The men's basketball teams court a cure for cancer while engaging in friendly rivalry.
by Mike Warwick
For 72 years the men's basketball teams at Ithaca College and Cornell University went along their separate paths, never meeting on the court. Despite the schools' proximity, the fact that they didn't play each other is not surprising; each year only a handful of games in the country pit a Division I opponent (like Cornell) against a Division III school (such as Ithaca).[[but haven't the baseball teams been playing each other for some while?]]
The two local teams finally became rivals in December of 2001, thanks in part to both institutions' desire to promote awareness of the Coaches vs. Cancer program -- a joint venture of the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
"It's a natural rivalry, with them on one hill and us on another," says Jim Mullins, Ithaca's head coach. Since taking the job in 1977 Mullins had been looking to find a way to get the city's two teams playing each other. In addition to taking advantage of that natural rivalry, he thought the series with Cornell could serve another purpose.
"When you think of college sports in Ithaca, you probably think of Cornell hockey first and then things like Cornell lacrosse," says Mullins. While the basketball programs at the two schools haven't acquired the kind of community popularity that those sports have built up, or achieved the national success of programs like Bomber football and baseball (with their combined five national championships), Mullins hopes the situation will change. "A game like this," he says, "could really draw more attention to basketball."
In its three years the series has seen what most observers would expect: three wins for the Division I team. And while the series hasn't enticed crowds as big as the participating schools would have liked, it has been a worthwhile venture, according to Mullins.
The rivalry's closest game came in the most recent match. Cornell held a 13-point lead with 67 seconds left, and the Bombers scored the game's final 11 points before losing 69-67.
"It's hard to get people behind a Division I vs. Division III game, because the typical fan expects that it's not going to be competitive," says Mullins. "That's why I give Cornell all the credit -- they have nothing to gain by playing us and everything to lose."
For first-year Cornell assistant coach Zach Spiker '00, the game was particularly nerve-wracking; he had served as a student assistant coach at his alma mater. "It's always hard to play against schools where you used to work," says Spiker. "Before the game we had a great combined alumni event -- with alumni from both schools participating -- and we really enjoyed mingling with the people from both programs. Although we were rivals on the court that night, we were 'teammates' working together to fight for a cause that's bigger than basketball."
In addition to providing local fans a ever chance to see the city's two basketball teams face off, the game generates money for a national program that funds cancer research, advocacy, education, and patient services.
"The American Cancer Society says that everyone's life is touched by cancer in some way," says Mullins. At Cornell, the men's basketball program has seen that impact up close, with former coach Scott Thompson stepping down at the close of the 2000 season after being diagnosed with cancer. "Cancer does affect everyone, but our program has been affected in a very personal way with Coach Thomson continuing to fight cancer," says Spiker. "Hopefully as a coaching community we can be successful in the effort to help those who are stricken and eventually find a cure."
For a Division III team like Ithaca, playing a Division I opponent is a big enough event -- even for a program that prides itself on playing a tough non-conference schedule like Ithaca's, facing top-10 Division III teams like Buena Vista, Catholic, and Williams as well as upper-division opponents Colgate (Division I) and Mansfield (Division II). The IC players' reaction to facing a Division I opponent varies. "This year we didn't have that 'deer in the headlights' look," says Mullins. "We stress controlling what you can control and not playing to a team's reputation. We know that Cornell is bigger, but I truly believe that we were faster."
Although the game is off both teams' itinerary for the 2005-6 winter (scheduling difficulties kept the two from finding a feasible date for the game), Mullins is eager for its return. "Pending the scheduling issues, we're looking to resume the game after this year."
"The type of game we had last year was a great opportunity for the community to see that it was competitive and that it can be again. It's great for a community that hasn't always held basketball as a top priority to put that sport in the spotlight."
Mike Warwick is the Ithaca College sports information director.