. Hinrichs 1-1; A. Flannigan 1-1); Rebounds: ARMY 34 (J. Springer 6), LAF 36 (R. Delaney 6); Assists: ARMY 7 (M. Williams 3), LAF 16 (T. Johnson 4); Total Fouls -- ARMY 21, LAF 25; Fouled Out: ARMY-None; LAF-L. Giese.