My eleven year-old Ian and I immediately recognize Fairfield's Marcus Gilbert when he ambles to the half court line in Hynes Athletic Center in New Rochelle, New York for the opening tip against Iona. The spider-like limbs and thin mustache can belong to no one else. But we don't trust our eyes. We've never seen Gilbert without his warm-ups on.
"It's him, Dad, isn't it?" Ian says.
We watched Fairfield last month and Gilbert, a freshman whom Ian idolized as his counselor at Fairfield's summer basketball camp, did not play. Now, I look along Fairfield's bench. There is no other player who could be Gilbert.
"It's him," I say.
Gilbert wins the tip, and with the first possession Fairfield's Needham hits a three-pointer from the top of the key. He slaps his hands low on his hips, as if returning pistols to a holster. The Iona crowd responds positively to this brashness, even from the enemy side.
Iona students are out in droves, though many of them never find seats. They move around the grandstand in little clusters as if at a keg party. ESPN is here for the MAAC Game of the Week, a rematch of last year's MAAC semifinals when Fairfield knocked off Iona and ended their chance for a competitive seed in the NCAA tournament after a magical regular season. (Iona wound up in a play-in game, which they lost to BYU.) Now, an usher rolls out a ladder to re-tape a corner of the ESPN banner which has fallen away from the wall. Students walk under the ladder and laugh.
During the game action we can't take our eyes off Gilbert. We watch him as if he were a sibling or a son. And when he sweeps through the lane for a lay-up over Laury and a one point Stag lead, Ian and I look at each other wide-eyed. He can play!
"Swooping and hooping!" says Ian, mimicking the Knicks' television analyst and improvisational poet, Clyde Frazier.
Iona establishes a fast tempo. They use a man-to-man full court press; they shoot early in the shot clock; and they take risks on offense, some which pay off, including a gorgeous alley-oop from Laury to Sledge, one of Coach Tim Cluess's newest transfer students to another. Fairfield can play fast too, but they move the ball to the low block on almost every possession, where Matthews and Barrow spin to the basket around the Gaels' big men.
At a media timeout midway through the first half, Fairfield leads 23-21.
At this point several things happen seemingly at once. Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson pulls Needham from the game when the Stag guard commits his second foul. Iona's guards, Armand and Momo Jones, each hit shots from beyond the arc. Iona switches to zone to give Laury some weak side help on the block against Barrow. And Scott Machado, the star point guard from last year's Iona team, strolls into the building. Even in a gray hoodie and jeans, he is recognized immediately as New Rochelle royalty. The student section chants his name, and Machado slaps hands with several people while finding a seat behind the band.
Before we know it, Iona leads by 11. They roll into halftime up 41-30.
The students continue to shuffle around the arena, coming down from the rafters behind us and along the aisle between our section and the sideline. Half of Iona's student body commutes to campus; does this explain the constant milling and wandering?
Ian and I stay put during the intermission. "I don't want to lose our seats," says Ian.
The second half plays like an accordion. Fairfield squeezes itself back into contention, and Iona's shotmaking stretches the game back out.
The Stags' Needham starts it. A three pointer and a pull-up jump shot from the foul line brings Fairfield within 3. Momo Jones answers with a three ball of his own to start a surge that swells Iona's lead to twelve points.
The pattern repeats. Needham hits a three. Fairfield, switching defenses on almost every possession, entices Momo into the lane where Barrow blocks the Iona guard's shot. Barrow scores on the other end to bring the Stags within one. The Iona students sit on their hands. But Gomez and Armand step even further away from the hoop and hit three pointers. The accordion stretches out, and Iona is up nine again.
At the under-8:00 timeout, as the teams huddle, a shooting contest is won by a student from the crowd who is introduced as Vinny from Yonkers. He makes 7 of 10 free throws. He walks back to our section and says to a friend, "Dude, my basketball career is over." He sits in the aisle until the ushers shoo him into a proper seat.
In the end, Fairfield cannot keep up with Iona's shotmaking. While Barrow continues to work the inside for the Stags, Momo makes ridiculous shots on the other end for Iona. He double clutches a foul line jumper that is all net. A few possessions later, he drives into the lane, loses his balance, and makes a shot as he falls backwards to the floor. The students roar and whistle and make other my-god-did-you-see-that sounds. This is what they've come to watch, Momo in a private game of H-O-R-S-E against the entire Fairfield defense. Even Needham and his pistols can't match him. After Momo hits a long three three pointer, launched so far from the Stags' zone that no defender bothers to put a hand up in protest, Ian and I argue over the distance.
"Twenty-six footer," I say.
"No way, Dad. That was, like, thirty."
Iona will end the evening on top of the MAAC standings. However, after watching Momo and Iona do their thing, I have the same feeling about this year's Gaels team that I had about last year's: talented, prolific, exciting. Vulnerable.
Right to the end, the freshman Gilbert plays important minutes for Fairfield. But the game gets harder for him. Iona sags off the Fairfield big men in the high post cutting off Gilbert's lanes, and he can no longer streak to the hoop. He misses on two three-point tries, exposing the weakness in his game. We can picture him in Fairfield's gym next summer working on his shot after the campers have left.