The Cal Poly men’s basketball team watched the ball drop in New York City a lot like the rest of the estimated billions of people on New Year’s Eve — on television screens.
Traveling to face Delaware on Saturday, the Mustangs were back in their hotel rooms by midnight, but for a few hours leading up to the final countdown, the entire team was in midtown Manhattan, trying to get as close to Times Square as possible.
“If I had to say one word, it definitely would be pandemonium,” senior forward Chris Eversley said. “You have these multiple million people, you’re down there, everybody’s going crazy. They have all their apparel shops, the 2014 glasses that light up and street hot dogs. The roads are closed, the buildings are lit up, and there’s just people everywhere.”
Cal Poly (4-8) will play Delaware (7-7) in the last nonconference game before Big West Conference play starts next week, and to turn the single-game swing — the farthest east the program has traveled in nearly 20 years — into something more, head coach Joe Callero planned to leave San Luis Obispo early Tuesday morning so the Mustangs could arrive in New York in time to take part in New Year’s festivities.
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Unlike the people enjoying face time with Ryan Seacrest, Carson Daly, Miley Cyrus and others who were in line since early that morning, the Mustangs could not hit the streets until after dark and were unable to get to the heart of the action, but they still had an unforgettable experience that surely populates many a bucket list.
“We didn’t get to get as close as we really wanted to,” senior point guard Jamal Johnson said. “We could only see through the lights kind of what was going on. Still, being there was crazy. There was a million other people walking on the street. It was a lot different than being at home for New Year’s Eve. That’s for sure.”
For more than half the team, Eversley and Johnson included, it was the first time being in New York City.
That’s one of the reasons players helped Callero decide to select this game when the schedule was still being finalized in the offseason.
The program had options of a road trip to Florida or back into the home states of Eversley and Johnson — Illinois and Texas, respectively — but players wanted to experience something new and jumped at the chance when it looked like they could be near one of the most-watched TV events of the year.
Over the past two days, the team also got the chance to see other sights such as Central Park and Madison Square Garden — a favorite of Johnson’s — and a return visit to see the actual cross section at Times Square.
But perhaps no stop on the tour carried the impact of a New Year’s Day trip to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
It made Callero give pause to consider the age of his players. They were each elementary school students too young at the time to fully realize the cultural impact of the 2001 terrorist attack that crashed two commercial jets into the World Trade Center towers where the memorial now sits.
All agreed that seeing the site forced them to experience the tragedy from an adult perspective with an all-new appreciation for the people affected.
“This is like our generation’s Kennedy assassination or bombing of Pear Harbor,” Callero said. “They’ll never forget where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. You never forget where you were when 9-11 hit.”
Seeing the memorial, Callero added, “helped a ton with their life experience, and their maturity, and ultimately, it helps their maturity on the basketball court.”
The Mustangs left New York on Thursday, making the three-hour drive to Newark, Del., having lost their past three games, double-digit losses to high-major opponents Stanford and Pittsburgh and mid-major Loyola Marymount.
Saturday’s game will be the first meeting between the programs and the first matchup for Cal Poly against a team from the Colonial Athletic Association.
The Blue Hens are a high-scoring team, with three players averaging more than 14 points. Six-foot-six senior guard Davon Usher averages 17.8 and 6.8 rebounds, and junior Jarvis Threatt scores 17.2 per game.
The Mustangs are led by Eversley’s 14.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, and sophomore swingman David Nwaba, who ranks in the top 25 in the country shooting 60.2 percent from the field, scoring 11.2 points per game.
The sights, Cal Poly is well aware, were only a fortunate byproduct of the real reason for the trip.
“At the end of the day, the only reason we’re here is to play the game,” Eversley said. “That’s behind us now, and we’re headed to Delaware to go handle business.”