Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Marsha Harris: She's the Rule, Not the Exception

By Kevin S. Austin

For three weeks in March 1997, Marsha Harris and her NYU basketball teammates were the toast of the town. New York City, where sports success is measured in Super Bowl trophies and World Series rings, scooped up the basketball girls of New York University. The team had a cumulative GPA of 3.2, no athletic scholarships, and their record was 27-1 heading into the Division III Final Four weekend.
The Daily News and the New York Times featured the Violets almost daily, especially the “dynamic duo” of Harris, the 5’8” point guard, and Jen Krolikowski, the 5’9” shooting guard. Together they scored more than 1,000 points in the 1996-97 season.
And what memory does Marsha first mention when asked about the championship season? Not ringing the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange, not meeting NYU and NBA hall-of-famer Satch Sanders, not racing three-fourths of the court to lay in the winning basket.
“Being an over-achiever, I remember the only game we lost.”
That’s not false modesty or false pride. Marsha, her team, all NYU’s intercollegiate athletes and hundreds more like them are part of an obscure, almost non-sensical, athletic conference. The University Athletic Association – accurately named, but brand-challenged – competes in the NCAA’s Division III, which means no athletic scholarships, lots of colleges with hyphenated names, and travel that takes place mostly in buses and vans.
The UAA – or Geek League – is comprised of Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Emory, NYU, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester and Washington University in St. Louis. It was formed in 1986 as an “alternative” conference and began formal competition in 1987. The presidents of nine prestigious universities (Johns Hopkins was a founding member that has since dropped out) wanted a sports program for their private research universities that matched the academic standards of their undergraduate programs.
Marsha Harris, who grew up in Queens and was always a nerd, is one of the thousands of undergraduates who matured in that rare atmosphere.
“I was doing my school thing and my sports thing and coming home every day,” she said of her four years at August Martin High School. But by her junior basketball season, her sports thing had become a big thing. Division I coaches came calling and knocking and visiting, offering free tuition to play basketball for them. Marsha was tempted, and she took a couple of campus visits. As a geek at heart, she had visions of becoming a doctor – her father’s idea. She also looked at nearby schools with a top drawer premed program, and quietly applied to NYU on her own. The DI visits left her cold. “They didn’t seem to be too focused on academics. It wasn’t going to work for me.”
Janice Quinn, NYU’s coach at the time, knew about Marsha and her skills, but with so many big-time programs hovering, she thought landing Marsha “would be a stretch.” Marsha had her own plans.
The day of a big all-star tournament in New York City, Quinn got a phone message that Marsha Harris wanted to talk to her about attending NYU. One of Quinn’s assistants was planning to attend the tournament and called Quinn to get down there quick once she saw Marsha play. Quinn saw one defensive and one offensive sequence and said to her assistant, “If Marsha Harris comes to NYU, that’s a national championship.”
By choosing NYU, Marsha was living the philosophy the UAA envisioned – she would be a student first and an athlete second. She would have more choices to make.
Freshman year, Marsha lived in an apartment-style dorm near Union Square. Her roommate played basketball, and there were several more on the floor. She took the transition from Queens to Manhattan in stride.
“I don’t think I went home for the first month and a half. You get used to the idea of being your own person with your own freedom. I wasn’t a crazy kid, anyway.”
Working into the 1994-95 team was more of a challenge than course work. She was a real star, with a reputation and the skills to match. But she had to learn how to become a leader and a contributor without stepping on the toes of some of the older players.
Winning, though, smooths over a lot of rough patches. “All that stuff goes out the window and camaraderie forms,” Marsha said. The Violets finished third in the UAA and reached the Sweet 16 that March before losing to Salem State College of Massachusetts.
The next season, they reached the Final Four and were routed 62-37 by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which hosted the tournament and went on to win the national championship.
In the classroom, Marsha faced her first real college student. She had been valedictorian at August Martin and could maintain good grades by cramming for exams. That strategy didn’t work for the chemistry and math major at NYU. In the first semester of organic chemistry, she had to learn a new way to study. “Before, it was so easy. I would just cram before a test and do well. As the classes became more difficult, I couldn’t do it that way. “There’s nothing you can do but do it, right?” So she taught herself how to keep up every day and make sure she understood the material before moving on.
Then came abstract mathematics. “It was really abstract,” she said. “No matter what I did, it was just too abstract for me.” But the concrete girl even learned the abstract and earned a decent grade.
Junior year was the pinnacle. Marsha and her teammates won the national championship.
The team ran through the non-conference schedule in November and December undefeated. Marsha’s backcourt teammate, Jen, was a senior and majoring in mechanical design. In the course of the season, she became NYU’s all-time career scoring leader.
The only loss was in Atlanta, against Emory.
“I think I only scored 10 points,” Marsha said. It was a typically hostile, if well-educated, environment.
“We always felt like we were the Yankees coming to town,” she said of UAA road games. It was a matter of their power as well as coming from New York City.
NYU won the conference with a 13-1 record and won four regional games to reach the Final Four.
The Violets hosted the tournament that year in Coles Sports and Recreation Center, a singularly plain building at the corner of Bleeker and Mercer streets in Greenwich Village. One unique feature of Coles is that the basketball floor is built below street level, so when you get past the security desk you are standing on a bridge overlooking the court, which has a huge, purple NYU logo in the center. It seats 1,500, but only occasionally would it be filled to capacity. No admission is charged for most UAA events, and the schools host regular events to boost attendance. Average attendance that season was 250 .
The newspaper and TV coverage ramped up as they won the regional tournament. Marsha remembers that Jen – jokingly – guaranteed a national championship and one of the local TV stations ran with it. “We pretty much had no choice but to win.”
In the semifinal game, NYU fell behind by 10 points to Scranton College in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. Marsha had three fouls and was on the bench. Jen took over. She scored 21 points in the second half, making all three of her three-point shots. NYU 84, Scranton 74.
The next night, Saturday, March 22, 1997, NYU fell behind by 15 points in the championship game against Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Coles was filled to capacity. Slowly, the Violets came back, and Jen tied the game in the last minute. After Eau Claire missed a shot, Marsha took the outlet pass and ran past two defenders for a layup and the win. NYU 62, Eau Claire 59.
Quinn told the newspapers afterward that she had a dream in which Marsha dunked the winning basket.
After three years of anonymity, Marsha was finally recognized on campus. Kids congratulated her on the street and in class. She heard people mention her name as they passed or walked behind her. That was a new experience, and one that a lot of UAA athletes share. While they might have been stars in high school, they were simply college students on the big, UAA campuses.
That role of fitting in with the student body doesn’t offer the athletes much recognition. It does however fulfill a goal of the UAA, where athletic teams regularly match or exceed the GPA of the overall student body.
As a senior, Marsha was the leader, but she and her teammates couldn’t match the previous season. Jen and her classmates were gone, and a new crop of freshmen joined the team.
Marsha, who had a 3.5 GPA, was applying to medical schools – NYU, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia among them. She wanted to stay close to home, just as she had for undergraduate school. She also scored 549 points that season and her career high of 41, and overtook Jen for the all-time – men’s and women’s – NYU scoring leader.
The New York Times came calling again that year with a profile of Marsha under the headline, “Academics over Athletics.” When newspapers or TV stations take the time to write about the UAA, they play that angle so relentlessly that it almost flattens out. It’s the truth, but within the UAA it can lose its resonance.
Marsha, while typical, faced an unusual choice. She was probably good enough a basketball player to make it in the young WNBA, but she had been striving for medical school.  Quinn has no doubt she could have made it in professional basketball, but her promise to all players was to launch them into the world with the best undergraduate experience NYU could provide.
As Marsha recalls, Quinn turned out to me more excited than Marsha on the day she got into NYU. Coach even brought a cake to practice. “We celebrate those achievements as much as we celebrate a national championship,” Quinn said. That’s probably a stretch.
Of course, Marsha chose NYU medical school over hoops and talks about it so matter-of-factly that it’s easy to forget the enormous gap between the two options. “At the time, it [the WNBA] wasn’t as much of a sure thing as medical school.” This is a woman who is way more concrete than abstract mathematics.
Now 34, Marsha is a surgeon in private practice in Manhattan, double board certified in general surgery and colon and rectal surgery. Quinn says she’s a celebrity doctor. Marsha admits that at least a couple of patients a day want to talk about her basketball career. Not because she brings it up, but because they have Googled her for background before their appointment  and discovered she has her own entry in Wikipedia.
“It goes on for about five minutes,” Marsha said, “and then you go back to work.” She typically operates on Mondays and Thursdays and sees patients the remaining days.
She was in a recreational basketball league when she first started her practice, but hands are everything to a surgeon, and the risk of injury was too high to continue.
So why would Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Emory, NYU, the University of Chicago, the University of  Rochester and Washington University each spend between $3 million and $6 million a year on Division III sports?
“EVERYTHING I learned in sports translates right into what I do on a daily basis,” Marsha said. Learning how to get along with different people, treating people with respect and being calm under fire. Sports is really about learning through losing, and medical training is really about correcting errors, because mistakes can be fatal.
Is Marsha Harris special? One reporter asked her that question during her college days. She said that her achievements seemed so natural that she didn’t think of herself as exceptional.
In the University Athletic Association, Marsha Harris is the rule.

Copyright 2011 Kevin S. Austin

1 comment:

  1. Kevin,

    Enjoyed the article. I was the play by play man on radio for that team while I was in grad school at NYU and had the honor of calling that game winning shot at the end of that incredible season. Thanks for a great piece.

    Larry Saperstein