We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. Cornell is next because there are some improbable connections you just can’t make up…
Jan. 6, 2010 – Cornell was in Allen Fieldhouse taking on the No. 1 team in the country. The game was so close and so good that ESPN cut away from the Duke game it was airing to show final 10 minutes of Cornell-Kansas. (When does ESPN ever cut away from a Duke game?) It took a Sherron Collins driving layup with under a minute left for Kansas to retake the lead for good. Cornell lost that night, 71-66.
In the postgame press conference, the first thing out of Kansas coach Bill Self’s mouth was, “They [Cornell] have a terrific big man [Jeff Foote] that could play for anybody in the country.”
Self’s commentary was a far cry from back when Cornell coach Steve Donahue was scouting a high school tournament Foote played in and recalled thinking, “There were some Division III coaches watching that day and none of them thought he was good enough for them.”
The journey started at Spencer-Van Etten High School in Spencer, N.Y., where Foote, a 6’11, 170- pound center, was looking to extend his basketball career in the collegiate ranks. Despite a senior season where Foote averaged 15 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks per game, the offers never came. Foote was deemed too awkward on the court and not strong enough to play at the next level. Without an offer to play basketball, he accepted an academic scholarship to St. Bonaventure. Foote’s size gave him the opportunity to walk onto the basketball team as a freshman, but because of his decision to redshirt, he could only participate in practice.
Meanwhile, two and a half hours east of St. Bonaventure and just half an hour north of where Foote grew up, the Cornell basketball team was in the midst of its 2005-06 season.
Jan. 24, 2006 – a lot of lives changed. During a rebounding drill in practice, several Cornell players collided going after a loose ball. Sophomore Khaliq Gant, one of those players, couldn’t get up, and it was clear it wasn’t an ordinary injury. Gant was rushed to Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira, N.Y., where the initial diagnosis was that he would never walk again. Gant dislocated two vertebrae in his neck and was paralyzed from the neck down.
Gant’s case became personal for the head nurse in the intensive care unit, Wanda Foote, as she had two sons who played basketball, one named Jeff. Wanda Foote had a front row seat to the type of team that Cornell was, and not on the court. Mrs. Foote later told Slope Media, “You’re talking 14-15 kids and coaches there to see him off to his rehab. And at 7:00 in the morning for college kids to even be awake, but they were there.”
The injury ended Gant’s playing career, but after seven months of rehab, he returned to Cornell. It didn’t take long for another face to arrive on campus. A coaching overhaul at St. Bonaventure put the idea of transferring in Foote’s mind. Fortunately for him, his mother stayed connected to the Cornell coaching staff and kept pushing her son toward Cornell. After a recruiting visit, Foote would officially become a member of the Big Red.
Expected to play at the Division I level, Foote had a lot of work to do. He was tall, especially in the Ivy League, but still needed to gain a lot of strength. Foote recalled early in his Cornell career, his new head coach telling him he’s “the worst basketball player in Division I.” Maybe it was a motivational tactic or maybe it was just the truth, but the result was Foote dedicating himself as much to the weight room as to the court. An inconsistent first season turned into a starting role, a second-team All-Ivy selection and Ivy Defensive Player of the Year honors. And that was just his junior season. By his senior year, Foote had future Hall of Fame coaches like Self telling people he “could play for anybody in the country.” His transformation was seen as the difference between Cornell being a good Ivy League team and a team that had a chance to make serious noise in March, which it did, of course.
As for Gant, he remained with the team, regaining the ability to walk. He lifted weights with his teammates, was on the sideline at every practice and on the bench for every game until graduating from Cornell. Gant and Foote became close. Gant told Slope Media, “I feel like a proud father. I feel like I had a hand in him coming to Cornell and I want to see him succeed and it’s great to see that he is succeeding.”
It’s a story that’s almost too unbelievable to be true. A devastating injury, a remarkable recovery and an unforgettable connection that led to a kid who was once turned away from Division III basketball to eventually playing in the NBA.