I nearly missed my ride to Newark Airport screaming at my Princeton Tigers in the semifinal of the first Ivy League Men’s Basketball Tournament (seems like it needs a name, and a championship trophy name). The game went into overtime, with Princeton’s ability to tie it in the waning seconds presenting a kick-save opportunity for a game in which they never led. Along the way, I channeled every single strange event memory I could dredge up, from Carril era nicknames for players who made poor shot selections to performing my own, best-viewed-privately version of the Suny B Psycho Squad cheer while wearing this shirt.
No manner of weirdness, no talisman, no historical reference, no alliterative profanity is too far when you are on the doorstep of the big dance, wishing for a ticket to get in, to relive your salad days and remember great friends for two weeks. If the Olympics are an international house guest that makes you feign interest in strange sports in the name of national pride, then March Madness is a mini college reunion of friends with whom you cheered until your throat and head hurt equally.
Here’s what I remember from various Princeton basketball games between 1982 and 1984:
My friend Ed had a rubber chicken that we brought to most games our senior year. The Columbia game that winter was 11-10 at halftime (no shot clock, and verrrryyy long possessions) and ended with Princeton losing 33-31. I said some mean things that night and we did a few visual puns with the chicken that would be unacceptable on the Monmouth bench (or anywhere else with respectable adults present).
Princeton clinched an Ivy Title, and an automatic tourney bid, in the last game of the year versus Penn, which I listened to on my Walkman (!!) in the EQuad terminal room (think about it: you could take cassettes with you, but you still had to go to where the computers were). My friend Lemon knew I was working on my thesis, and brought me a stromboli from Victor’s about an hour after the game. There were no cell phones, no email, no texting, she just knew where I would be and what would make that evening perfect. It was one of the finest acts of friendship during my four years as a Tiger.
Princeton had an alt-cheering force known as the Suny B Psycho Squad, of which friend Ed and a number of other arm’s length friends were members. Their cheers featured animal onomatopoeia, hand-lettered poster board signs to goad us into joining them, and in later incarnations, the rubber chicken providing aerial support. It was fun and goofy and nearly impossible to explain, but the people who “got it” can still trigger a tight network effort on Facebook with a mere “E I E I E I O”, the clarion call, shofar-like, of the assembly of the Suny B team.
Ed’s rubber chicken disintegrated somewhere along the travels of married life with kids. I bought him a new one a few weeks ago, in the middle of Princeton’s run to a 14-0 Ivy season. It seemed the right thing to do.
Slowly march, forward, thirty-three years and Princeton finds itself in the Ivy Tournament finals, an invitation to dance forty minutes away. Penn has been defeated, at the Palestra, again, and in the course of yammering online I heard from Ed, Lemon, and a host of other friends who recognized the animal sounds and requirement to cheer in non-obvious ways.
For one shining moment, we were all on the bleachers again, rubber chicken in hand, despite a few thousand miles of geography and three decades of life.