The Magical Suitcase; or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the RAC

In honor of tonight’s visit to the Rutgers Athletic Center, I think it’s time to relay one of the better epic SU gameday sagas in which I have played a role. The date was January 2005. The team was the 19-1, #4-ranked Syracuse Orangemen, featuring Warrick, Pace, Forth, McNamara, a quartet of promising but underperforming sophomores, and a recently-reinstated-but-soon-to-leave-the-team-again Billy Edelin.

The Cuse Country crew has moved around a bit but since the early 2000s most of us have lived in either Philly, DC, or NYC. All within a feasible striking distance of New Brunswick. In fact, when the schedule comes out each preseason, there is always a flurry of email activity as we figure out who is going to be able to attend which games on the I-95 corridor. Any road game at Georgetown, Villanova, Seton Hall, St. John’s, or Rutgers is likely to result in us representing in some capacity.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately as it turned out) this particular game at the RAC was on a Monday night, January 24 (which, incidentally, is known in some circles as the most depressing day of the year — all the more so when it is a Monday I suppose). This precluded those with day jobs from attending. However, I was a grad student at the time, and had no classes Tuesday morning; our compatriot Jer is self-employed. So the two of us decided it was time that New Brunswick became Cuse Country.

I live in DC (actually MD) and Jer is in New York. I purchased the tickets through the Rutgers box office before the season started (which has resulted in me receiving season ticket mailers from RU every season since). No one from our merry band had ever been to the RAC, but we were all aware of its reputation as a great college hoops arena and a tough place to play. So Jer and I were completely pumped to get up there. Jer was going to catch a NJ Transit train down to New Brunswick; I would be driving up from Maryland, so I’d pick Jer up at the train station and we’d roll up on the RAC in blazing orange colors. It was a perfect plan… in theory….

Lesson #1: When driving on I-95, never assume that you will be able to make a 3-hour drive in under 4 hours.

I’m not stupid. I know that one needs to get clear of the DC beltway by 2:30pm or so in order to not get snarled in the legendary rush hour, which lasts more like 4 or 5 hours. So I did. I figured there’d be a bit of traffic, sure, but that I’d roll into NB around 6 or 6:30. Jer’s train would arrive around 6:40, and I’d pick him up at the station in plenty of time to get to the RAC which was only a couple miles away. There had been a pretty significant winter storm over the weekend but the precipitation had subsided and the roads had been plowed. No problem, right? Wrong. Because Delaware sucks. I mean, seriously, Delaware SUCKS!

After clearing DC and Baltimore with no problem, I suddenly found myself mired in Delaware traffic. You only drive through Delaware for about ten miles on your way from DC to NJ, but those ten miles are a traveler’s nightmare. I was in that mess forever. As the clock ticked inexorably on, hasty phone calls were made and the plan adjusted. Since it appeared I wouldn’t arrive in town too much before tipoff, Jer would take a cab from the train station to the game and meet me in the parking lot. The tickets were in my name so he’d have to wait for me to get there in any case. Slight concern: Jer was carrying with him an empty suitcase. He’d used it to carry some packages to the post office for his business and was running late — if he’d gone back home to drop it off he’d have missed the train he needed. But it wouldn’t be a problem; he’d just stick it in my car.

Lesson #2: Not all NJ Transit trains on the line that goes to New Brunswick actually stop in New Brunswick.

Especially during peak commuter hours. If memory serves, Jer took a train that terminated in Rahway, about 5 stops too early. Or perhaps he took one that bypassed NB and went straight to Princeton. He’ll have to clarify that. Either way, he ended up far from his destination, and the next train to NB from wherever he got off was far in the future. Well, not “far” in a strict sense, but when those minutes contain precious SU basketball, you have to make them count. So Jer made the executive decision to just take a cab from wherever he was all the way to the game. Eventually he found one willing to make the trip (which is not a short ride) and hopped in.

I roll up to the RAC around 7:30, grouchy and stiff from my trip but relieved that I’m finally there. Having spoken to Jer and knowing that he is in a taxi en route, I run up to the ticket window and pick up my tickets, leave one for Jer at the will call, and finally enter the arena. The first thing I do is check the scoreboard. There are under 4 minutes left in the first half, it’s the TV timeout.

SU is losing. By 10.

You mean I went through all that to get here and we’re not crushing them? We’re not even ahead?? To quote a wise man, what the shit is going on here?

I figured it was just one of those patented SU lulls. But it only got worse from there. I found my seat and watched helplessly as Rutgers put on a clinic. They’d been on a 10-0 run when I got there; it turned into a 21-3 run to close the half. The halftime score was 54-36. The home crowd was in an ecstatic frenzy that got more crazed with each hoop. And, let me tell you, the stories about that place are true. It’s farking LOUD.

Jer finally rolled up in his cab during halftime and nearly had a heart attack when he saw the halftime score. Having not only ridden the rails but having dropped multiple extra dollars on a half-hour cab ride, only to be greeted by the sorry spectacle of the #4 team in the nation losing about as badly as possible to Rutgers is enough to drive anyone off the edge. But it wasn’t like we were going to leave. Not after all that we went through. We might as well just sit there and absorb the punishment.

To top it off, because I’d arrived before Jer and gone into the stadium, he hadn’t been able to put his suitcase in my car as planned. So he brought it into the RAC. And we’re talking a normal full-sized suitcase, not one of those ubiquitous ones that are just small enough to go in the overhead bin of an airplane. A standard, I’m going on a 10-day trip to Orlando suitcase. Now, the RAC is an old-style on-campus basketball arena. The floor is surrounded by very steeply arranged bleachers, so that you are close to the court in a horizontal sense but high above it. You can picture the two of us climbing that steep staircase in our National Championship shirts, lugging a suitcase (thank god it was empty) and getting our share of strange looks from the crowd. To make matters worse, our seats were all the way near the end of the row so we had to shuffle past a number of RU fans, holding the case above our heads (thank god it was empty) until we got to our seats, where — in the first instance of good luck all night — it was able to fit under the seat so taht we didn’t have to hold it in our laps for the 2nd half. We settled in for the action, prepared for a long night to just become longer.

But then something strange happened. SU put on their desperation press defense — and it actually worked! Boeheim put little-used New Jersey native Darryl Watkins in as the shot-blocking last line of defense (since Jeremy McNeil had graduated the year before and Craig Forth couldn’t jump for shit) and had Warrick, Pace, McNamara and either McCroskey or Roberts pressuring the ball and swatting at passes. After Warrick converted a three-point play to start the half, Rutgers’ first three possessions ended in steals and SU buckets. The 18-point lead was down to 9 with less than a minute gone by. RU got on the board then, but the tone was set. SU called off the press once RU finally figured out how to break it, but the damage was done. The boys in orange slowly clawed back to within 5, then 2. The deficit fluctuated between 1 and 6 points until a McCroskey steal led to a Josh Pace layup that put SU up 75-74 with under 8 minutes to go. All during this stretch, I’d love to say that the RAC was silenced, but the truth was even better. There were actually a large contingent of Syracuse backers in the house who’d been forced into silence during the first half debacle. In the 2nd half we were in full throat, no doubt about it.

Of course, Jer and I credited the presence of the suitcase for bringing about this magical turnaround. Though it appeared empty, clearly it had contained (unbeknownst to us) the basketball team’s mojo. Or something. All we know is that without the suitcase on hand, SU was minus-16. With the suitcase in the building, SU put on a dominant performance for about 15 minutes of game time.

Syracuse had actually built a 6-point lead at 80-74 with about 5 minutes left. At this point, the suitcase must have decided that its work was done for the night, because the team stalled out. Rutgers, to their credit, kept battling and got close again. The last two minutes were classic in every sense of the word. With 1:40 left, Ricky Shields dropped in a 3-pointer to give RU the lead back at 82-81. Edelin answered on the next possession to put SU up 1. Rutgers missed on their next attempt, but SU failed to extend the lead when Edelin missed with 30 seconds left. Rutgers reserve freshman center Dan Waterstradt grabbed the rebound and was inexplicably fouled by Craig Forth trying to get the offensive rebound. Forth fouled out on the play. (I told you this was classic — that’s classic Forth right there). You may vaguely recognize Waterstradt’s name, as he is now a fifth-year senior on the Oakland Golden Grizzlies who came to the Dome this past November. Anyway, Waterstradt was in the game only because their starting center had also fouled out. This guy Waterstradt only made three free throws his entire freshman year, but of course two of them came right at that moment. He canned both to give RU the one-point lead at 84-83.

It was at this point that the suitcase decided enough was enough. On SU’s ensuing possession, who took the shot? The defense was blanketing Warrick, McNamara, and Edelin, so the task fell to Josh Pace.

He missed. But there for the offensive rebound was the man who had replaced Forth for the final seconds, New Jersey’s own Terrence “Kodiak” Roberts. He scored on the rebound and got fouled. The suitcase decided turnabout was fair play, as it guided Roberts’ free throw through the hoop, giving SU an 86-84 lead with 7 seconds left.

Rutgers advanced the ball to the frontcourt and called timeout to set up one final play. Jer and I were, by this time, quite familiar with the skill sets of the Rutgers players. “As long as we don’t let Douby or Shields take the shot,” I said, “we should be OK.”

Of course the defense left Douby absolutely wide open in the right corner. I mean nobody within 10 feet of him. He let the shot fly. The arc was true. The RAC was about to explode.

The suitcase sent a little gust of air at the ball.

The shot swirled around the rim and popped out. SU escaped and the legend of the magical suitcase was born.

Here’s hoping for a bit less drama tonight. Unfortunately I won’t be there, as I have other obligations here in MD. So there will be no suitcases there to help you guys — you’ll have to do it on your own.

Go Orange!

2 Comments

  1. Jer
    Posted January 13, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Ah, memories. As great as my last two trips to the RAC have been, our 2005 journey was certainly the most dramatic, on and off the court (as recounted in your post).

    I do need the historical record to be accurate, so here are a couple of adjustments to my role in the night. While I live in NYC now, at the time I was living in Philly, so I was taking NJ Transit (and SEPTA) from the other direction. And as much as I wish I could blame NJ Transit for not stopping in New Brunswick, I actually missed the stop (not realizing how close it was to Trenton). I believe it was Linden I ended up in, taking a $50 cab in order to show up to a game extremely late and finding us down double-digits. But, thanks to one of the most dramatic comebacks I have ever witnessed, it couldn’t have turned out better.

    Since I’m sure everyone reading your post, Josh, couldn’t help but wonder what became of the magical suitcase, I will continue. The suitcase has long since been donated to Goodwill, but I would like to think it was purchased by an SU alum living in West Philly and has found its way to the RAC in recent years.

    This year’s trip to the RAC was a little different. The last two games in the RAC found us in the bleachers, but by the time we got our act together this year, the bleachers were sold out and they had just released tickets from the student section. What we found was a sea of orange in what should have been Rutgers’ home base. Every time a ‘Let’s Go Orange’ chant was started, it echoed around the stadium. The mundane ‘R U’ chant sounded like someone had unplugged the surround sound function on their speakers and sound was coming out in mono.

    One might say I shouldn’t be too hard on the fans of a school that is not back in session until the 19th and was suffering through their 5th loss to a ranked opponent in a row, but considering 90% of the students who attend Rutgers are from Dirty Jersey, I would have thought they could rustle up the few hundred students it would take to fill up their student section. All I can say is that at least Rutgers has more fan support than St. John’s will at their upcoming SU match in MSG. That can’t even be considered a home game for the Red Storm.

  2. Posted January 13, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    The quote from the wise man (”What the shit are you talking about”) comes two minutes in. Ah, Zoolander, gotta love it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SH7WdkJm3H0&feature=PlayList&p=84244176E5DDB162&playnext=1&index=64

One Trackback

  1. By Rutgers = Record Setters - Cuse Country on March 3, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    [...] twice purchased tickets to the RAC to see SU play Rutgers, I have ended up on the Rutgers Athletics email spam list. Today my inbox was graced with an email [...]

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