February 7, 2020 – New Haven, Connecticut
Yale v Harvard
There aren’t many rivalries that quite match Harvard-Yale. The schools have been playing football annually since 1875, and the annual rowing regatta has been held each year between the schools, except for war time, since 1859.
Harvard has six fight songs that mention Yale. Yale has five fight songs that mention Harvard.
It’s a rivalry intertwined with American culture both in sports and, considering the long list of global alumni, the world at-large.
On this night it was another basketball chapter that was written. A strange 5 p.m. start on a regular-season Friday, a packed house, a 40-minute banger. It was something else.
But first there was the second-largest city in the state to explore.
Yale is the first of my four Ivy League stops and it oozes with what people think an Ivy League campus looks and feel like. Large, castle-like buildings dot the campus with walls that could regale you for hours if they could talk.
There are many new, sleek buildings of glass and steel but nothing compares to the centuries-old buildings that rise above The Elm City.
Located on the old campus is the statue of Theodore Woolsey. The tenth president in school history (1846-1871), Woolsey grew Yale’s influence and helped build the reputation that the school is known for around the world today.
The statue sits in the quad in the middle of Old Campus, which is now mainly freshman housing. The statue is considered as talisman as rubbing Woolsey’s toe is meant to bring good luck.
The Good Eats
So before I can get to a one-of-a-kind spot in New Haven, I must take you 50 miles back up the road to Vernon, CT.
Take a right off exit 65 on Route 84 and you’ll find the Vernon Diner. This is a necessary detour as this is my single favorite restaurant in the country. A perfect diner that never closes and always satisfies.
It’s a place I stop at nearly every time I ride through Connecticut and I wanted to share it so more people go there in the hope that it stays open now and forever.
With almost 300 seats, it’s much larger than what you would think a diner would be but there are regularly long waits on peak hours, and it’s always worth it.
As you do I was having breakfast at 1:30 in the afternoon and started off Shabbat with a warm bowl of matzo ball soup on a bitterly cold day.
And I finished it off with pancakes and eggs. I love the old standbys because unless the chef is completely inept, they will always satisfy. And the breakfast in Vernon sticks the landing every time.
So after that delicious meal I found myself several hours later at Louis Lunch in the heart of New Haven.
This place is tiny. Smaller than my apartment by a large margin, Louis Lunch has been in business since 1895 and is one of the most important restaurants in America’s food history.
Louis Lunch is the birthplace of the hamburger sandwich and that is still the only freshly-cooked food product that they sell.
Want ketchup? Not happening. Want fries? Move on. For toppings you choose from cheese, onions grilled into the patty, and fresh tomato slices. That’s it.
The bread is toasted on a rotating toaster that dates back to the 1920s and the burgers are cooked vertically in the original vertical broilers.
The burgers are beautiful in their simplicity. Just a burger on a paper plate.
Before you see a Yale basketball game you must first admire the beauty that is Payne Whitney Gymnasium. The Cathedral of Sweat.
The building is the second-largest gym in the world by indoor space (12 interior acres) and houses Yale’s pool and numerous indoor training facilities as well as the home for basketball, the John J. Lee Amphitheater.
Lee is a regal dungeon. The amenities are non-existent. There are seats with obstructed views. The media area is just a small section of the wooden bleachers with tabletops.
The concourse looks like it could be used as a castle hallway for a period piece if you took the lights down. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where I can admire stained glass during a TV timeout.
Over the last 15 years the Ivy League has become one of the most comeptitive mid-major leagues in the country. Between 1989-2006 Penn or Princeton won at least a share of every championship.
Since then five different schools have won at least a share of the league crown and four have won it outright.
Tonight, the skill was fully on display between two of the top squads in the conference.
That’s Yale junior Paul Atkinson, an excellent inside player. Did you like that dunk? Here’s some more of him and a sweet dime.
Atkinson was the lynchpin for Yale on this night but the Bulldogs played from behind for most of the game thanks to timely shooting from Harvard’s Christian Juzang and Noah Kirkwood.
The Crimson eventually took a 13-point lead into intermission.
But then Azar Swain happened. The junior from Brockton took the game over, mortgage and all.
He had 27 points in the second half on 8-11 shooting. And with Swain the gap fell and fell some more. The Bulldogs continued to grow larger in Harvard’s mirror and Swain was the gas pedal punched through the floor.
Swain and the Bulldogs clawed back from the edge but found themselves down four points with five seconds left.
Yale got the ball to Azar. He made magic.
I don’t follow sports much anymore for wins and losses. Yes, there are a few teams I support, and I want them to do well. But the morning after a game I wash the result away. I’m in good health. That’s all I need.
What I do follow sports for is that noise. That noise that rattles in your bones and echoes through your muscles. I want to be surrounded by the energy that only sporting passion exiting the human soul can produce. I chase moments like Azar Swain’s three.
The And-1 had to wait as the refs reviewed the time left on the clock. The review dragged on for almost three minutes before Swain stepped to the line.
Harvard 78, Yale 77. Final.
Time of game: 2:03
Top performer: Azar Swain. 33 points
At halftime I was able to gain an audience with Handsome Dan. Handsome Dan is known by everyone at Yale and is at almost every single Yale sporting event. He’s deeply loyal to the Elis and always enjoys meeting new fans.
He is THE Yale Bulldog in every way.
I just hope no one tells him I was in the Harvard Kids Club many moons ago. I wouldn’t want to impose on the relationship.