One hundred twenty-five years after James Naismith nailed a pair of peach baskets to the walls of a gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts, the game of basketball has grown into one of the most popular sports in the world. Kids from all over the globe can be seen in their driveways, their local parks, or their city streets emulating the play of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant, dreaming of playing that game in front of huge, cheering crowds.
The city of Philadelphia and its surrounding areas make up just one of the many places that is consumed by basketball at this time of the year. While the city’s professional team, the 76ers, is undergoing a rough stretch of rebuilding, sitting at the bottom of the National Basketball Association’s standings, there are still things to be excited about. Philadelphia’s basketball fans look to a rich professional history, boasting some of the game’s best players including Wilt Chamberlain, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and the new Hall of Famer, Allen Iverson. But for most of us, when we have been thinking about basketball recently, we have been thinking about our Villanova Wildcats.
This year’s Wildcats have made history in a number of ways. For the first time in school history, they sat atop the NCAA’s Men’s College Basketball rankings. They broke records for field goal percentage in a Final Four game and for margin of victory in a Final Four game while defeating Oklahoma University in Houston on Saturday night. For the first time since 1985, the Wildcats are going to play for the national championship.
The 2016 Wildcats, while making a bit of history by themselves, share a number of similarities with their predecessors, the 1985 team. Three decades ago, an overachieving Wildcat team advanced through the NCAA tournament as an 8 seed, eventually defeating the top-ranked Georgetown Hoyas who were led by future NBA superstar, Patrick Ewing. Though a number of Wildcats would get to continue their basketball careers at the professional level, their victory was a complete team effort that led to what some consider to be the greatest upset in American sports history. This year’s team prides itself on team chemistry, and played what can only be considered a full team effort to defeat Oklahoma and their own star, Naismith Trophy winner, Buddy Hield in the Final Four. Though they spent some time as the top-ranked team in the nation, very few commentators predicted Villanova to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
After celebrations following Villanova’s Final Four victory shut down parts of Lancaster Avenue, it is pretty clear that the members of the Villanova community are beyond excited for their team. Do graduate history students share that sense of excitement? For many of us, the community that surrounds Villanova basketball is a new one. In the fall, most of us wouldn’t know Jay Wright if we fell over him. We probably couldn’t pronounce Ryan Arcidiacono’s last name. By the start of the tournament however, Wildcat pride made its way to us grad students. We will be watching eagerly tonight, hoping to share in some of the excitement that our 1985 counterparts experienced when their team beat Georgetown.
In recent years, it has been tough to be a basketball fan in Philadelphia, but this year it’s different. The Wildcats have made history, and there is still basketball to be played.