Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

April 30, 2010

Making the Case for Ivy League Basketball

Before Cornell's epic NCAA-tournament run, Kathy Orton spent a year following the Ancient Eight's men's college-basketball season, from a packed Palestra to near-empty arenas.

Matthew Goldenberg

Had Butler not come within an unfriendly rim (or two) of a national championship (damn Duke!), another Cinderella may have been the feel-good story of this year's March Madness. The Cornell Big Red raced past Temple and Wisconsin in the initial rounds of the NCAA tournament to earn the school's first ever Sweet 16 appearance. It was the deepest run for an Ivy League school since Penn's Final Four appearance more than three decades ago. The senior-laden team from Ithaca ultimately succumbed to a Kentucky squad full of McDonald's All-Americans, but not before demonstrating that a bunch of non-scholarship eggheads could hoop with the nation's elite.

Kathy Orton. Photo by Joan Brady.
"The more I followed the league, the more I fell in love with it."

Kathy Orton. Photo by Joan Brady.

Cornell's success could not have come at a better time for veteran Washington Post sportswriter Kathy Orton. Her recently published book, Outside the Limelight: Basketball in the Ivy League, chronicles a season in the life of America's only Division I non-scholarship conference. Gelf recently emailed with Orton to discuss her book, the merits of a league with no scholarships and no postseason tournament, and just how eggheaded Ivy basketball players really are. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Was it because of luck or marketing genius that your book came out the same year that an Ivy League team made a run to the Sweet 16?

Kathy Orton: Oh my goodness. I would like to say it was marketing genius, but it was truly more luck than genius. I put so much time into writing this book and have been waiting—not so patiently—for it to come out, that it truly was incredible timing that it was published the same year an Ivy League team made it to the Sweet 16.

Gelf Magazine: What did you think of Cornell's run?

Kathy Orton: Cornell had such a great season. I'm not sure even now that people can appreciate how special it was. I really thought the players represented the league well and debunked the myth that Ivy basketball is inferior. What I will be interested in seeing is how the Big Red's run changes the perception of the Ivy League among top high-school players. Will some of them now consider playing in the Ivy League?

Gelf Magazine: You didn't go to an Ivy League school, and you work in Washington, DC, home to lots of Ivy alums, but two and a half hours away from the nearest league campus. Not to mention that Ivy League basketball isn't exactly most sports fans' idea of a must-see. How did you come to write this book?

Kathy Orton: I fell in love with Ivy basketball at a Penn-Princeton game at the Palestra. I was sent to cover the game by my editor, who wanted me to write about how this rivalry is so different than any other in college basketball. What I saw was one of the greatest games I have ever seen in person. From there, I was hooked. The more I followed the league, the more I fell in love with it.

Gelf Magazine: I'll grant you that watching Penn play Princeton in front of a capacity Palestra crowd is an exciting time. But that's just one of the 56 Ivy League games per year. Which is more representative of the league as a whole: that game in Philly or watching Columbia play Dartmouth on a cold winter's night in Hanover's Leede Arena?

Kathy Orton: I've been to Hanover on a cold, snowy February night for a Brown-Dartmouth game, and you're right: You can't get much different than a packed Palestra for a Penn-Princeton game and a near-empty Leede Arena for a Dartmouth game. As you know, it has to do with success. The better the teams are, the more fans they draw.
I won't disagree with you that, for the most part, Ivy players play their games in front of friends-and-family-only crowds. I think that's a shame, and it's one of the reasons I wrote the book. I think people are missing out on Ivy basketball. You can watch fiercely competitive basketball, and yes, to prove I'm not a total Pollyanna, you can watch some awful basketball at times. But there are few games I have walked away from saying, "That was a total waste of my time." I don't think you can say a game between two of the lesser teams is "representative" of the league any more than you can say a game between DePaul and Rutgers is "representative" of the Big East.

Gelf Magazine: As you point out, the lack of a postseason tournament sets the Ivy League apart in Division I basketball. What's your take on the decision to forego what could be an exciting event (and one that would make the last half of the season meaningful to all eight teams)? Kathy Orton: I know I am in a minority here, but I hope the league never adopts a tournament. It sets the Ivy League apart from the rest of Division I college basketball. I love that every game in the season is meaningful. I think it makes for incredibly competitive basketball.

Gelf Magazine: I think we'll have to agree to disagree on that one. As a Yale student during the last years under Dick Kuchen, it was disheartening to have no chance for an NCAA bid one or two weeks into the league schedule. The 2005-06 season didn't exactly come down to the wire. Did you, chronicling the season, experience this as a lack of drama?

Kathy Orton: Do I get points for mentioning Kuchen in the book? Yes, the 2005-06 season didn't come down to the wire. However, it didn't lack for drama in February, either. I thought the game between Penn, which had already clinched the league title and the NCAA berth; and Brown, which had nothing to play for except finishing at .500; was one of the more dramatic of the season—as was the final Penn-Princeton game of the season. Columbia was eliminated from the race, but it still swept Penn and Princeton that year. Do teams give up on the season? Sure, it happens. But for the most part, I think these guys are competitive and want to win, no matter what's at stake.

Gelf Magazine: Some argue that the Ivy League is a bit like a suburban little league: some good athletes, but a relatively exclusive club. After all, most parents can't shell out $50,000 per year for the privilege of sending their son to an Ivy. What do you make of that criticism?

Kathy Orton: I think the biggest misconception of Ivy basketball is that it is a bunch of privileged white kids who can barely run and jump. That couldn't be farther from the truth. Ivy rosters are some of the more diverse in Division I. I do think the $50,000 price tag turns off a lot of good players who might play in the Ivy League if they could afford it. For that reason, I would like to see the league give athletic scholarships.

Gelf Magazine: You reference the work of former Princeton president William Bowen, who in several of his books has been critical of the role of athletics on Ivy campuses. What do you make of his critiques? Does the Ivy League strike a good balance between scholar and athlete?

Kathy Orton: What I find interesting is that William Bowen wrote these books after he left Princeton. But as far as I know, he didn't do much to address these issues when he was president of the school. It is also worth nothing that Ivy League schools have some of the largest athletic departments in the country. Harvard offers more varsity sports than any other Division I school. If athletics weren't important, why do these schools offer so many sports? The lessons that sports teach are as important as the lessons taught in the classroom. In my opinion, the Ivy League does a good job of keeping sports in their proper perspective.

Gelf Magazine: As a non-varsity athlete who is a sports fan, I would argue that intercollegiate sports serve not just the athletes themselves but also the student body at large in bringing both entertainment and a unifying rallying point to a school.

Kathy Orton: To your point about how sports can serve as entertainment and a rallying point for the student body, I couldn't agree more. But you don't see much student support at Ivy schools unless the teams are successful. Plus, in talking to the players, I got the impression that on campus, they were looked down upon, not held in high regard for playing basketball. I just didn't see sports as a rallying point for students, or alumni, at Ivy schools.

Gelf Magazine: One of Bowen's other criticisms is that athletes are more likely to major in economics or similar departments, and to enter jobs on Wall Street, than are their non-athlete counterparts. A number of the players you followed were heading into careers in finance. Especially in light of Wall Street's recent woes, does it concern you at all that the athletes are disproportionately drawn to these careers, rather than those more commonly linked to public service, such as teaching or medicine or journalism?

Kathy Orton: I believe one of the points Bowen made in his second book was that, although these athletes fare worse in college because of their time commitment to their sport, they tend to outperform their peers after college. Yes, many Ivy athletes choose careers on Wall Street after college. The reason for this, I believe, is because it most replicates their playing experience: the competitiveness, the intensity, the winning and the losing. Seamus Lonergan, the former Dartmouth player, became an emergency-room doctor for this reason. He liked the teamwork involved; how. just like every game is different, every patient is different; how sometimes, like when you are shooting a free throw, you have to shut out all the distractions and perform.

Gelf Magazine: Are Ivy League basketball players actually that smart? I mean, sure, some are, but do you think they really differ dramatically from athletes at other schools? What about schools like Duke or Stanford or Vanderbilt that field better basketball teams than Ivy League schools in most years?

Kathy Orton: Yes, Ivy League basketball players are that smart, as are most Ivy League athletes. But there are also many smart athletes at other Division I schools. And for that reason, I don't think Ivy basketball players differ that much from their Division I counterparts. The one thing I learned in writing this book is that these guys are basketball players who happen to go to some of the elite academic institutions in our country—but they are basketball players first and foremost. One of the nicest compliments I got about the book was from a Princeton player who thanked me for portraying him and the other players as basketball players and not players who were "dribbling down the court with a calculator in one hand." As far as the "smart" players at Duke, Vanderbilt, and Stanford, my feeling is that those teams do have guys smart enough to go to an Ivy League school, but one of the reasons they are where they are is because Duke, Vanderbilt, and Stanford give them scholarships and the Ivy League doesn't.

Gelf Magazine: I found the most moving part of the book to be the story about Cornell's Khaliq Gant, who suffered a neck and spinal-cord injury during practice and faced a long and grueling recovery. What was it like covering that part of the story?

Kathy Orton: I'm so pleased you found the part about Khaliq Gant moving. I swear every time I read that section I get tears in my eyes—and goodness knows I have read that section probably 100 times. I was so fortunate that Khaliq and his family and Cornell Coach Steve Donahue were so open and trusting with me. I couldn't have written with the depth that I did without their help. I feel so honored and privileged that I could tell his story.

Gelf Magazine: You spent more time with four teams—Cornell, Harvard, Penn and Princeton—than with the other four squads—Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, or Yale. (I tried not to be too offended.)

Kathy Orton: I'm sorry I didn't cover your Yale Bulldogs more. To be honest, it came down to Yale and Cornell, and after Khaliq Gant's injury, I felt compelled to go with Cornell. I had been told to stick with four teams to avoid having the book become too unwieldy. Penn and Princeton were obvious choices because of their traditional dominance of the league. Harvard had a strong team and was supposed to win the league that year, which was why I focused on the Crimson. It then came down to Yale and Cornell, and because Cornell had the more compelling storyline, I went with the Big Red.

Gelf Magazine: What about the differences in the cultures of the different teams? Did the players differ much from school to school? Did the coaches differ?

Kathy Orton: Every team had its own personality, just as every coach has his own personality. The teams certainly differed from school to school, but I think that had less to do with the school than the people involved. If I was watching a pickup game, I couldn't look at the players and say he's a Brown player, or he's a Columbia player—or, for that matter, that he's an Ivy player. Of course, if I was watching a Princeton team play, I'd certainly pick up on the style of play. But in a pickup game, with no structure, I wouldn't be able to tell a Princeton player from a Penn player or a Cornell player.

Gelf Magazine: Then-Princeton coach Joe Scott comes off sounding like a bit of a character.

Kathy Orton: Joe Scott is an interesting character, but what made him interesting was as much the reaction to him as who he was. One of the Princeton players once told me that Scott and Cornell Coach Steve Donahue could almost be twins, and in some respects, I don't disagree. Yet, the perception of Donahue is much different than that of Scott. To be the coach at Princeton, or Penn, is not easy. There is a lot of scrutiny that comes with those jobs.

Gelf Magazine: As a Yale guy, I experienced a degree of schadenfreude in reading about Harvard's struggles. What was your experience in covering a team that started with such high hopes that came crashing down?
Kathy Orton: It's good to know your school loyalties haven't abated. Though the circumstances were completely different, writing about Harvard's downfall was similar to writing about Khaliq Gant's injury. I was asking people to talk about very painful experiences. My heart went out to the Harvard players. I felt terrible knowing that they worked so hard and, despite their best efforts, they weren't going to achieve their goal. That, going back to your earlier question, is to me what is representative of Ivy basketball. Of course, it has all changed since I wrote the book, but I was drawn to the Ivy League as much for the six other teams' Sisyphean quest than for Penn's and Princeton's dominance. I think you learn more in trying and failing than you do in trying and succeeding.

Gelf Magazine: I don't know if you have children or not, but if you had an excellent basketball-playing son, where would you want him to play college ball?

Kathy Orton: I do not have any children, but if/when I do, I'd strongly encourage my son or daughter to play Ivy basketball. Given my athletic ability, there is no chance he/she would be a top recruit. But even if my child was a talented player, I would still like him/her to consider the Ivy League. I find it interesting how many former professional athletes send their children to Ivy schools. I think there's something to be said for that.

Front-page image of Princeton basketball courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik's Flickr via Creative Commons.

Matthew Goldenberg

Matthew Goldenberg is a practicing psychiatrist in New Haven, CT.

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Matthew Goldenberg is a practicing psychiatrist in New Haven, CT.

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