May 17, 2006

'86 Brown cagers were champs, then became a whole lot more

May 17, 2006

Providence Journal, Wednesday, May 3, 2006

By Jim Donaldson, Providence Journal Columnist

Brown never had won an Ivy League men's basketball championship before taking the title in 1986. It hasn't won one since.

That's reason enough for the '86 champs to be inducted as a team into the Brown Athletics Hall of Fame this weekend.

But there are a number of other reasons why that team deserves to be honored and remembered.

Those '86 Bears not only were fun to watch -- a run-and-gun bunch with a dominant inside guy in 6-foot-9 Ivy Player of the Year Jim Turner, an outside sharpshooter in Patrick Lynch and a strong-willed, refuse-to-lose point guard in Mike Waitkus -- but they also were fun to be around. Every year, some team captures a championship. But it's not every year that a championship team captures your attention and your affection. "What they accomplished was not only special, it was historical," said Mike Cingiser, one of Brown's all-time great players and the coach of that championship team. "Think about it -- Penn and Princeton have won 41 of the last 43 Ivy titles. That shows how difficult it was."

And it's not just what those Bears did that magical season 20 years ago, it's also what they've done since.

Turner is the managing director and head of Debt Capital Markets for BNP Paribas, a French bank, having previously worked for Lehman Brothers, UBS, Citigroup and Bear Stearns. Lynch is Rhode Island's attorney general. Waitkus has been with American International Group, the insurance giant, since his college days. Formerly based in Hong Kong, he was named executive vice president of the WorldSource Division in 2000.

"Winning the Ivy title did so much for my confidence," Turner recalled. "I remember going into job interviews just a few weeks after the NCAA Tournament. I'd be in a meeting with the managing director of a Wall Street firm, and he'd be telling me how I'd have to work really hard, how determined I'd have to be, the type of effort I'd have to put in to succeed. 'Is there anything you can point to,' he'd ask, 'that indicates you're capable of doing that?'

"I'd tee off on that question," Turner said. "I'd talk about the commitment it took for us to win that championship when no one expected us to."

The Bears hadn't finished over .500 in league play in Cingiser's first four years, and there was no expectation, beyond the confines of Marvel Gym, that 1986 would be any different.

There were, however, marked differences.

The biggest -- figuratively and literally -- was Turner, who had averaged less than six points, and barely four rebounds, a game as a junior coming off the bench.

Cingiser laughs when he tells a story about when Turner was a freshman, and how he'd battle with 6-foot-11 junior Stark Langs.

"They'd be banging and banging and end up hurting each other," Cingiser said, "not because they were so strong, but because they were so awkward. One day, I grabbed the two of them and said: 'What you're doing will help you both. But don't take it off the court. You have to like each other.' "They understood, and went to give each other a high-five. But they swung and missed. Honest. I thought then: 'Oh, my goodness, we have a long way to go.' "

What Turner lacked in natural athletic ability he made up for in intelligence -- he had been valedictorian at Sewanhaka High on Long Island -- and determination. His parents had divorced when he was 2, and Turner was raised by his mother, who suffered from muscular dystrophy but displayed strength of character she conveyed to her son. "If I got a 'B,' " he said, "my mother would ask why I didn't get an 'A.' "

Although he compiled a 3.7 grade-point average at Brown while double-majoring in applied math and economics, Turner was hardly a grind. An accomplished drummer, it wasn't unusual for him to head for Boston after a Saturday night game in Providence to play in a rock band, often bringing some of his teammates along to share in the fun.

He became the league's dominant player as a senior -- a scorer, a rebounder and a shot-blocker.

"He's playing beyond anything I ever expected," Cingiser said near the end of that special season. "He's suddenly turned from a relatively shy, reticent player into an assertive, established leader."

The true leader on the team was Waitkus, a fiery, heady, skinny point guard from Queens, where he grew up without a father in the house. Lou Carnesecca, the legendary St. John's coach, once described Waitkus as "a Big East player in an Ivy League body."

"He was a magical point guard," Lynch said. "You never had to search for the ball coming off a pick. Mike would get it to you, and it was never at your feet -- it was always on the numbers."

"We were kindred spirits," Cingiser said of Waitkus. "He cared about winning as much as I did."

Asked if winning the Ivy title meant more now, 20 years later, Waitkus said: "No, because it meant so much to me then."

The Ivy League Rookie of the Year as a freshman in '83, Waitkus was determined to go out a winner his senior year.

"Everything has fallen into place," he said that February. "I realize what the game has meant to me. I know this is my last chance. I want to make the most of it."

Brown went into the final weekend of the '86 season trailing Cornell by a game, but the Bears snatched the title by winning at Harvard and Dartmouth while the Big Red were losing at Penn and Princeton. The Bears experienced a few tense moments in the locker room in Hanover while waiting to hear the final score from Princeton.

"When we finally found out Cornell had lost, that's when the celebration started," Lynch said. "I'm not sure it's finished yet. The guys are psyched about getting together again this weekend."