As NCAA Tournament brackets were being analyzed in March, Jon Jaques '10 would smile as he kept hearing the same question: who will be this year's Cornell? "Teams were aspiring to do what we had accomplished," Jaques, who is playing professionally in Israel, wrote in an e-mail. "That's a great feeling."
More than a year has passed since the end of the Big Red's run to the Sweet Sixteen. Four players—Jaques, Ryan Wittman '10, Louis Dale '10, and Jeff Foote '10—have continued their basketball careers professionally, while former head coach Steve Donahue was hired to be the head coach at Boston College. We caught up with them to talk about their lives post-Sweet Sixteen.
Ryan Wittman, Cornell's all-time leading scorer, joined the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA Development League in February after several months playing for the Italian professional team in Forli, about an hour south of Bologna. Joining the Fort Wayne team late in the season, he says, was not easy.
"Being at Cornell and playing with those guys—we had such familiarity on the court, such great chemistry," says Wittman, who's averaging 5.6 points per game. He followed Cornell's progress this year, staying up late in Italy to watch their games. And when March came around, Wittman says, he began feeling nostalgic. "For all of us who have graduated and moved on, we kind of realize how special a team we had. The friendships we made, the experiences we went through together—you don't get that with every team."
Louis Dale signed with BG Goettingen, a first-division German club. He said via e-mail that he chose Goettingen over teams in Belgium and Australia, though he admitted the adjustment has been tough. "There is greater pressure to win games and perform well," Dale wrote. "The wear and tear on your body is another thing I've had to adjust to."
Dale is averaging 18.1 minutes and 8.1 points per game as a starting guard. He says that he chats with his three former teammates regularly via Skype. "In many cases, if one guy was dealing with a certain situation, it was great to know that three of your best friends are going through it, too," he reports.
Lately, Dale has caught himself reflecting more and more on what he achieved in his four-year Cornell career. "Coach Donahue would often tell us that the experience we were having playing together would be some of the best moments of our lives. Not being able to play in the tournament this year has really made me appreciate the time I had playing Cornell basketball."
Jeff Foote has been playing for the Spanish club Melilla Baloncesto since mid-November, on what he calls a "loan" from the Israeli pro team Maccabi Tel-Aviv. "I feel like a freshman in college again," Foote wrote in an e-mail. "Every day is a new adventure."
Foote signed a two-year deal with Maccabi. Because he was not expected to play much in Israel, Maccabi lent him to Baloncesto for the season. Foote says he had not felt homesick until early March, when the NCAA Tournament brackets were being announced. "Not a day passes where I don't think of the Kentucky game, and how I know we were capable of more," Foote wrote. "The memory of that game will always drive me."
Jon Jaques has been playing for the Ironi Ashkelon basketball team in the Israeli Super League, the top division of Israeli basketball since August. Getting playing time has been a struggle, but Jaques views this opportunity to continue his career as a blessing. He wasn't expecting to get a call from a club overseas. "I figured I couldn't pass it up," he says. "Playing basketball for a year abroad is a once-ina-lifetime kind of thing."
Jaques has contributed articles to the "Quad" blog of the New York Times and to SportsIllustrated.com, and he currently writes for the online edition of Slam magazine. Watching from afar has not always been easy, though. "I wish I was still playing college basketball," Jaques wrote. "Watching these games just reminds me of how I felt during our run last year and how unreal those few weeks were."
Steve Donahue says he has no regrets about leaving Cornell after a 21-13 first season at Boston College. But reflecting on that decision still stirs up emotion.
"My wife and I talked about that last week—we sat back and thought about how fortunate we were to go through that," Donahue says of his ten-year stay in Ithaca. "There's a little sadness because it was such a special time. It was special for a lot of reasons, but the main reason was the great people around the program, in the program, in the Cornell community."
Donahue's BC team finished in a tie for fourth place in the ACC and was not invited to this year's NCAA tournament. They lost to Northwestern in the second round of the NIT. Donahue says that he and his family have enjoyed living in Boston, and they might soon expect a few summer visitors—four of them, at least. For Wittman, Dale, Jaques, Foote, and Coach Donahue, it's never too soon for a reunion. "I follow their careers daily, and they follow mine," Donahue says. "And we all follow Cornell."