By Judith Stiles
When the Cooper Union basketball team played their adversaries at Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn, the competition was admittedly more about a 100-year-old academic rivalry concerning art, architecture and engineering than who had the better basketball team. Yes, the players on both sides wanted to win this symbolic game, but since Cooper and Pratt do not have all the bells and whistles of sports programs found at large universities, the contest’s outcome had no weighty consequences.
Both institutions of higher learning unabashedly sink little money into sports. Instead they choose to invest in rigorous, cutting-edge academic programs. Every player on the Cooper team is chasing the ring of academic excellence, and the basketball games are simply a fun-filled bonus.
Since the first intercollegiate football game between rivals Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, college sports have become big business on many campuses. However, Cooper Union has maintained the profile of being a prestigious institution for higher learning that does not get involved in typical intercollegiate sports hoopla.
Also, Cooper is a college that charges no tuition. Hence applicants are never caught up in the frenzied race to snag athletic scholarships. A student has to be an excellent and promising scholar to be accepted at Cooper, and athletic prowess simply does not count. As a result, Cooper has a refreshing and positive attitude about college sports that translates into serious students who play sports for diversion and enjoyment.
Although Cooper lost their Feb. 2 game against Pratt by six points, the student-athletes happily went back to class Monday morning to focus on more important issues. Co-captain Norbert Markowicz who is known on the court for making remarkable interior passes, enthusiastically returned to his research on how to cool beverages in 45 seconds, in a process that normally would take two hours. As a senior mechanical engineering major, he is trying to transfer the patented “Cooper Cooler Process” to a refrigerator door, without the use of Freon. Like his teammates, Markowicz loves to play basketball, but this interest pales in comparison to his passion for scientific research.
Not only do the Cooper athletes have a different attitude about college basketball versus studying, their sports training and pregame preparation are unique. They have practice on Friday afternoons and weekends only, so as not to interfere with classes or labs. They don’t have panicky huddles in the locker room before big competitions. Rather, they enjoy hanging out with the guru of games, Dean Baker, whose office is more like a comfortable lounge.
“Coach Baker gives us pointers but he also give us a lot of freedom,” says Evan Canfield, a senior chemical engineering major. “I like the way he trusts his players to make the right decision on the court.”
Baker is not the sort of coach prone to apoplectic fits, even when his team is scoring way below his expectations. Typically, Baker expects his team to score 20 points every 10 minutes. However, much to point guard Brian Maida’s dismay, in the Feb. 2 game against Pratt, Cooper held a small lead at halftime with a score of just 20-18.
According to Maida, “Dean Baker told us that Pratt is a second-half team, and that we would need to elevate our play to be victorious.”
In spite of the warning, Pratt jumped out to six-point lead with under 10 minutes to go. In Maida’s estimation, “Our inconsistency with short shots around the basket haunted Cooper the entire game.”
With 90 seconds remaining, freshman Enoch Johnson took a long 3-pointer that had a chance, but as he described later with Cooper-esque scientific analysis, the shot had a “lack of rotation.”
Although the final score was 45-39 with Pratt on top, this game marked a triumph for Canfield, who scored the 1,000th point of his career, making him part of an exclusive group of Cooper Union basketball greats.
One week later, Cooper fans were treated to a rematch with their Pratt rivals. The evening was dubbed “Evan Canfield Night” to celebrate his accomplishments and to pump up the team. Cooper held the lead for almost the entire game but with only 2 minutes and 20 seconds to go in regulation time, Pratt tied the score, 44-44.
In overtime, Pratt’s David Anderson, Michael St. John and Alex Kramer vigorously tried to gain the lead, but the game went into double-overtime thanks to the excellent play of Kevin Oldfield, who was the rebound king. Cooper’s Johnson scored in the second overtime with a beautiful 3-pointer that put the team on a roll.
In the final 3 minutes, Cooper point guard Danny Wong kept his cool, while Pratt had a mental meltdown, making lots of wild passes and chucking up off-target shots willy-nilly. The game ended with Cooper victorious 60-50, a big win for the elite East Village school.
Dean Baker’s team certainly played a fierce and focused game in order to beat their old rivals. However, off the court they keep their eyes on the bigger prize of academics, which might mean a new discovery or invention in the lab, or perhaps a secret formula for taking the big money out of college sports.