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Cornell basketball gets an 'A' in chemistry

Big man for the Big Red: Jeff Foote exults with fans after Cornell beat Penn last March for its second straight Ivy League title.
Big man for the Big Red: Jeff Foote exults with fans after Cornell beat Penn last March for its second straight Ivy League title. (Kevin Rivoli/associated Press)
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It was during that season that Foote transferred from St. Bonaventure. He was not, in any way, a typical transfer. Donahue had seen him play briefly in a high school tournament at Cornell. "He was probably 6-9 or 6-10 and might have weighed 170," he said. "I remember thinking he could pass the ball but he was so gangly and awkward. There were D-3 coaches watching him that day and none of them thought he was good enough for them."

In fact, the only D-3 school that even talked to Foote was Rochester Institute of Technology, and that was as a courtesy because his brother Jesse had played there. "I went from like 6-4 as a sophomore to 6-11 as a senior," Jeff Foote said. "I lost all my coordination. Everything was hard for me."

Foote ended up at St. Bonaventure as a walk-on. During his freshman season, Donahue and his team were struck by what appeared at the time to be a genuine tragedy when Khaliq Gant, then a sophomore, went down during a drill in practice and, in one of those horrible freak accidents, never got up.

Gant was paralyzed from the neck down. Eight weeks after the accident, he could only blink his eyes. It took four months before he got movement back, but he did recover -- not to play basketball, but to graduate from Cornell and live a normal life. "Thank God he turned out to be completely okay," Donahue said. "For a long time it didn't look like he would be."

During Gant's lengthy stay at Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira, N.Y., the chief nurse in the intensive care unit was Wanda Foote -- Jeff's mom.

"She got to be friendly with everyone on the team, but especially with" Zach Spiker, then a Big Red assistant, her son said. "She mentioned I was at Bonaventure not playing at all and they invited me to come and work out with them at their camp that summer. I couldn't do it but when I decided the next fall to transfer, Mom contacted Coach Spiker right away."

By then, Foote had filled out to all of about 205 pounds, but at 7 feet tall and a good student, Spiker convinced Donahue he was worth the risk. Foote transferred between semesters and became part of the class of 2010.

Foote now weighs about 240 pounds and is considered a long-shot NBA prospect, someone who will at least get to continue playing basketball overseas. He's the team's second-leading scorer (12.7 points per game) and averages close to nine rebounds in addition to being a defensive force inside. He's become something of a folk hero on campus partly because of his play; partly because he once told the student newspaper that he "hated" all squirrels because one had gotten into the house he was living in one summer and destroyed his laptop; and partly because he famously got up on a table and danced in a campus hangout the night Cornell clinched the Ivy League title in 2008.

All of that said, as much fun as the players clearly have together, they are very serious about wanting to be known as more than just a nice mid-major team. As a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, the Big Red drew Stanford and Missouri. This year, if it continues to play well, Cornell should be a much higher seed given the quality of teams it has beaten -- and the teams it has lost to thus far.

"When we saw the schedule last summer we knew why Coach had put it together that way," Wittman said. "He wanted to challenge us, see if we could close the deal against good teams. We've been to the NCAA tournament, and our first goal is to win the Ivy League and get back there. But I don't think we'll be satisfied with that. We want to do more than that. We think we have that kind of ability."

They also have the team chemistry. And the messy house they all live in to prove it.

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