Imagine this: a team fighting to reach the peak; a coach trying to take a school to glory; a campus in dire need of something to claim for its own. This is the story, in brief.
It's been too long since basketball on this campus mattered. Bender starves for fans and the campus starves for a great team. They both need each other. In a men's game earlier this year against Lafayette, while it was only for one night, Bender Arena was rocking and shaking . . . literally. Right from warm-ups, the crowd, the players, even the radio announcers were getting into it. Not since the Patriot League Championship game against Holy Cross two years ago has AU seen such school spirit, and oh, what a great feeling it was.
For those of you who weren't here for that game, you missed a lot. The student body came together clad in red, white, and blue, with painted faces and screaming voices. Bender Arena only seats 5,000 fans, yet that night it packed in 5,500. AU point guard Andres Rodriguez told me that the Holy Cross game was good for the school, that it made the team feel special. I say it made the school feel special. With ESPN cameras all around, Bender became the little big place, where a raucous crowd willed a team. From the beginning to the end, basketball felt like AU's pastime.
Alas, when the buzzer sounded and four zeros marked the clock, the Eagles lost a heart breaker that came down to the final seconds. None of us who were there have forgotten that night, that feeling and that excitement.
That was then, this is now. The men's team barely draws over a thousand fans for home games, the women even less. It seems far too low a turnout for two teams that can be quite good and fun to watch. As both teams hang near the top of the Patriot League standings, the attendance doesn't rise. But ask the players, the coaches, even other fans - it is the crowd that can make a good team great, and a great team special.
Like most people on this campus, I did not come here for the sports. I am a sports nut, but AU offered much more than athletics that I couldn't even play. It took me two years to realize that there are athletes on this campus who came to AU for the chance to play the sports they love and the sports I love to watch. Coach Jeff Jones, who recently paid for an advertisement in The Eagle, lauded the fan participation against Lafayette, and urged fans to come enjoy the product he puts on the floor.
It is not enough that at the start of the second semester, some fraternities and sororities come. They don't even stay. They wait until halftime, check in so they can receive GAP points, then leave. When they leave, they don't even do anything. Most probably go back to their rooms, sit in front of the computer, and check people's away messages, for no other reason than because they are "bored." It's not enough that some people come for the men's games and not the women's. It's not enough to care only when the PL Championship game is played at Bender.
Athletics on college campuses are a chance for students and fans to unite, as corny as that sounds, and be proud of what they have. Yes, sports bring bragging rights. Since when did healthy rivalries become non-existent? We all say we love to hate Holy Cross, but do you even go to the games against them or know when we played them this year? The answer is Friday, Feb. 20, as the third annual "Phil Bender" promotion takes place.
This is a rallying cry. A chance to make up for the time already lost. Since when did you have anything better to do on a Friday night at 7 p.m. for two hours before you go out? You now have the opportunity to be a part of this school and support the athletes who made us experience the joy and anguish of Div. I college basketball some two years ago.
Support your school. Support your classmates. Have some pride. We are AU, and these are our teams. This is my last year at AU. I want another Patriot League Championship game to go through Bender Arena. I want another team to have to come to D.C. and see what kind of school we are: the fans screaming, the bleachers shaking, the echo resounding through the rafters.
I sit on the floor across from the scorer's table doing the play-by-play for the games on the Internet radio. I am trying to do my part to support the teams. I love college basketball, so it's about time I loved my own team. I challenge every person at this school, whether you feel like I do or not, to come to one game. Tell your friends, tell anyone you want, but just come. See what I am talking about. See what it means to the players and the school, and then decide for yourself.
There are only two home games left in the regular season (Feb. 20 and Feb. 22). The Eagles, men's and women's, have a chance to gain home-court advantage. But they need your support. Take four hours out of your day to enjoy basketball and your school. For those of you who don't care, you are hurting the school, which means you are hurting yourselves. Next time you complain about a lack of school spirit at this school, realize that it's your own fault and do something about it.