Considering how the season turned out (see sidebar), it would be easy to forget that the 2002–03 men’s basketball season, one of Brown’s greatest ever, began as one of its worst.
On December 9, the Bears headed home from a 67–48 tail-whipping at the University of Rhode Island accompanied by an ugly 1–7 record. Back then, few would have dreamed that a little more than three months later the Bears’ season would culminate with an appearance in the National Invitation Tournament—the NIT.
A postseason berth “seemed pretty far-fetched, to say the least,” recalls Earl Hunt ’03, who finished a sterling career by becoming Brown’s all-time leading scorer, with 2,041 points, the first Bear and only the fourth player in Ivy history to break the 2,000-point barrier. “The possibility,” says coach Glen Miller, “never entered my mind. At that point I couldn’t even fathom us having a winning season.”
In those dark, late-fall days, Hunt was hobbled by a right-thigh injury that severely limited his effectiveness and ultimately caused him to sit out two games, the only two he missed at Brown. At the same time Miller, navigating the most challenging nonleague schedule he’d seen during his four years as head coach, was still blending and sifting his roster, trying to determine which core of players was capable of contributing on a consistent basis.
But the nine-day break for final exams allowed Hunt’s thigh to fully heal, and four days before Christmas he led the Bears to an impressive 75–67 road win over Central Connecticut, during which he scored thirty-nine points for the second time in his career. A week later, at the start of a three-game West Coast swing, Hunt knocked down thirty-one more points in a win at San Jose State. The man was back, and once Miller found the appropriate supporting cast, the Bears began Ivy play at 5–9 and poised for a memorable winter.
In fact, they lost just three more times all year, twice in close games against unbeaten league champion Penn and once, during the NIT tournament, to Virginia, of the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference. “We were able to settle on a good eight- or nine-man rotation,” says Miller. “Once we settled into that rotation, I think the guys understood their roles better. We became a close-knit team which really started to execute and play for each other.”
The team’s success, however, was the sum of some outstanding individual performances, beginning with the stellar Hunt. A three-time first-team All-Ivy selection, he led the league in scoring this season for the third straight time, averaging 19.4 points a game. Running mate Alai Nuualiitia ’03, who started and played in all 110 of Brown’s games during his four years on College Hill, wound up with 1,344 career points, third-best in Brown history. He averaged 12.8 points per game and was a reliable presence both in the paint and under the boards once the Ivy League season began.
Jason Forte ’05 this year became, in Miller’s words, “the best point guard in the league, hands down” by combining a much-improved jump shot with vastly better oncourt discipline and decision-making. Forte averaged thirteen points a game in Ivy play and staged a coming-out party of sorts at the Pizzitola Center when Brown completed a season sweep of Princeton with an 88–74 win; in that contest Forte scored thirty points on six-of-seven shooting from the field, including a four-for-four effort from three-point range, and hit all fourteen of his free throws. In addition, Forte’s 155 assists eclipsed the previous single-season record of 150, which was held by Mike Waitkus ’86.
Forte’s backcourt mate, Mike Martin ’04, who was a deep-shooting threat throughout his first two years at Brown, became a significant defensive force this winter. He grabbed eleven steals in a weekend road sweep of Cornell and Columbia before a ligament tear in one of his knees benched Martin for the team’s final five games. Patrick Powers ’04, meanwhile, was a steady outside shooting threat all season; his eighteen points in the NIT loss to Virginia led the team.
Forward Jamie Kilburn ’04 and swingman and Penn transfer Harold Bailey ’04 gave the Bears a significant lift off the bench, providing quick-strike offense, hustle, and a physical presence. Kilburn shot 70 percent from the floor in the Ivies and hit nineteen straight shots from the floor over a five-game stretch. G.J. King ’05 and Luke Ruscoe ’06, both six-feet, seven-inches tall, contributed some solid minutes as the season progressed. Their improvement will be crucial to the Bears’ success in the post–Hunt/Nuualiitia era.
For all the accomplishments and memorable moments that marked the basketball winter of ’03, though, the Bears will be haunted by two games that got away: the losses to Penn that cost Brown a chance at only its second Ivy title and the accompanying automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. “Every college basketball player,” Hunt says, “dreams of March Madness.”
The Bears were certainly pumped for the games. The first matchup with Penn was February 15 in Philadelphia, only twenty-four hours after the Bears’ first-ever win at Princeton. Clinging to a 66–61 lead in front of a near-sellout crowd, Brown was a mere five minutes from a stunning weekend sweep when the Quakers drilled a trio of backbreaking three-pointers to take the lead for good, finishing with a 73–66 victory.
The teams met again thirteen days later at the Pizzitola Center, with Penn atop the Ivies with a 9–0 record and the Bears a half-game back at 9–1. The game was sold out nearly a week in advance; some tickets even went up for bid on e-Bay. Facing a roaring welcome, ESPN’s Chris Berman ’77 introduced the starting lineups from his perch in the prime balcony seats above the floor. Throughout the night he could be seen gesticulating to the hordes of white-towel-waving undergrads in the student sections to keep the noise up. Penn, though, responded as a champion should, holding a lead for the game’s final twenty-six minutes. But the Bears fought well. Down by nine with four minutes to play, they rallied to get within two points of the Quakers with 2:29 to go, but then Powers had a wide-open three rim out with thirteen seconds left, and Hunt was way off on a three-pointer in heavy traffic with five seconds on the clock. “We had opportunities in both games down the stretch, and we didn’t get it done,” said a downcast Hunt right after the game.
The Bears bounced back to dispatch Princeton the next night, then finished the regular season with road wins over Dartmouth and Harvard. They gave their fans one last thrill in the NIT, rebounding from an early eleven-point deficit to pull within a point of Virginia, 47–46, early in the second half. The Cavaliers, however, responded with a 10–0 burst, cruising to an 89–73 win. Hunt and Nuualiitia had worn their Brown uniforms for the last time.
“There’s definitely a sense of pride for Alai and I for helping to turn the program around over our four years,” Hunt says. “The season before we got here they were 4–22. Now we’ve had three straight winning seasons. I feel great satisfaction that we had that type of impact on the program.”
In the past three seasons Brown has tied for second and finished fourth and second in Ivy play. Miller’s challenge now is to make sure the Hunt/Nuualiitia era is a building block for the program and not a pinnacle. “I think a lot of people think we’re going to fall off the face of the map in the absence of Earl and Alai,” he says. “But I think we have some pretty good young players in our program, and we have a good recruiting class coming in. We haven’t won an Ivy League championship, so we still have a long way to go. I’d like to think our best years are ahead of us.”