The Safest (If Not Silliest) Game of the Week
by Adam Shandler
My friends and I had a pleasant drive up the Palisades Parkway to West Point. We were cruising – no flying – until we got to the first checkpoint. We encountered our first stoppage. “DoD stickered cars to left, non-stickered cars to the right,” read the sign, accompanied by an armed sentry at the gate. We steered into the appropriate corrale and assumed that that would be the extent of USMA’s post-9/11 security upgrade. Nope. In line another ten minutes at a new checkpoint, we watched as burly camouflaged men with M-16s checked cars in both hood and trunk for suspicious materials. Then came our turn, and we were excited. Yes, we were being detained, and we were thrilled about it.
My buds and I entered Christl Arena just as the National Anthem was being sung. The color guard was in full regalia, holding high the banner of our country, as well as the totems of the state of New York and the four major branches of military service. Everyone — cadets, midshipmen, officals, scoreboard operator – stood rock-still. Other than the Star Spangled Banner itself, you couldn’t even hear a whistle from a stuffed-up nostril in the last seat of the last row. It was the first time in a long time that I did not hear some beer-swigging yahoo in the bleachers make a cymbal-crashing sound after “rockets red glare” and “bombs bursting in air”.
The patriotism, the security, the pomp and circumstance – we expected all that from an Army-Navy sporting event. Every year, I try to make a point of watching the annual football game, played at a neutral sight. Each school’s units march out in block formation and athletic alums are paraded out to further complement the rich but mystical rivalry between the two acadamies. However, there were some things that I did not expect from Army-Navy basketball; things that I saw that afternoon that completely contradicted the sanctity of arguably the greatest rivalry in college sports.
Upon walking into the gymnasium, my friends and I were greeted by Army’s mascot, a torked-off looking mule with a long neck and pleather hooves for hands. I got my picture taken with him as a souvenir of my visit. Then, after finding my place along press row, I met the acquaintance of Army Man, West Point’s unofficial superhero, and took a picture with him. I asked Army Man, who is built like The Rock and carries a small black billy club, his secret identity. In true superhero fashion, he did not reveal it. Okay, two mascots. One traditional, one…not-so-much. Made sense. Even at West Point, you’ve gotta keep with the changin’ times.
My mascot safari did not end there.
During a time out, I turned back and looked up into the stands. There was a massive sea of cadet gray, accented by rows and rows of short-cropped heads. Then I did a double take. I saw a pig. I swear I did. A big, fat, pink, smiling pig. Then I panned down another row. This time I saw an eagle. Then a frog. Then Elvis. Taz. Snoopy. A Spartan soldier. Larry Storch’s character on F-Troop. They were dotted throughout the auditorium like characters waiting to be found in a Where’s Waldo puzzle. I was confused…but still entertained.
Turns out, this little muppet convention makes more sense than it sounds. From what I learned from the F-Troop guy, each company at USMA has its own mascot – much in the same way fraternities and sororities use characters to represent themselves at civilian colleges. But at Army, those characters jump right off the t-shirts and into the stands at Christl.
At halftime, all 22-or-so mascots faced off in a special basketball game. It looked more like a rugby match at Sesame Place. I don’t remember what the final score was. I think it was a 2-2 tie. It should have been 4-2, but the gorilla tackled the Roman soldier after receiving a pass from Goofy. No intentional foul was called, and that got D company all in a huff.
The real, and less colorful game, was won by Army, 73-63. Chris Spatola had 15 points, 5 rebounds, to punctuate an admirable career as one of West Point’s more reliable point guards. Chris’s brother, J.P., a sopomore, had 19 points, 6 assists. With the victory, the Cadets were awarded the Alumni Trophy, a brilliant piece of hardware given to the winner of one of the season’s Army-Navy b-ball games. The “trophy game” is designated at the beginning of the season.
Razzing between the schools, another time-honored tradition, was in full effect on gameday. But when the smoke cleared and the mascots removed their heads, the two venerable alma maters were played. After 40 minutes of bitter feuding on the court, that mutual respect between the two schools had been restored. I don’t even know the title of my college alma mater. At West Point and Annapolis, the cadets and mids know the titles, the lyrics, the composers, the time signatures and the dates the tunes were penned. And they do it with pride. There is nothing like an Army-Navy postgame.
Even the frog had tears in his eyes.