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Cooper Union Aims For Athletic Success

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The starting five of the Cooper Union men's basketball team (in white) all have at least a 3.9 GPA.  (Photo courtesy Joanna Cruz/Cooper Union)
The Cooper Union men's basketball team (in white) features a starting five that each have a GPA of at least  3.9. (Photo courtesy Joanna Cruz/Cooper Union)

So, you're a talented college student who wants a top-notch academic experience and to play basketball. Stanford, Princeton and Harvard leap to mind as good landing spots. But there's a tiny college in New York City that's recently elbowed its way into that select company.

The members of the men’s and women’s basketball teams at Cooper Union, nestled in Greenwich Village, are all there on full scholarships. That’s not because of any athletic prowess. For the past 150 years, the school has offered free tuition to its entire student body, which consists solely of art, architecture, and engineering students.

Graduates include a Nobel Laureate, a bevy of MacArthur “genius” award winners, and Thomas Alva Edison. Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha points out that his college is one of the most selective in the country.

“It’s unique in that the students are, without exception, committed to their work and interested in a rigorous academic experience that’s very advanced,” Bharucha said, “where you’re in a community of like-minded students who aren’t interested in the frills and the other distractions, if you like, of the typical college experience.”

But over the past two decades, Cooper Union has also fielded successful men’s and women’s teams in tennis, volleyball, and basketball, as well as coed squads in soccer and cross-country. Last year, the men’s volleyball and basketball squads won league championships against the likes of New York-area schools Sarah Lawrence and Yeshiva, and a host of fellow art, architecture, and engineering schools throughout New England.

They think about the physics, they think about the angles. They think about the shifting of weights and the technique in such an advanced, crisp way that there is no question that it gives them that little edge.

Jamshed Bharucha, Copper Union President

Those achievements are all the more notable because this urban campus has no athletic facilities. The athletics department has barely a $60,000 budget. Basketball coach Stephen Baker adds the men’s team has managed 16-4 records in the two seasons before this one, even though most of the members haven’t played high school ball.

“They do well at everything that they do, so if they try a sport they just think naturally that they’re going to get it,” Baker said. “They have a tremendous work ethic so they’ll work harder than anybody else, and they’re great at learning. They enjoy learning. And they’re used to succeeding.”

Baker, who’s been the Associate Dean of Students for 37 years, reintroduced the intercollegiate sports program in 1992 after it had been in mothballs for decades. Nowadays he also holds the unique title of Dean of Athletics. About 80 of Cooper Union’s 1,000 undergraduates participate.

On a Friday night in late November, the men’s and women’s teams ran through their weekly practice in a rented junior high school gym nearly 20 blocks from campus. Practice time is limited for a good reason. Most players, including women’s captain and architecture major Yoon Shin, take seven courses a term.

“I have class until 10 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday,” Shin said. “On Tuesday, I have nine hours of class and I work as an R.A. in the dorm, so that takes up almost all 24 hours of the day.”

Dean of Athletics and basketball coach Stephen Baker. (Photo courtesy Joanna Cruz/Cooper Union)
Dean of Athletics and basketball coach Stephen Baker. (Photo courtesy Joanna Cruz/Cooper Union)

Shin says that Baker’s basketball program has made it worth finding the extra hours to compete in a sport she hadn't played before.

“He’s giving an opportunity for us small college kids to get a full university experience, so it’s great,” Shin said. “We’re not missing out on anything.”

The starting five on the men’s team all sport grade point averages of 3.9 or higher. That includes co-captain and civil engineering major Dominik Goj, who was recruited in high school by Division I colleges. Goj said his less experienced teammates at Cooper Union are quick studies.

“You don’t have to repeat things over and over from week to week,” Goj said. “Guys will come up to me in the hallway in school and ask me some things. I’ll give them some tips. Then they’ll come back to me and say they’re working on it, and everybody picks up things really quickly. It’s amazing. I was really surprised when we kept winning games, but I think it’s expected now.”

Cooper Union President Bharucha theorized that the uncanny ability of the players to visualize and problem solve gives them a unique advantage on the court.

“They think about the physics, they think about the angles,” Bharucha said. “They think about the shifting of weights and the technique in such an advanced, crisp way that there is no question that it gives them that little edge.”

The practice and aptitude paid off on the following Saturday when the women and men played a home doubleheader against lower Manhattan neighbor The King’s College. About 75 fans half-filled the bleachers on one side of the gym.

After a close first half, the women — led by Shin’s rebounding and a flurry of fast breaks — pulled away to win 37-25. The men’s team, meanwhile, kept up their winning ways with a 77-68 victory.

Despite its size, Cooper Union also has its share of fierce athletic rivalries, in this case with the other art, architecture, and engineering institutions on the schedule. Chief among them, Baker says, is Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

“That’s a rivalry that goes back over a hundred years,” Baker said. “It’s something that they prepare a little bit differently than against any other team, because they take so much pride in the fact that they’re playing someone that has to focus on the things that they’re doing. That they have the recognition that I might be up after the game, I might be up all night long because I have to come up with a conception about my next project in the studio, or in architecture, or in engineering.”

Baker couldn’t resist the dig that Pratt’s players have an extra motivation — because they may have been rejected by Cooper Union.

This segment aired on December 22, 2012.


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