Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Lehigh and Lelow of it...

On Friday morning I came this close to telling my immutable Duke basketball friend that this day might be one of the few times that I'd ever pull against Duke.

That's because Duke, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, was to play Lehigh University, a No. 15 seed. I mean, c'mon. Duke, with its four NCAA titles under coach Mike Krzyzewski, was a lock. Granted, this was not one of the Devils better teams, and I didn't expect them to go far in this year's tourney, but Lehigh didn't appear to be a serious issue for them.

So I never said a word to my friend. I didn't want to look ridiculous. You know, more than usual, anyway.

I grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., the home of Lehigh. As a teenager, I pedaled my beloved 10-speed bicycle all over the campus that is dotted with imperial, grey cut stone buildings that are simply oozing, if not downright bleeding, scholarship. A mini-Duke.

The campus is built on the windward side of South Mountain, which may help to explain how they came to be called Mountain Hawks in the late 1990s. They used to be nicknamed Engineers. I always thought it's because Lehigh had a renowned engineering school, and many of its graduates ended up at the foot of South Mountain working for the gigantic and historic Bethlehem Steel plant that dominated the town. It turns out, however, that they were Engineers because of the Lehigh Valley Railroad trains that chugged through the steelyards. The railroad also called Bethlehem its home.

But by the late 1990s, the steel industry had moved offshore, pretty much making south Bethlehem something off a ghost town. Billy Joel's "Allentown" should have been called "Bethlehem," but I guess Bethlehem implies too much Middle East drama.

At any rate, in the past 30 years Lehigh has made strides in its basketball program, getting into the NCAA tourney for the first time in 1985, where it lost to Georgetown in the first round. In fact, Lehigh fell out of the first round against Temple in 1988; against Florida A&M in 2004; and against Kansas in 2010. You can see a pattern here.

Then came Friday night. I didn't watch much of the first half, although I monitored the score to prepare for the expected blowout.

But the Mountain Hawks hung tough. In fact, they pretty much outplayed Duke from the opening tip, and by the second half, I was watching with intent — and then outright cheering for Lehigh as the game trickled down to its final unbelievable moments. I guess I just have too much history with Lehigh to do otherwise.


When the game was over and Lehigh had come away with its stunning 75-70 victory, I immediately called a friend from high school, who still lives in the Lehigh Valley, to celebrate. Then I went online to read the Allentown Morning Call, which noted the victory was not only the biggest in Lehigh University's history, but maybe the biggest sports story to come out of the Lehigh Valley. Ever.

But now it makes me wonder how Coach K — the coach with those 900-plus career victories and four national titles — is ever going to find another job with this albatross on his résumé.

What have you done for me lately, coach?

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