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My City in Ruins: Binghamton University's Hoop Dreams

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Just about a year ago, twenty-five years after graduating from a lovably unattractive school we inelegantly referred to as SUNY-B, my buddy Ron Klempner and I stood in the lobby of a faded hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina, waiting like groupies for a college basketball team to pass through.

Decades earlier, we were budding journalists working for the college newspaper, curiously and perhaps presciently named Pipe Dream. Now, just a pair of middle aged men looking to experience something that didn't exist in our youth: school spirit. And though we couldn't name a single player on the squad, and though we struggled a bit with our new and improved school identity -- the team we once knew as the Division III State University of New York at Binghamton Colonials was now the Division I Binghamton University Bearcats -- neither of us was about to let semantics bring down our mood.

Who cared if some focus group thought a bearcat might sell more t-shirts than a colonial, or that Binghamton University sounded tonier than SUNY-B? For that matter, who had time for all those pesky, buzz-killing rumors insinuating the university had sold its birthright just to get to this moment?

Not on that night, at least. Our anonymous-but-excellent alma mater, the place fellow alumnus Tony Kornheiser ribbed for its "neo-penal" architecture, and the school everyone forever has described as the place you went for a first-rate, affordable education, not to watch big time college sports, was about to play Duke in its first-ever NCAA March Madness appearance. Not Oneonta State, not Cortland. Duke!

Like a doping baseball player who shows up to spring training one year looking like the Hulk, the clues were all around. But that one should have been the biggest.

One year later, after the most exhilarating 26-point loss in school history, a night when we thought we had finally arrived, thought perhaps that some of that Duke dust had stuck, we now know it was more a case of Hello, I Must Be Going. A 99-page report released last week, the product of an exhaustive investigation led by the former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, paints Binghamton University and its basketball program less like "the best of the SUNY schools," as we used to boast back in the day, and more like a season's worth of Law and Order episodes.

Here's the Cliff Notes version: Player pummels student into coma, flees country. Player knocks over woman while shoplifting condoms from Wal-Mart. Team season assist leader arrested for selling cocaine. Academically unqualified basketball prospects given special waivers. Players caught using stolen debit card. Subtle (and unfounded) hints of racism leveled at admissions officers trying to protect the school's integrity. Text messages which point towards improper petty cash distributions to players. Smear campaigns leveled at a professor and New York Times reporter who had the audacity to rain on the parade. Head coach placed on indefinite leave. Athletic director forced out. University president announces retirement. University reputation in shambles.

Well, that was worth one game in the big dance, eh?

As Binghamton tries to dig itself out from the weight of its own ambitions -- a curt official statement cited the "limited opportunity to examine" the report, only to then congratulate itself on already implementing some of its recommendations -- and as the NCAA contemplates possible sanctions, the rest of us are left wondering how so many could have suspended so much disbelief. And, for those of us alumni from the lean-but-happy Division III years, how did we ever get to this spot in the first place?

Back in the days of computer punch cards and Smith-Coronas, SUNY-B students prided themselves on turning a cold shoulder to big time athletics. It was never in the DNA. Binghamton was the academic engine of the entire SUNY system and that was what mattered most. Sure, we watched the Final Fours of our day while downing chicken wings at the Campus Pub, the North Carolinas and Georgetowns that seemed to represent an unattainable dream, but we were just as content to watch our talented Division III soccer team take on Albany, beer in hand as we stood under a giant oak tree in the wind. Our basketball team, our wrestlers, our cross country runners all played hard no matter what, no scholarships, no television, no stadiums.

But is playing hard the measure of success or is it fans in the stands? On a given night in the early Eighties, only a few hundred brave souls would brave the cold and snow and trudge down to the West Gym from their dorm rooms in Newing or Hinman College for a basketball contest. Intramural hockey games sometimes drew more spectators. Binghamton played host to the legendary Grateful Dead concert of 1970, the Clash show of 1984, and about a million games of Ultimate Frisbee in between. Camping out for basketball tickets never entered the equation.

Maybe it was just a clever excuse to hide a lack, but many of my friends specifically chose SUNY-B to specifically avoid the climate that surrounds big time sports programs, not to mention the deals with the devil that universities often make to keep those programs producing. Heck, the biggest thing that ever happened during my time in Binghamton was the tragic death of beloved professor and novelist John Gardner, he of Grendel fame. The debate over who, in terms of academic stature, could ever fill his shoes lasted years, it seemed, and served as a bellwether of the university's priorities at the time.

But as we waited in that hotel lobby in Greensboro, chatting with Binghamton Athletic Director Joel Thirer, who, along with most of the team, has since been shown the door, nobody was talking about Beowulf. The entire university, administration and student body alike, was clearly behind the new direction, as if 12,000 people had all inhaled helium at once. And though Ron and I had discussed our own ambivalence during the road trip down to North Carolina -- I wore a SUNY-B Colonials windbreaker, not as a protest, but as a reminder of our school's roots -- we wasted no time in joining our younger brethren in revelry. (That's why, in fact, we ended up at the team hotel in the first place: we wanted to be sure that someone was were there to shout encouragement to the team as it left for the big game.)

Reverting back to my Pipe Dream reporting days, I brought up the name of Tim Schum, the retired Binghamton soccer coach who had been quoted in that scathing Times story about Binghamton's rapid basketball rise, the article just about everyone on this proud and exuberant night was trying to forget about. "They're on a very slippery slope," Schum had said in the article. "There is a double standard for what basketball will put up with compared to the standards for other sports. I don't know if it's written, but it's certainly understood."

"He's gone off the deep end," was Athletic Director Thirer's response, shaking his head in disappointment at the coach's rogue comments and indicating he had had enough of loose canons like Schum.

Now, amidst the ruins, it's clear that Coach Schum had his feet planted on the ground. It was everyone else who had taken the dizzying plunge. All those years wanting to be like Duke. If only we had tried to be more like SUNY-B instead.