Nerdsketball: The Magic of the Ivy League Playoff Game

It was the sweaters.

That was the first thing I noticed. So many sweaters.

At a basketball game between two bitter rivals, in one of the most iconic gyms in America, with the ultimate prize at stake, there were so many people wearing sweaters. Not sweatshirts. Actual sweaters. Gifted athletes are about to go to war on this historic court, and the crowd ready to watch them was littered with people in cable-knits and cardigans with large H’s and Y’s on the chest.

One guy, who I desperately wanted to take a picture of but never had the right opportunity to, would have fit in much better at a croquet tournament or sailing regatta in his white Yale sweater and striped scarf around his neck.

So as I took my seat at the press table, thanks to my gig on the Bracketology team over at ESPN, just before the ball was tipped in the huge Ivy League Playoff game between Harvard and Yale, all I could think about was how many people in the building were wearing sweaters.

But then, immediately, as the anticipation for the game built, the sweaters were pushed aside in my mind, and all of the other stimuli at the Palestra in Philadelphia took over. The atmosphere was so pressure-packed and ripe for excitement.

The crowd, or I guess I should say crowds, were electric. Divided right at halfcourt, both schools travelled exceptionally well for the game, as they should. Harvard brought a dance team and cheerleaders (The intersection of the venn diagram of “Can/Will/Does attend Harvard” and “Wants to be a cheerleader” will always surprise me). Yale’s mascot stumbled through the bleachers. Both teams had pep bands. Yale’s alumni represented a bit better, though Harvard’s student section was more raucous. (The Harvard kids started a “Safety school” chant, which is downright ridiculous. If any high school student is applying Yale as a safety school, I hope they get rejected from every school they applied to and act like they are taking a gap year on purpose.)

Not to be outdone, Penn’s student section was great too.

Oh, I should have mentioned, Penn wasn’t playing in the game, but about 25 UPenn students still decided to paint their faces, put on their Quakers colors, and root against BOTH teams. They had a litany of signs, my favorite being “NOT IN MY PALESTRA!”. At one point, the Penn kids started chanting about Penn, to which a very confused Harvard student section did not know how to respond. Even “Score-board” wouldn’t apply, since Penn wasn’t even listed on the scoreboard.

I think going to a game with the implicit reason of rooting against both teams is one of the most Philadelphia things a person can possibly do. The City of Brotherly love was absolutely a part of the proceedings. Beyond the Penn kids, there were the smattering of green-clad drunks who stumbled from the University City Erin Express bar crawl in time for the game. There was the TV production employee who carried a cameraman’s cord on the court during every timeout, wearing a “Chink’s Steaks” t-shirt because he clearly could care less that the owners opted to change the name of their restaurant. There were boos when a Harvard supporting tyke routed a Yale supporting kid in a halftime tricycle race.

And of course, there was the Palestra. I can’t remember the last time I was in a building that loud, and on this occasion, the crowd was divided. I’m not sure ears could handle that arena with the entire crowd rooting the same way. It felt like the building hit volume whenever anything exciting happened, which means it happened a lot, because this was a GREAT game.

IMG_0349

The “nerd” joke in the title of this post is certainly true in certain aspects. The sweaters of course, though they represent more of a preppiness than nerdiness, but the peak of nerd-dom was overhearing two Yale pep band members joke about electrons. But the on-court gameplay was phenomenal. Both teams have two or three players full capable of starting for power conference teams. Barring a terrible match-up, Harvard is going to win their first round game again this year and I would have picked Yale to win too. I’d still pick Yale to win a game. They won’t be considered for an at-large bid, but the team I saw at the Palestra was absolutely more entertaining, more fun, and more interesting than Boise State, Ole Miss, or Temple will be.

So in an essentially perfect setting, we were treated to a near perfect game. The outcome hung in the balance for all 40 minutes, and both teams played impossibly hard and were not only striving so hard to win, but were clearly having fun. I wanted overtime, very badly.

It came down to the final shots (Harvard made, Yale missed) and the crazy atmosphere poured onto the court for a celebration. All-Ivy league senior guard Wesley Saunders was absolutely beaming. I thought I got the moment below, in which Saunders invited a (seemingly) random court stormer to jump into his arms, but was devastated to learn I actually took a burst of still images.

RANDOM kid

Yale’s coach, James Jones, looked damn near broken during his postgame press conference. That was the worst part of the game, that someone had to lose and head to the NIT (presumably, Yale is not guaranteed a spot in the NIT).

The stakes, the atmosphere, the location, the game. All close to perfect. If there’s basketball in heaven, I’d imagine it looks something like that game.

Well, without all the sweaters.

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com

4 thoughts on “Nerdsketball: The Magic of the Ivy League Playoff Game

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