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Not a dream come true: unimaginable

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By Karl Lindholm

24-4.

That’s a pretty good record for a basketball team. For a Middlebury College men’s basketball team, it’s unprecedented.

Years ago, I played basketball here at Middlebury College — and now have been employed here for over three decades. In all that time, I have rarely missed a home basketball game.

This Middlebury College season was not a dream come true for me, winning its first NESCAC championship, and setting all kinds of team records, before losing a heartbreaker in the second round of the NCAA tournament last weekend.

It wasn’t a dream come true, because I never dreamt it. It was unimaginable.

Last Saturday’s game was sold out, and I got calls from friends who wanted my help with tickets. One Middlebury student told me he was offered 20 bucks for his $6 ticket — and he chose not to part with it. Scalping at a Middlebury hoop tilt — unimaginable.

As a fan, I am a nervous Nellie. I wander the gym at the end of close games, can’t sit still. On Saturday, I watched the excruciating last minute from the stands on the other side from the Middlebury section where I usually sit. There were 700-800 fans strong, all standing, screaming, having the time of their lives, a cacophony of Panthers, as Russ Reilly might say.

A full house. Sold out. Basketball. Unimaginable.

I played at a time in the 1960s when Middlebury’s hoop fortunes were at a low ebb. I have made something of a cottage industry in my writing, rationalizing defeat. I once wrote a column in this space titled, “In Defense of Losing,” a different take, I hope, on the usual platitudes.

I often cite the aphorism of Al McGuire, famous college basketball coach, who said: “The best thing in sports is winning; the second best thing in sports is losing.” The key is playing, playing the game hard and well and feeling the exhilaration of living entirely in the moment and caring deeply about your companions and the outcome of your collective efforts.

So I have to be careful. I risk hypocrisy if I wax too ecstatic about this team’s fabulous success. But it’s hard not to. Not just because of the exciting games, all those victories, but because there’s rarely been a group of players easier to root for. These young men epitomize the student-athlete: they are a team of smart, caring individuals, generous with their time. Success doesn’t always come to the deserving, but it did this time.

Hard, too, not to admire Coach Jeff  Brown, the leader of this ensemble, whose reserved, capable presence attracted these players to Middlebury,  and who so skillfully meshed their collective talents into this extraordinary team.

Ben Rudin, the Player of the Year in the NESCAC this year, had the best season I’ve seen a Middlebury player have, even better than the 1988 season of the incomparable John Humphrey ’88, who scored 28 points a game that year and 1844 in his four years, the school record 

With Ben at the point, Middlebury has been almost impossible to pressure in the backcourt — he just whizzes on by hapless defenders. He is the best point guard I’ve seen at Middlebury since Greg Birsky ’79.

Speaking of Birsky, you know there is a basketball tradition here in this winter sports paradise, though not on the scale certainly of ice hockey and skiing, but a tradition nonetheless.

I’ve been privileged to watch so many terrific Middlebury players in all these years I’ve been attending games: I remember well Mike Baumann ’92 with all his moves in the paint; Kevin Kelleher ‘80, our Larry Bird, with the silky outside shot and the snake-like moves at the hoop; Jason Prenevost ’95, a long-range bomber, like Andrew Harris of last year’s team; strongman Mike Waggett ’82; and so many others.

I have enjoyed doing research on the powerful Middlebury teams of Coach Tony Lupien in the mid-fifties. Sonny Dennis ‘55 was perhaps the greatest male athlete ever to attend Middlebury, a star in football, track, and basketball, who scored 1213 points in basketball, before the three point shot and the shot clock, of course, but also before freshman were eligible to play on the varsity.

His teammate, 6’5” Tom Hart ‘56, is the greatest rebounder in the history of college basketball. Look it up. He averaged 28 rebounds a game over his three years and twice had 48 in a single contest.

Middlebury’s basketball icon is 80-year-old Donald “Dee” Rowe ’52, who played for Lupien and went on to a great career coaching the game, ultimately at the University of Connecticut. Dee comes back each January to conduct a Winter Term course on “Coaching Young Athletes.”

Middlebury, the town, has more kids playing in youth programs than ever before, I’m told. When the college games end, the floor is taken over by a swarm of kids inspired by the play they have just witnessed. It’s a happy scene.

Now this. 24-4. NESCAC Champs. Hoop fever at Middlebury.

Unimaginable, but true.

Karl Lindholm teaches in the American Studies Program at Middlebury College and is the Dean of Cook Commons.

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