BY AARON SCHULDINER
It’s a brisk January afternoon in West Point, NY, but it’s like a sauna inside Christl Arena. Despite it being a holiday weekend on campus, the building is packed shoulder to shoulder with more than 5,000 spectators standing quietly in front of their seats. The Black Knights of Army are assembled near the foul line at the far end of the court, facing the corner of the stands as their band delivers the alma mater of the United States Military Academy. It’s only been a few minutes since the final buzzer sounded, closing the book on a tough 59-50 loss to their rivals from Annapolis. Yet here the Black Knights stand, at attention, alongside the Midshipmen of Navy, each honoring their Academy and their opponent. In a moment, the Army players in their home whites and their opponents in Navy blue and gold will walk together to the opposite end of the floor, where the band of the U.S. Naval Academy readies to play the alma mater of the victors.
If you look for it, you can see joy on the faces of the Midshipmen and disappointment on the faces of the Black Knights, but for these few moments there are no overt displays of celebration or sorrow. Basketball emotions are on hold while the players from both academies pay respect to principles that are bigger than the events of the past few hours.
It’s a scene that can’t help but reaffirm your faith in sportsmanship, and one that will play itself out again on Saturday when Army visits Navy for the 118th meeting between the rival academies.
“If you win, they play your alma mater second,” says Brennan Wyatt, a junior guard at Navy and one of just three upperclassmen on the roster. “So it’s always a better time if you hear your alma mater second, but… you have to show them respect like they show us respect, win or lose. I mean, it really does go back to respect, and how both teams, I feel, respect each other a lot as people, and as basketball players.”
In a culture that’s often too preoccupied with the accomplishments of the individual to be bothered with the team concept, the Army-Navy basketball rivalry is a breath of fresh air. Among the cadets, the success of the team comes first. Where their futures will take them, it has to.
The stakes are high and the rivalry fierce, but showboating and trash talk are noticeably absent here. You won’t see a player disrespect his opponent for the sake of self-promotion in an Army-Navy game. “We’re both Academy schools and we hold ourselves higher,” says Ella Ellis, a senior forward for Army and the ninth-leading scorer in program history. “There definitely won’t be any taunting in that game. It’s definitely a rivalry, but we also have to remember that after this is said and done, we’ll be brothers in arms.”
The days are long for these student athletes. “Very long,” according to Ellis, who is in line for morning formation at 6:45 each morning, and doesn’t get to bed until 11:30 at night. An Information Technologies major, his class schedule features advanced options like Constitutional Military Law, Cyber Security, and Integrative System Design. They are sophisticated courses at one of the nation’s most demanding institutions, and they are regularly supplemented with military training and basketball games and practices. It’s a challenging lifestyle for Ellis and his teammates, but the tough days at the Academy serve the vital purpose of instilling in them the necessary discipline to become leaders in the United States military.
With all the hard work, it’s easy for an outsider to lose track of the fact that being an athlete at West Point, demanding as it may be, is as much an opportunity as it is a responsibility. Army head coach Zach Spiker agrees. “I think another misnomer is, ‘Man, it’s so hard here.’ No. You get to do this,” says Spiker. “We can recruit a lot of people. You get to come here. You get to be a part of this experience. You get to do all these things. And when you graduate, you look back and say, ‘Look at all those things we went through. Look at all the things we did.’ A lot of positive, some negative, but you go through those experiences and it makes you a leader worth following when you graduate. And that’s what our entire goal is.”
Ellis has branched into Air Defense Artillery, a military division in which “officers lead, train, and employ Air Defense forces in support of military operations, primarily against enemy aircraft and missile attacks,” as the Academy explains it. Or, as Ellis puts it, “Missiles or aircraft that are flying over us that are not supposed to be there? We’re responsible for taking them down.” To the layperson writing about a basketball game, it’s a dose of reality to hear him speak so matter-of-factly about duties of such great consequence. The student athletes on the basketball court at Christl Arena, most of whom aren’t legally able to rent a car yet, make up America’s next generation of officers. It’s no exaggeration to say that Ella Ellis, Brennan Wyatt, and their respective teammates will soon be responsible for protecting Americans’ freedoms and very way of life.
So while college coeds around the nation may drop their books at the thought of 17-hour days and the rigors of balancing academics, athletics, and military training, you’ll forgive the Army and Navy players if they have a different idea of what constitutes pressure.
It takes only a brief conversation with any of the players to realize that they have a perspective on life that goes well beyond their years. They also have a grasp on their priorities that’s lost on most college students. You certainly don’t have to remind them that there are things in life more important than basketball – even Army-Navy basketball – like leadership, family, and country.
Still, in the context of sport, they understand that Army vs. Navy is much more than another game on the Patriot League schedule.
The rivalry matters. It matters to the cadets and faculty in Annapolis and West Point, and to alumni around the world. It matters here and now to these players, and it will matter to them in the future. “They’ll get asked about this,” says Brian Gunning, Army’s Associate Athletic Director. “It’s a big deal, not only around here at West Point and both academies. It’s a big deal in the Army… I’ve heard people tell that story of, ‘Yeah, I got to my platoon and they found out I played sports. First thing they asked me is, “You beat Navy?”’”
When the two teams met back on January 20, Navy emerged with a win thanks to a whole lot of hustle and some strong 3-point shooting. In a gritty, physical game that featured a combined 49 fouls, the Midshipmen came away with more loose balls and had the floor burns to prove it. Navy was relentless in their offense, screening with purpose to open up their shooters. Even when Black Knight defenders were able to fight through the screens, the Midshipmen knocked down contested shots. Navy, a 34% three-point shooting team on the year, made 11 of 23 from beyond the arc.
Sophomore guard Kevin Alter was a key contributor for Navy, shooting 4 for 5 from long range, and scoring 14 points off the bench. “He’s about 5-foot-8, about 150 pounds, but he’s got the heart of a giant,” says Navy head coach Ed DeChellis. “He hasn’t been a starter here, but gosh, every day he’s the first one in the gym, last one to leave. And he’s worked himself into a position where he’s playing a lot of good quality minutes now.” Alter’s level of commitment is indicative of the intense work ethic that’s on display any time Army and Navy meet on the court, but the depth of his character extends far beyond basketball.
“He’s a highly competitive person. He’s got great leadership skills. And he will be a young guy that will be an outstanding officer in the United States Navy because he’s got the toughness. This is a young guy who welcomes adversity, fights through it… and he’s a very, very bright guy,” DeChellis says proudly.
“Down the road, when I go to sleep at night, I know if he’s out there with the fleet that this country is in very, very good hands.” For Alter, whose grandfather graduated from the Naval Academy and served in the Marine Corps, it’s hard to imagine a greater compliment.
No doubt, Saturday’s tilt will be another physical game with lots of hard-nosed screens and floor burns. When the dust settles, Alter will once again stand with his Midshipmen teammates alongside the Black Knights of Army while the band plays. It’s a big-picture moment: One that takes place on a basketball court but is much bigger than basketball, and proof positive that there’s nothing quite like Army-Navy.
Tipoff is at 2:00 p.m. Saturday. The game will air live on CBS Sports Network.
Author’s Twitter handle: @shealiveson