Patriot Games: A Basketball Conference Competes Valiantly in Anonymity

November 13, 2000

The Last Amateurs
by John Feinstein/Little, Brown, $24.95

The term student-athlete is practically an oxymoron in Division I
basketball. Feinstein, whose popular books on that sport include
A Season on the Brink and A March to Madness, has actually seen
an ACC coach bawl out a player for spending "too damn much time
studying!" What, Feinstein wondered, would college basketball be
like in a league that clung to the hoary notion that athletics
should supplement education, building character as well as bodies
and, along the way, providing a little fun?

It would be like hoops in the Patriot League, an association of
eastern colleges--Army, Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette,
Lehigh and Navy--that value academic achievement more than
hardwood glory. Feinstein spent the 1999-2000 basketball season
following the league and discovered, to his delight,
student-athletes who not only "had stories to tell" but also
could "tell them in complete sentences." For once he found it
possible "to be around college basketball without feeling as if I
needed a three-hour shower." But he also found seven basketball
programs struggling to remain competitive.

No team sums up the tribulations of the Patriot League better
than Holy Cross, whose season resembles, by turns, the Book of
Job and an episode of The Three Stooges. So injury-prone are the
Crusaders that during player introductions, point guard Guillermo
Sanchez misses a high five and gets whacked in the face. His nose
turns into a "blood faucet," Feinstein writes. Seniors James
Stowers and Tony Gutierrez decide they have gotten all they can
from college basketball and resign from the team to study for law
and medical school, respectively. That leaves coach Ralph Willard
with senior Chris Spitler, whose tremendous heart is matched only
by his lack of ability. Trailing Navy by 32 points with 17
seconds left, Spitler takes a charge because, he explains, "it's
the only thing I do well."

Coach Willard rarely wins on the floor, but he counts many
victories of other kinds: Stowers ends up, in his own words,
"killing 'em in class," and Willard says he "couldn't be happier
for him." When the lovable Spitler is honored on Senior Night,
the opposing team, Lehigh, gives him a standing ovation.

Despite all that the Patriot League does for young people, its
survival is by no means assured. It's great to stand up for
principle, but the price is steep: The ACC recently negotiated a
reported 10-year, $300 million TV deal; Patriot League teams
average in the mid-five figures, earning several thousand bucks a
year playing "guarantee games," in which basketball powerhouses
pad their records by slaughtering them. Leo Durocher wasn't
kidding: Nice guys do finish last. But, Feinstein writes, the
student-athletes of the Patriot League "represent everything
right in a world gone wrong."

COLOR PHOTO: LITTLE, BROWN

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)