An Ode to Brooklyn’s High-Flying Blackbirds
By Chris Mahr
Walk 10 minutes north of Lost Lettermen’s offices in New York and you’ll come upon the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.
College hoops history buffs will recognize the name. It was at LIU that the legendary Clair Bee guided the Blackbirds to a pair of undefeated seasons (1936 and ’39) as well as two NIT titles (’39 and ’41). Had it not been for a team protest of Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish policies, the ’36 squad would have likely represented the U.S. in basketball at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — the first time hoops was a medal sport.
After lying dormant for six decades, largely done in by the fallout from the CCNY point shaving scandal, LIU Brooklyn basketball is back with a vengeance. On Tuesday night, LIU hosts Mount St. Mary’s with the Northeast Conference tournament championship — and a third consecutive trip to the Big Dance — at stake. I consider myself grateful for discovering the Blackbirds when I did.
At this time last year, I was one month in to my ambitious career as a freelance sports writer. I needed something to write about, both so I could flex my journalistic muscles after a four-year career in PR and so I could get readers to sit up and notice me. I found something that covered both bases in my back yard.
LIU was small and low-profile enough that I got very close access to almost the entire program. There was Jim Ferry, the up-and-coming, Long Island-bred head coach who already had a tribute song courtesy of Jimmy Fallon and the Roots from when LIU made the tourney the year before. There was Julian Boyd, the ultra-smooth NEC Player of the Year and one of the better small-conference players in the country.
Most important, there was the Blackbirds’ high-flying offense. While much of the rest of college basketball was slowing down, LIU was constantly trying to speed things up. In averaging 81.9 PPG (third best in the country) last season, they often produced highlights like this.
I kept up with the go-go Blackbirds as best I could — starting with the latter part of their regular season and extending into their run to a second straight NEC championship and a second round NCAA tournament game against No. 1 seed Michigan State. (LIU trailed by just five at halftime of that game, 42–37, before losing 89–67.)
Things changed leading up to and during the 2012–2013 campaign. I began working for Lost Lettermen; Ferry left LIU to take the head coaching job at Duquesne; Boyd suffered a season-ending ACL injury just eight games in; and LIU’s chances of a third straight NEC title looked slim after a 5–10 start, including an 0–3 mark in NEC play.
To watch the Blackbirds turn their season around to the point of being one win away from going back to the NCAA tournament — as a fan just as much as a writer — has been something else.
Once again, they’re scoring a lot (79.1 PPG). With Boyd out, it’s been a pair of former high school teammates from Maryland, Jamal Olasewere (19.0 PPG and 8.5 RPG) and C.J. Garner (15.6 PPG) shouldering the scoring load, with point guard Jason Brickman (a nation-leading 8.5 APG) adeptly playing the role of distributor. LIU finished tied for second in the conference at 12–6 (17–13 overall) prior to winning its first two conference tournament games - including a semifinal victory over a Wagner team that defeated the Blackbirds twice in the regular season.
When March comes around, college hoops fans often hear the stories of how those lower-profile and lower-seeded teams came to rub shoulders with the sport’s perennial powers. Until last February, I respectfully listened until those teams were eliminated and they disappeared from the forefront of my basketball-watching mind.
LIU is the first of these teams I’ve ever paid heed to outside the month of March. Maybe it’s from the connection I forged with the Blackbirds during my memorable month covering them last year. Maybe it’s the joy of seeing a local team do well. Maybe it’s because if Spike Lee thinks it’s cool, that’s all the more reason for me to be convinced.
Regardless of the reason, I’ll be in the stands at the 2,500-seat Wellness Recreation & Athletic Center on Tuesday night, cheering on high-flying LIU to stay atop the Brooklyn basketball landscape.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Top and Bottom Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports