Columbia vs. Cornell: The pain of press row

Levien

NEW YORK – There was a moment, in the second half of Columbia’s massively disappointing loss to Cornell, where all felt hopeless. The Big Red had stretched their lead to some new high — was it 11 points? 13? — and their bench roared with jubilation after each bucket. The Columbia faithful, a sellout 2,715 people packed so tightly into Levien that the gym was approaching “call the fire marshal” status, began to grow quiet, one or two or 20 beginning to slink meekly down the bleachers and then back up onto campus, covered in a coat of gloppy wet snow.

Harvard had lost earlier in the day, as I found to my shock and glee on a random scroll through Twitter during the women’s game. (That, too, a disappointing loss for the Light Blue.) Yale had been scared senseless by Brown at home. The mantle of the Ivy League was right there for Columbia to grab, just two games into the season, in front of the largest crowd seen in Levien since before the 2010-11 season. And the Lions let it slip away.

Make no mistake, Cornell was a better team last night. They played with aggression mixed with a surprising amount of poise, Shonn Miller proving himself a nightmare at both ends of the floor. Columbia, meanwhile, looked lost save the Herculean efforts of Isaac Cohen. Maodo Lo took shot after shot, and shot after shot clanged off the rim, just inches away from the killer swoosh the home fans wanted. The frontcourt was ineffective, unable to post up or clear any space for Lo’s drives. The sharpshooting Steve Frankoski couldn’t quite find his touch. The lead grew larger and larger; finally, it was clear that all was lost.

I sat through it all, stone-faced and silent, on press row.

**

I come into this whole “journalism” thing completely backwards. My exposure to Columbia basketball came with the marching band, where being as loud and clever and occasionally annoying as possible was encouraged. After two years, I started to write columns for the Spectator, which had a clear point of view and required no reporting on my part. Even last year, as a member of the press with WKCR’s broadcast team, I didn’t feel like a journalist. I felt like me, doing my best to describe and entertain and inform, but always living or dying with Columbia.

When Mike Tony, our site’s czar and editor-in-chief, asked if I would start writing for Ivy Hoops Online, he offered me press credentials. I’ve been using them for a number of reasons — you can’t beat the price ($0) or the view (courtside).

The tradeoff, which I only felt acutely last night, is that I have to pretend I don’t care.

For the first time for a game at Levien, I didn’t wear any light blue clothing. Not a blue-gold-and-white rugby shirt, or a pair of soccer socks pulled up to my calves, or a pair of yellow wristbands with a blue lion on them, or even the blue-striped ties that I preferred when on the radio. I almost had to physically restrain myself from throwing my hands in the air at a bad call, fist-pumping with every made three, screaming at the referee who stood just a yard away from me. You’re not supposed to do any of that stuff. You’re supposed to sit there, placid and neutral.

But I can’t pretend with this team. I live or die with the Columbia Lions basketball team; by the end of the game yesterday, I was dead.

**

Before this season, I’d never been to a press conference at Levien. They’re held in a repurposed squash court on the third floor of the gym, off a subterranean corridor with the sounds of small rubber balls pinging in the background. Having been to two straight conferences after Columbia losses, I genuinely don’t know how the players and coaches can face talking to us, barely 15 minutes after the complete expenditure of their energy reserves.

You could hear the notes of frustration and confusion in Kyle Smith’s voice, still straightforwardly answering questions but with the air of a man still coming to terms with what he saw. You couldn’t hear any of Maodo Lo’s voice, so clearly shaken by the loss that his responses barely register above a blip on my recording. They could feel the anticipation in the building, the hordes of people desperate for a winner — and they knew they had come up short.

It hurt me to hear it, every word landing like a blindside hit from a ferocious linebacker. I hate to report it to you now. It was a tough, tough, tough loss. Yale looms just six days from now, a pivotal evening for the Light Blue.

**

Now, I assume you, anonymous reader, come here not to hear me hash out my deep and conflicted feelings about this basketball team. I apologize for the self-indulgence. And I promise I’ll write a more analytical piece on this game in the next few days.

But I think it’s unfair that you read my writing without knowing what it all means to me, what I suffer through every time I set foot in Levien.

I sit on press row now, but I’m not a journalist. This team means too much to me to pretend to be unbiased, an objective observer of neutral events.

I’m still going to live or die with the Lions. I’m increasingly concerned that this year, like every year, they’re going to kill me.

6 thoughts on “Columbia vs. Cornell: The pain of press row

  1. Great piece, Peter. This subject hits close to home for me. It’s easy to develop a rooting interest (even if you didn’t start with one to begin with) for the team you’re covering and those press conferences after a tough loss are particularly brutal.

    It’s very difficult to stay objective on press row– sometimes impossible. I’m reminded of a March 2013 game at Levien when the Brown Bears came to town looking to climb into the top half of the league against a likable Lions team that had suffered far too many close losses already. With the game tied in the closing seconds, Mike Martin drew up a brilliant double pick play that left Brown’s #33 with a small window to get off a three. I watched from my seat on press row, as time stopped, the ball tenuously floating as the buzzer sounded, threatening to deflate the energy of a noisy Saturday night crowd. And then… swish.

    My own brother had driven the dagger into the heart of the team that I had come to love covering. Blood won out on this occasion. I stood up and fist pumped uncontrollably as he walked over to press row, full of the swagger that comes from single-handedly sending a few thousand people home unhappy. I quickly and sheepishly attempted to regain my objectivity and sat down quickly, trying to avoid the glares of the people sitting beside me, but the damage had been done. I did not attend that press conference in the squash courts.

    I was grateful for a long offseason after that, hopeful that any memory of my outburst would fade into the abyss, like most of that forgettable season for Smith’s men.

    • Yes, Mr. Knight her name is Dr Grace Calhoun. Trust me, she has enormous power to change things. If she doesn’t work, I hear Dr Amy Guttman can work wonders as well.

      The AQ

  2. I feel your pain!

    Columbia needs really athletic players like Miller and Cherry. Why can’t we recruit talent like that? We need more than 3 point shooters.

  3. All of the press row anguish aside, I was quite disappointed in the Lions’ performance Saturday. They certainly seem to have lost whatever they had a few weeks ago which made them look so formidable. I’m sure that something is Mr. Lo’s poor performances as of late. It may have been just a bad game, but they seem to have definitely taken a step back at a very bad time. Unfortunately, unless Kylie Smith can reenergize his charges into their usual pre-Ivy frenzy, there may be more anguish in the future for the fans of the Light Blue and not just on press row.

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