Four years ago, MIT basketball players planned to make history. This year, they made it.
When James M. “Jimmy” Bartolotta ’09, Willard J. “Billy” Johnson ’09, and Bradley H. Gampel ’09 entered MIT in the fall of 2005, the MIT men’s basketball team had an ambitious goal in mind: “We committed to each other that we would build on what our predecessors had already put in place, and create a type of culture within the basketball program that had not been seen before,” said Johnson.
Four seasons later, the three senior captains led the team to its first NCAA tournament berth in the program’s 108-year history by winning the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference Tournament Championship on March 1.
MIT overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to beat nationally-ranked No. 17 Rhode Island College, 73-68, in overtime last Friday in its first-round NCAA game. The team then fell in its next game against Farmingdale State on Saturday night by a 67-61 score, ending dreams of a trip to the Division III Final Four in Salem, Virginia.
Despite the loss, the seniors have certainly met their goal of invigorating the basketball program: they compiled the best four-year record in the history of the program with 68 wins and 45 losses. But along the way, they have altered the culture of MIT as a whole. The legacy they leave behind is one marked by camaraderie, a tireless work ethic, and a dedication to each other and their fans. It has been documented in news outlets such as The New York Times, The Boston Herald, The Boston Globe, and the New England Cable Network. The team was also featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter and billed as “the best Cinderella story of March Madness this year” by ESPN.com sportswriter Kieran Darcy.
As Gampel said, “It’s impossible for me to pick my favorite part of the season because the whole thing was like a movie script. I had so many moments that I’ll be able to smile at forever.”
Invigorating a Fan Base
Past precedent suggested that the support the basketball team received for its NEWMAC Tournament Championship semifinal would be sparse. But Casey M. Flynn ’10, a member of the Undergraduate Association Committee on Athletics, made sure that this game would be different. Flynn remembered that during her freshman year, a friend had pulled together a 20-person SafeRide shuttle to take fans to an away game. Drawing on that experience, she solicited “a bunch of offices,” finally reaching the Division of Student Life (DSL) and asking “for the biggest bus they could give me.”
Her hard work paid off: students filled the bus for the NEWMAC semifinals, and the DSL allowed her to have a second bus on-call for the NEWMAC finals the following day. By the time the first-round NCAA game rolled around at Rhode Island College, there were 98 people traveling on two buses, while still others traveled in cars.
The men’s team trailed Rhode Island College 30-22 at halftime. Coach Larry Anderson described the feeling in the locker room as down-spirited: “The doors were closed, and we were trying to make adjustments … Then we heard a really loud noise and could barely make out what the crowd was saying. It turned out to be, ‘Let’s go Tech!’ I asked my team, ‘Do you hear that? Our fans have arrived.’ As we walked back to the court, the fans were just exploding, and we tied the game in two or three minutes.”
Starting guard/forward Eric S. Zuk ’11 said, “Coming out after halftime against RIC, we could hear the chants of the crowd before we even entered the gym. It was surreal. The crowd led us to victory in that game, which is something the whole MIT community should be thanked for.” James D. Karraker ’12 and William E. Bender ’12 also cited the halftime chants as “carrying us that game.”
Although the Rhode Island College court was technically a neutral site for both MIT and Farmingdale State, it appeared as if the MIT team had home-court advantage. Flynn filled three fan buses with little effort and was floored by the fans’ intensity: “I grew up attending Division I University of Maryland basketball games. The MIT fans were definitely not at the number scale that Maryland has, but the enthusiasm level was definitely matched: we had horns, face and body paint, and signs.”
Julie Soriero, the Director of Athletics, was similarly impressed with both the fans and how much the team appreciated its fans: “The outpouring of support and enthusiasm was incredible. They were an easy team to support — they played hard, they played together, and they were respectful of the game and their opponents. Additionally, to a player, they appreciated and recognized the value of fan support in their success,” she said.
Looking over at the Farmingdale State fan section on Saturday night was like looking at the MIT fan section in previous years: ghostly empty, with maybe 40 fans total. And on the MIT side, students were jumping up and down on the bleachers, and President Hockfield was starting the wave.
Effect on Recruiting
Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill ’86 said he thinks the team’s stellar season may help MIT to attract other elite athletes: “The recent success of the men’s basketball team certainly has gotten a lot of press, and so it may well spark the interest of students who are top-level athletes who may not have looked at us in the past,” he said.
Furthermore, Schmill believes that the team’s success has highlighted MIT’s excellence inside and outside of the classroom: “One of the interesting storylines [in the press] was how our athletes also maintain a rigorous academic load and are successful students, too. I am glad this is highlighted, because we do it right. As anyone who is close to our program knows, our student-athletes are particularly impressive,” he said. For instance, ESPN.com writer Darcy discussed Bartolotta’s double degrees in physics and management and Gampel’s status as an economics major and a premed.
Likewise, Coach Anderson sees his players as true student-athletes who take academics and athletics equally seriously. He also sells his basketball program as a way to promote leadership and build community, especially emphasizing how basketball fits into the MIT culture as a whole.
Looking Toward the Future
Another contribution the seniors have left behind is the confidence they have instilled in the team’s underclassmen. Karraker cites this season and the senior class as “the foundation that the MIT program will be built upon. We will be back to this point and farther in the years to come. This is just the beginning.”
Anderson also credits the seniors with creating the team’s defining camaraderie and believes it will be an enduring characteristic in the future.
And if you want proof that the seniors care about mentoring the underclassmen, look no further than the seniors’ response to being interviewed for this article. Asked for their take on the basketball team’s legacy, Bartolotta, Johnson, and Gampel originally declined to answer because “we wanted our underclassmen to get some publicity.” That unselfishness alone is a foundation for the basketball program to build upon.
For Bartolotta, Johnson, and Gampel, their legacy will be defined by the community they have built around the MIT basketball program. Johnson described this community and its culture as extending fay beyond the team itself: “This is the culture we had hoped for. A sports program doesn’t just include the players and coaches; a true sports program includes everyone from the players and coaches to the athletic training staff who spends hours each day making sure their athletes are in top condition, to the cleaning lady who comes and watches your game, to the students who travel hours to support their school, to the President of the ‘Tute who bleeds Beaver Pride, and everyone else in between. I think we have this type of basketball program now.”