Amid controversy surrounding the expulsion of its senior captain last month, Yale is headed to its first NCAA tournament since 1962.
NEW YORK — About 90 minutes before Yale and Columbia tipped off on Saturday night, Bulldogs coach James Jones sat perched alone on the second-highest row of the Lions’ 2,700-seat Levien Gymnasium. Jones, who has led Yale for 17 seasons, says he knows the best places for quiet reflection at every arena in the Ivy League. Before games, he either likes to walk off the pregame anxiety or simply sit with it and let it pass. “I’m just trying to get my mind right,” Jones said. “I’m trying to get my peace.”
The past couple weeks have been anything but peaceful for Yale basketball. On Feb. 24, the athletic department announced that senior captain Jack Montague was no longer with the team—and that there would be no further comment from the university. Montague’s teammates, though, did make a statement: On Feb. 26, before a nationally televised game against Harvard, many of his teammates wore warmups with “Yale” printed backward with inverted letters on the front and Montague’s nickname, “Gucci,” and his number, 4, on the back. They told reporters after the game that it was a show of support for their teammate. The following Monday, posters, flyers and handwritten messages on chalkboards began appearing on Yale’s New Haven, Conn., campus, demanding the basketball team to “stop supporting a rapist” and to “end rape culture,” among other messages. On Thursday, the website thebiglead.com published an article headlined, “Does Yale Basketball Have a Sexual Assault Scandal on its Hands?”
“That isn’t of any interest to me,” Jones told SI regarding the rumors posted in online news stories. “The only interesting thing to me right now is winning a basketball game.” On Friday night, Yale had won a share of the Ivy League title for the second season in a row by beating Cornell 88–64, but one elusive goal remained: qualifying for the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs haven’t played in the Big Dance since 1962, when the field consisted of 25 teams. But a win on Saturday at Columbia would make Yale the league’s outright winner and the recipient of its automatic bid.
Last season, the Bulldogs blew two chances to get into the NCAA tournament, losing at Dartmouth to end the regular season and then again in a one-game playoff on a neutral court against Harvard. So when the final buzzer sounded on Saturday and the scoreboard showed “Yale 71, Columbia 55,” the Bulldogs bounded to center court and erupted in catharsis. They had ended a 54-year tournament drought, and done it after a chaotic month. It was triumph amid tumult.
Montague last played for the Bulldogs on Feb. 6, scoring 16 points in an 83–52 win against Cornell. The senior captain from Brentwood, Tenn., had been the team’s leading three-point shooter (43.5%) as a junior and notably hit a game-winner against defending national champion UConn on Dec. 5, 2014. As a senior, he was fourth on the team in scoring (9.7), second in assists (3.0) and first in steals (1.1), playing 28.4 minutes per game. But Yale played without him for four games before the school addressed his departure. His last public statement was to the Yale Daily News on Feb. 18, the day Yale lost to Princeton: “I’m taking a personal leave and I’m trying to get back as soon as possible.”
On Feb. 29, the Monday after players wore their Montague-inspired warmups, posters appeared in several places on campus with a picture of the team donning the shirts and a message: “Stop supporting rapists.” Senior forward Justin Sears told YDN that night that the team had taken down all the posters it could find and that the warmups weren’t meant to be disrespectful to the school. “We just wanted to make it as clear as possible that Jack is one of our brothers,” Sears said, according to the newspaper. “He’s family to us and we miss him.”
Another round of messages went up around campus last Wednesday at approximately 7:30 a.m., including a handwritten note on a chalkboard that read, “Rape culture is standing by your teammate and silencing victims of sexual assault.” By 9 a.m., the messages had again been removed, though the players didn’t claim responsibility this time. Still, the university would not comment on the nature of Montague’s absence.
Finally, on Friday, Montague’s father, Jim, confirmed that his son had been expelled. “We have strict orders from our lawyers,” Jim Montague told the New Haven Register. “Soon enough, I’d love to tell the other side of the story. It’s ridiculous, why he’s expelled. It’s probably going to set some sort of precedent. We’re trying to do things the gentleman’s way, so we’re keeping things close-knit. But you guys will get a story.”
It’s important to note that there are two sides to this story, and neither is clear right now. Neither Yale nor the New Haven Police Department are investigating any sexual assault claims against Montague, a New Haven police spokesman told SI last Friday. The same day, a source close to the family told SI that they planned to release a statement, likely within the next week. “There’s not a whole lot I can say right now,” the source said, “but the family is working with its lawyers. They want to put an end to the speculation.”
The controversy didn’t keep Yale from continuing its success on the court. After the win over Cornell, players spent the bus ride back to campus trying to stream Princeton’s game against Harvard. The Tigers were a half-game behind Yale in the league standings but could force a playoff if both teams won out. With seven seconds left in the game, the stream froze. No one knew the end result until the texts started streaming in. The Crimson had won, 73–71. The Bulldogs had earned a share of the league title and needed only one more win to get to the Big Dance. “Players were screaming like a scene out of 300,” Jones said. “It was a release of so much anxiety.”
Said Sears, the team’s leading scorer: “The bus was rocking back and forth so much, I was afraid it was going to tip over.”
After Saturday night’s win at Columbia, Sears headed toward the locker room, high-fiving everyone in Yale gear who came across his path. After last season’s tiebreaker loss to Harvard, he had taken a picture of the scoreboard on his phone and saved it as his wallpaper as motivation throughout the summer. Now that the goal was compete, he had trouble finding the right words. “Euphoria,” he said, “that’s the feeling.”
The players gathered outside the locker room and mobbed Jones when he approached. And when Ivy League executive director Robin Harris told the Bulldogs they were going dancing, they erupted in another scream and held the trophy aloft.
“It's amazing,” said senior forward Brandon Sherrod, who scored 13 points in the win. “You look up in [our] gym and see the last time we got to the tournament was 1962, it really motivates you to win. Every college basketball player wants to go to the Big Dance. It’s unbelievable, a great time for our school, a great opportunity for our team. It’s surreal.”
Montague, though, wasn’t far from anyone’s mind. Questions about him peppered the postgame press conference. But no one on the team, including Jones or a school spokesman, would comment on the record about the reasons for Montague’s dismissal. Before the game, Jones said, “I won’t comment on anyone who isn’t a part of our basketball team.” After the game, he downplayed the significance of his team missing its captain, saying, “It’s not as big a hit as some people might think.” But some of the players seemed to feel differently. Senior guard Khaliq Ghani wrote “Gucci” on his wrist tape and held up four fingers after making a three-pointer with 5:59 left in the second half. “We’re not trying to offend anyone, it’s just coming from the heart,” Ghani said. “Jack is still the captain of our team.”
Several players told SI anonymously that they wouldn’t be showing their support if they had any doubt about his character. “We’re not hard-hearted or callous,” one player said. Clearly, though, there are people on campus who feel differently.
While the Bulldogs were ecstatic to have clinched a tournament bid, the controversy did cast a pall over the celebration. “Everyone says that after a championship, you can’t imagine your day going any better,” Sears said, “but tonight was not perfect for us. We miss Jack.”
On Saturday afternoon, after the team’s pregame meal, Sears had wanted to make sure Montague still felt connected to the Bulldogs. So he linked his laptop to a projector and all his teammates gathered around him. After a few rings on FaceTime, Montague appeared. From his home in Brentwood, the ex-team captain told his teammates he was rooting for them. And although he knew he’d never play at Yale again, he pledged that if the Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament, he’d find a way to be there with them.