Feb 26, 2020, 06:28AM

Army-Navy Stepchild

Basketball combat between military rivals goes under radar.

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The winter sports pages have been weighed down with coverage of the Houston Astros elaborated sign-stealing plan—an annoying combo of primitive lowbrow tub-thumping and high-tech body-worn buzzers. There has also been too much attention paid to the stiff lawyer who’s the current Major League Baseball Commissioner. So as a baseball fanatic and escapist, I fled the media scene to seek purity and to bathe in tradition. Which meant it was time to drive to West Point to see the Army-Navy game. The basketball version of the football game. West Point is of course the home of the cadet credo “We shall not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate anyone among us who does.” Sounds good as I look at the Roger Stone photos glaring up from my copy of the New York Post on the passenger seat of my Volkswagen Jetta, which may have cheated on its emissions report.

The Army-Navy basketball contest is certainly lacking the national television spotlight shown on the Army vs. Navy football clash that always has a somewhat histrionic video preamble delivered by a tearful Brent Musburger type. That’s all well and good as the game usually features a charged atmosphere full of crisp uniforms and time-honored rituals that make for quite a spectacle. It made for entertaining episodes of M.A.S.H. decades ago and has that All-American innocence vibe forever guaranteed by the guilt of those of us who “do not serve.”

The largest crowds for the United States Military Academy’s basketball program at West Point have indeed been games against the U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen. The Black Knights play in Christl Arena, a generic building near majestic Michie Stadium that also houses the Tate Rink for the Army hockey team. Christl seats 5043, and the 4636 who attended the Feb. 22 Army vs. Navy basketball game were certainly entertained by gladiators. It went from blowout to nail-biter and back to blowout in overtime as Army beat Navy 86-75. Both teams entered with identical 13-13 records, though Army was 8-7 and in fifth place in the Patriot League, an oddball collection of D-1 schools currently being dominated by the Colgate Raiders. Colgate is seeking to return to March Madness after winning the Patriot League last year and falling to Tennessee in the first round of the Big Dance.

Navy was just below Army in the conference standings, which includes the likes of Boston University, three “L” schools in Lehigh, Loyola MD and Lafayette, as well as the church and state nightmare of American University, Bucknell and Holy Cross. 

Army had already beaten the Midshipmen in Annapolis in late-January. Navy has decent height, but Army has a matinee idol duo working the room. They are senior cadet Tommy Funk, a point guard and floor general out of Warrington, PA, and senior center Matt Wilson, a 6-foot-9 super-soldier hailing from Alexandria, KY. The Funk-Wilson tandem is amazing to watch. Wilson works the paint like a WWI trench, and Funk scythes through opposing defenses like a drone dicing up Libya. Funk’s the type of player who goes entire games without fouling a foe and perhaps issuing a single turnover. He brings the ball down the court and uses a series of signals like a cell phone gesture (call me!) or a chattering hand talky-talky move. As the floor general, Patton may be a stretch in comparison, but Funk is, at least, the Al Haig of the Army basketball team. He is, as that general once said after the attempt on President Reagan’s life, “in charge.”

Funk drained 26 at Navy, and after the game Army coach Jimmy Allen told The Baltimore Sun that Funk and Wilson were “two of the greatest basketball players in Army history.” And Allen is sitting in a chair once occupied by college basketball legends Bobby Knight (1965-1971) and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (1975-1980). Despite their coaching history, Army basketball has never qualified for the NCAA tournament, which is a secret, buried deep within the Pentagon and the U.S. Mint facility at West Point, which, a fellow taxi driver once told me, “has more gold than Fort Knox.”

I’ve been to other athletic events at West Point before (documented in this space) and I must say the basketball games are the most rowdy, outside of the football tailgates. West Point hockey is fun but presents a purely Presbyterian version of the Canadian punch-up sport.

In honor of U.S. Army field messaging procedures, what follows is a timeline of my experience attending the 133rd basketball meeting of the two service academies. Navy leads the all-time series 80-52. I would like to file the following field diary messages using military time as UNCLASSIFIED dispatches.

0222 1230 hours: West Point signage isn’t exactly user friendly. After 10 minutes of wandering, finally found parking lot F and followed crowd to descend 79-step “Joker” like staircase to single door of generic gray building that was open. Assumed this was basketball arena because of crowd flow. Before reaching the bottom, noticed a Navy guy in elegant uniform sitting on the side with an Army guy in camo fatigues. As I approached, I noticed via name tags that they were brothers. Catching up before the game. As I got closer. I heard the Navy guy asking the Army guy about sleep deprivation. Continued downstairs and passed a hooded fellow manning an outdoor deep frye. Went through the door and had ticket scanned for entry into Christl Arena.

0222 1255 hours: There are ample concession stands in this strangely-designed arena, and many of them are manned by Army cadets. As I approach one with a rather inelegant cubic-yard plastic garbage bag full of popped popcorn, I notice the cadets are putting on paper Burger Chef and Jeff-style hats, as if their non-existent strands of hair might fall into the food. I say they’re out of uniform, though I keep my trap shut because this is West Point. Sounds are creeping up into the mezzanine from courtside. The crowd is doing the U.S. Soccer chant “I believe that we will win!” as the Army women’s basketball team easily finishes off Navy.

0222 1315 hours: I take my purchased seat right behind press row and find myself among a reunion of a Navy cheerleader and her local younger sister. There’s a kind of Tammy Faye Bakker sweetness to the cheerleader whose comrade has grabbed a boxed Subway sandwich for (probably temporary) nourishment between the women’s and men’s games. I notice the guy in the seat next to me has a shaky-font handmade sign he drew up on a piece of paper. “CBS Sports is Number One” it says. This game is indeed on CBS Sports Network and I suddenly notice how steep the two side-court stands are, kind of like the old Manchester City “wonderwall” in soccer.

0222 1320 hours: The press row has an undersized corps of anemic, overweight and probably diabetic sportswriters with rows of Diet Coke cans in front of cheap laptops. One guy’s screen saver is showing and it is actually a photo of a goddamned cat. This is what sportswriters have sunk to? The Diet Cokes are soon joined by bags of Doritos and the Subway boxes. Drowsiness sets in as tip-off approaches. The camera op for CBS Sports Network is of course a tatted-up dude wearing a Professional Fighters League crew shirt. The Army athletics website had called for a “whiteout” of the arena, urging all fans to wear white. Looking around, it failed miserably.

0222 1326 hours: A phalanx of cadets is wheeling in a veteran in a wheelchair but they’re taking the dangerous route directly underneath the basket where Army ballplayers are practicing their pregame three-point shooting. Luckily, they hit their threes properly in the net and the old fellow is not harmed by a stray basketball.

0222 1330 hours: The PA announcer introduces Pete DuPre, a 97-year-old veteran of World War II who was the guy being wheeled in under the basket. He’ll do the National Anthem. “Harmonica Pete” is wheeled up to the mic and produces his mouth organ. He’s done the anthem at many NFL games and even a U.S vs Mexico women’s soccer match. But those were outdoor venues. In the interior of Christl Arena, with the Cadets stretching a flag across the entire court and a solitary flag hanging from the high ceiling directly above, DuPre goes to work. I’ve sat through thousands of National Anthems at sporting events, but this one was the most moving experience I’ve had. The mournful tones of the harmonica inside the arena evoked tears from just about everybody as Pete slowly took on the Francis Scott Key arrangement. The P.A. announcer had just asked for a memorial minute of silence for a Navy football player who was found dead a few days earlier in his dorm.

0222 1337 hours: The game’s underway and as promised Funk has Army out to an early lead. He can’t miss. Notes to self: live basketball down close reveals how minuscule the passing lanes are and how the refs run with whistles in mouth.

0222 1358 hours: Observing Wilson up close, the Army center appears to have a Lovecraftian-style tattoo of an owl on his left bicep. Remarkably, no other players on the court have any body ink on display.

0222 1428 hours: As Alec Loehr, the Navy junior forward from Minnesota takes free throws, a half dozen cadets in the stand behind the basket use their cell phone flashlights to distract him. Two minutes later after action resumed, the PA announcer reminded people not to use flash photography during the game “nor should you use cell phone lights to distract players during free throws.” Busted! It didn’t happen again, and given the literal interpretation of the West Point credo, those cadets should have been frog-marched out to of the kind of steamy arena and perhaps led to some type of elaborate tribunal.

0222 1532 hours: As Richard Njoku, the sophomore forward for Navy out of Washington, D.C., was slammed to the floor trying to get a rebound under the Army net, it appeared that the beardy mop guy was a bit of a hero. It was a warm February afternoon, but the arena was overheated for February and the players and fans were sweating. The microbrewery employee who was the broom guy loomed important as the physical game raged on under the baskets and he had to keep that area dry.

0222 1515 hours: I notice Navy has an assistant coach who’s a spitting image of Carpool Karaoke and Late Show host James Corden. I also notice there hasn’t been one single call for traveling in this game.

0222 1550 hours: As Navy has tied the game at 69-69, Funk has the ball and puts up a pretty good three-quarter court heave in the closing seconds of regulation. It rims out but could’ve been, which would’ve been the proper script for this contest. Funk can do no wrong and will finish this game with 32 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds.

0222 1613 hours: Funk masterminds a 9-0 Army run in the opening of overtime and suddenly Navy players are fouling out like shark victims from the U.S.S. Indianapolis. The somber P.A. announcer declares them as “disqualified” as the Navy players exit. But the remaining players keep fouling Army on possessions, prolonging the agony and getting a few mild heckles from the civilian Army supporters. The shooting from the charity stripe was horrendous by both squads.

0222 1631 hours: Funk punctuates the Army win with high dribbling through the Navy end as the Black Knights secured the sweep of Navy 86-75 earning the gold star and another trophy of some kind. The Cadets, who stormed the court after the win, also followed the same tradition as the football game by singing the Navy “Blue and Gold” alma mater to the Navy Pep band and 30 or so Navy fans in the corner of Christl Arena, followed of course by Army “singing second” with their own alma mater directed toward their own mini-band at the other end of the court.

It was a rousing winter afternoon of American tradition and I exited the arena exhilarated behind a phalanx of old guys wearing “Swift Boat Vietnam Veterans” jackets.


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