Some people look for the essence of America in baseball's spring training. I like to find it in college basketball. Over 200 teams, all with a fair chance to prove themselves the best squad in the country, all carrying the flags for thousands more who cannot be on the court with them.
It's the essence of democracy. It approaches religion at most of this country's major colleges. Here at Harvard, it's a passion for the selected few, and with reason: traditionally, Harvard men's basketball has been very bad.
Harvard has not won the Ivy League championship in the 90-odd years since the Ancient Eight was still modern. Not once. Never. While Pennsylvania and Princeton can spin tales of NCAA tournament glory, Harvard can but mutter in its beer. Understandably, this fosters a certain degree of apathy among potential fans, most of whom elect to throw their loyalties to other schools.
But for the diehards among us, all we ask for is a little excitement. Make it interesting. It's like the Red Sox: if you're gonna lose (which, let's face it, they are gonna do), do it with style. Panache. Verve. Joie de vivre, even. We'll forgive the lack of trophies.
Simply put, the last two versions of the Crimson have not been interesting. This one is. Without burly forward Ron Mitchell '92 or deadeye swingman Tyler Rullman '93 to carry the scoring load, Coach Frank Sullivan has no one left who can be relief upon to put the ball in the hoop. No one has the touch, the ability to create his own shot and expect it to fall.
It's a crapshoot every time point guard Tarik Campbell brings the ball up the floor, an electrifying uncertainty which crackles through every possession. Who will score? Who can score?
It's not even a question of spreading the points around. Not a very good offensive team, Harvard has to earn every single one of its baskets. In 45 minutes of basketball last night, Harvard managed just 70 points. The Crimson shot just 34 percent from the floor and 56 percent from the free-throw line.
And believe you me, there's no slowdown offense going on out there. Just near-desperation at getting the rock to fall.
"That's what we miss: the go-to-guy," Sullivan said. "I don't know if we even have one. Until we have somebody hitting those shots, we'll keep on looking. But we'll find him."
Without someone to take the clutch shot, chaos on the court is often the result.
Take this situation: With 16 seconds remaining in regulation last night, Harvard and Colgate were tied, 63-63. One basket, Harvard wins. It's that simple--but it really isn't. Last year, the play is for Rullman. The year before that, Mitchell. This year? See for yourself:
Campbell, using a combination of starts and stops that would make Barry Sanders proud, dodges his triple team, rockets across the halfcourt line and passes off to junior guard Jared Leake (1-for-8 that night). Leake fires the ball back to Campbell at the top of the key. Ten seconds left. The crowd is roaring. Campbell rifles the ball to junior forward Fred Scott (3-for-11), who is harassed in the corner. Sophomores Darren Rankin and Michael Gilmore cannot get free inside. Scott passes the ball back to Campbell. Five seconds. Campbell fiddles and diddles at the top of the key, then fires it back to Scott, who is open in the deep right corner for a three.
Scott fires the fall-away trey: a high, arcing shot that looks good. The buzzer sounds. The ball bounces off the rim and falls off.
Isn't that breathtaking? Both benches and the entire stands were on their feet, screaming encouragement. And while Scott firing the winning trey from the corner is not really Sullivan's dream setup, it was as good an option as anything else for this offensively-challenged squad.
"It wasn't what we were thinking," Sullivan said. "We wanted to set up the wing players off a screen, but the initial pass was off and the Colgate pressure was fierce."
"I wish I had it over again," a forlorn Scott said.
That, I submit, is worth digging out your coupon book for. Harvard won't win the Ivy crown this year. But when Campbell, Leake, Gilmore, Rankin, Scott, freshman Kyle Snowden, junior Dan Morris and junior Kevin Fricka take the floor, we have excitement. Electricity. Drama.
So catch the fever. Who could ask for anything more?
COLGATE, 75-70 at Briggs Cage Colgate 41 22 12-- 75 Harvard 27 36 7-- 70
COLGATE: Whatley 3-3 1-1 7; Siegel 0-2 0-0 0; Nicholas 1-1 4-6 7; Hyra 1-4 0-0 2; Neale 10-18 7-10 30; Roberts 0-3 0-0 0; Rubin 0-0 0-0 0;0' Neil 2-3 4-4 9; Brown 0-8 0-0 0; Cupid 4-8 0-1 9; Benton 2-5 3-3 8; Bollin 1-2 1-1 3. Totals 24-57 20-26 75.
HARVARD: Campbell 7-11 2-8 18; Leake 1-8 1-2 3; Gilmore 2-6 3-4 8, Morris 0-0 4-4 4; Mann 1-4 2-2 4; Scott 3-11 0-2 6; snowden 1-3 4-6 6; White 1-6 1-3 4; Fricka 0-0 0-2 0; Rankin 5-12 5-6 17. Totals 21-61 22-39 70.