At first, Jimmy Bartolotta laughed at the thought of bringing his considerable basketball skills to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, envisioning a comical scene of ball-playing nerds, the rocket scientists of tomorrow, being stomped game after game by teams filled with dumb jocks. But he wound up there anyway, where he leads his team and his conference in scoring and now wants to destroy the myth that eggheads can’t play.
Bartolotta is a double major in physics and management sciences and expects to graduate in the spring with a grade point average of 4.6 out of a maximum 5.0. He would be a sure thing to land a lucrative job in business or science, but instead plans on playing professional basketball, probably in Europe. If so, he would become the first player from M.I.T., a Division III program, to play professionally.
“Other coaches will come over to me, shake their heads and say, ‘Where did you get him from?’ M.I.T coach Larry Anderson said in a telephone interview. “Others have told me he’s good enough to be a first-team all-league selection in the Ivy League. It’s simple: Jimmy is just a player.”
A 6-4 guard, Bartolotta is averaging 27.8 points a game, best in the New England Men’s and Women’s Athletics Conference and third best in Division III. He has led the Engineers to a 16-5 record and its best-ever conference start at 7-1.
Anderson found Bartolotta as an All-State player at Heritage High School in Littleton, Colo., where he drew recruition attention from Division II schools and a handful of Ivy League colleges. But it was M.I.T. that pursued him the hardest. Anderson tried to sell him on the school’s academic excellence, but Bartolotta could not get over the stereotype of an M.I.T. student.
“There was no way I was going to go to there,” Bartolotta said. “I thought only nerds went to M.I.T. I didn’t think they could possibly play basketball.”
But when the Ivy League schools hesitated to make an offer, Bartolotta’s parents told him to keep an open mind about M.I.T. Bartolotta did some research on the program, saw some familiar names on the roster, top players he had played against in high school. Bartolotta also realized he would play right away as a freshman, so he decided to bring his skills to Cambridge, Mass.
An instant success, he was named conference Rookie of the Year in 2006 and has improved every season since. He is the leading scorer in M.I.T history with more than 2,000 career points. He scored 32 points against Yale in the Engineers’ only meeting this season against a Division I opponent.
He has done it while juggling the academic demands facing all M.I.T. students. Bartolotta said he is far from the smartest student at M.I.T., particularly in his physics courses.
“Some of these kids are off-the-charts smart,” he said.
But he compensates by putting in as many hours as it takes to succeed in the classroom.
“Jimmy goes after his passions in the classroom with the same dedication and drive that he has on the basketball court,” Anderson said. “Anything he puts his mind to, he works his tail off. If Jimmy is a genius, he’s the hardest working genius I have ever seen.”
Bartolotta said M.I.T. students with good grades often command six-figure jobs after graduating. But Bartolotta wants to keep playing basketball, even if it means making less than many of his friends. The N.B.A. isn’t a realistic goal, he said, but playing in Italy, Spain or Germany is.
“Getting a six-figure contract overseas is not going to be easy, especially for a Division III, M.I.T. player,” he said. “Financially, I could start my career in the real world and be in a better financial situation. If I wanted to play the percentages, I’d be going into the real world. I love playing basketball and the camaraderie of being on a team, and I don’t want that to stop. Money is real. I understand that. But, if I have to, I think there will always be other jobs out there for me.”
In the meantime, Bartolotta hopes to carry M.I.T. to a postseason tournament bid and then find out where the market for basketball geniuses takes him.