Section 5, Row D, Seat 1.
That seat belonged to my aunt and it will never be sat in again at a Central Connecticut men’s or women’s basketball game.
The former men’s basketball coach, and her longtime friend, Howie Dickenman made that announcement while speaking at her memorial on campus last Friday.
Bobbie Koplowitz had sat there
faithfully superstitiously for 30 years, and in opposing gyms, found its equivalent every time (four rows up, on the aisle, behind the Central bench).
That was her seat, and don’t you dare let her catch you in it.
Shortly after the NCAA Tournament ended, she was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away a few weeks ago.
Through the three decades that my Auntie Bobbie was with Central, she worked to help athletes reach their potential academically. For most of that time, she served as the academic coordinator for the school’s basketball teams, from when Central was a local Division II program, through its transition to Division I, and with three men’s basketball NCAA Tournament trips along the way.
She loved her job so much that she often said she would never leave, even if she won the Powerball.
Though her career began 30 years ago, I didn’t know how it truly started until recently.
About a year ago, I was watching the famous 1985 national championship game — the one where Villanova shocked Georgetown — while doing research for another project. There’s a moment near the end where the camera pans over to the Georgetown bench and we get a glimpse of Mary Fenlon, John Thompson’s first hire and the program’s academic coordinator. At that point, she had helped graduate 44 of the 46 seniors to come through Georgetown in the Thompson era.
I knew Auntie Bobbie always loved Thompson, so the next time I saw her after that — this was maybe a year ago, before her illness — I brought this up. She smiled and said she remembered watching that moment live. That was when she decided that’s what she wanted to do. She wanted to be Mary Fenlon, maybe not at Georgetown, but somewhere.
Central Connecticut was where she got her start and it was where she stayed. And nearly every player she worked with graduated.
During the memorial last week, I saw the legacy she left firsthand. There was Rick Mickens, MVP of the 2000 Northeast Conference Tournament, walking in, wearing his New Britain Fire Department shirt. He’s living proof that you don’t have to travel far to go far.
Then there was Obie Nwadike, one of Auntie Bobbie’s favorites, who was on the 2007 championship team. He’s now an assistant coach with the Blue Devils.
Brandon Peel was there too. He just graduated in May, but began making his impact off the court long before that. Each year, Dickenman took his team to volunteer at the Interval House, a local shelter for victims of domestic violence. One day apparently wasn’t enough for Peel, who wanted to get more involved. According to the Hartford Courant, he helped launch the College Athletes Peer Ambassadors, a campus program to raise awareness of domestic violence.
No wonder he was another one of my aunt’s (many) favorites.
Peel was exactly what she wanted her student-athletes to be, whether they came in that way or needed some extra help to get there.
Last summer, she was on a train back up from Florida (she was scared of airplanes) and stopped at Penn Station for a brief layover. I work near there, so we grabbed lunch. Conversation naturally turned to basketball and how the team was shaping up for next year, athletically and academically. She told me of some of the struggles her players have gone through -- nothing I ever really considered, having grown up, in hindsight, much better off than I realized.
So I asked how she did it. How did she manage to get so many players to graduate? Excuse my bias, but I know there was nothing shady going on. It’s just not who Auntie Bobbie was.
Her answer was simple: “If a player wants it bad enough, he or she will find a way to make it happen.”
She was there to provide support along the way. To share study skills, give advice on how to deal with a professor, and of course to be the on-campus mom, making sure everyone was going to class and getting their work done.
But it was her players who actually did the work, and she wanted everyone to remember that.
Something else I learned at her memorial: She had been awarded the ECAC Certificate of Appreciation award for her dedication to her students’ academic success. She never spoke about it and never displayed the award in her office. I didn’t even know such an award existed.
That’s because, as she told Dickenman, that award wasn’t hers. It belonged to the players.
She gave them the tools to succeed. They took it from there.
It’s going to be weird going into the next basketball season without her. Since I moved to New York eight years ago, I tried to meet her at as many Central games in the city that I could make it to. Because the Blue Devils play in the Northeast Conference, there are frequent trips to St. Francis-Brooklyn, Long Island University-Brooklyn and Wagner College. There’s also the occasional road game at Fordham in the non-conference season.
I still know a lot of people within the program and their new coach, UConn legend and former NBA player Donyell Marshall, has been incredibly helpful to me and my family since he took the job.
So yes, I’ll be there to support them.
In Section 5. Row D. Seat 2.