In sports leagues across the country, coaches often preach the idea that winning isn’t everything. There’s more to a game, a series or a season than the record.
And while Binghamton’s senior class of Jimmy Gray, Taylor Johnston, Javon Ralling and Mike Horn would have liked to win more games, they know they’ve helped set the cultural foundation for a basketball program hoping to emerge from the sport’s purgatory.
Tommy Dempsey was the man hired last May to revitalize Binghamton basketball. It was a tall task, given the team’s struggles in the wake of the 2009 scandal. But the head coach said the senior class’ “character” has made his job easier, as they adopted his principles with alacrity.
“Anytime you’re trying to build a program, it starts with the character of the kids that are in the program, and I inherited some really good kids,” Dempsey said. “I’ve enjoyed coaching them in their senior year.”
Just the fact that each of the seniors, save Johnston, walked onto the team as a freshman speaks to the group’s attitude. The players are determined, focused; they have learned to persevere through their days at the end of the bench.
In Ralling’s opinion, the lack of playing time in 2009-10 was expected; even amidst the scandal, the Bearcats returned several players from the 2009 America East Championship team.
Horn, on the other hand, took a hiatus after his freshman year to decide how badly he wanted to play Division I basketball — he had seen just five minutes of action.
“I definitely needed the year off to see if I really wanted to do this again, get into Division I shape, lift a lot,” Horn said. “And I made a dramatic improvement on my body.”
Horn ultimately elected to return to the Bearcats last year.
Both Horn and Ralling have had an impact on the floor this season, each averaging 17 minutes per game.
For Gray and Johnston, playing time came sooner — they’ve been key players in the program since their sophomore seasons, with Gray captaining this year’s squad. Only 15 players in the entire nation play a higher percentage of their team’s minutes than Gray, according to www.kenpom.com.
Dempsey said Gray, a Binghamton native, has helped captivate the community’s attention despite the team’s recent struggles.
“I think it’s been really important from a standpoint of our community support and the way the community has stayed behind us to have a guy like Jimmy in the program,” Dempsey said. “He’s a real pillar of this community.”
Gray added that playing in front of his fellow Binghamton natives has been a general highlight of his career, especially because their support helped motivate him through the struggles.
“There’s been a lot of responsibility, but it’s been good because of the support,” Gray said. “I have a lot of community support. It’s good that I have a college right in my backyard.”
It’s a backyard that loves basketball, yet seldom breeds standout talent. It did, however, produce King Rice, the 1987 McDonald’s High School All-American who played his college ball for Dean Smith and North Carolina. Back in December, Rice returned to Binghamton as the head coach of Monmouth and said he was proud of Gray for proving the doubters wrong.
“When he decided to come [to Binghamton], people were like, ‘Oh, what’s he doing?’ And sometimes when you’re from a small town, a lot of people doubt you,” the Binghamton High School alum said after his Hawks defeated the Bearcats. “But Jimmy had a dream he was a Division I basketball player. He just knew he was. And he’s a pretty doggone good one.”
Gray’s 10.4 points per game rank second on the team, and his play at the point has been crucial, as the Bearcat offense frequently sputters out of control without him on the floor.
He has ascended from afterthought to game-changer.
While the other seniors are not necessarily focal points of opponents’ scouting reports, they all have specific, important roles within the team.
Johnston carries a 36.2 percent 3-point percentage into his final home game, and he is, unofficially, one of America East’s deadliest shooters from the corner. He also pours his heart and soul into competing.
“Taylor’s one of those guys that wants to do well so bad that it can almost cripple him at some times,” Dempsey said. “But it’s only because he cares so much and it’s only because it’s really important to him to help the team.”
Ralling, as Dempsey said, has “quietly had a pretty good year. He plays to his strengths, he competes, he’s been a good leader for us.”
And Horn has the unique role of pressuring the opposing point guard all the way up the floor.
“I play 94 feet the entire way,” Horn said. “Am I tired? Yeah, but, mentally, I have to just realize if I want to play this is what I have to do, and I love it.”
“You want the best that every kid has to offer,” Dempsey said, “and I know coming in here every day to practice and every night in the games I get everything [Horn’s] got. That’s why I’ve given him such a strong role on this team.”
As a group, Dempsey said the seniors have given their all, leading the team on and off the court without making any excuses.
“It’s been as enjoyable as a season with this many losses can be — just because of how good I feel about these guys,” he said.
Eventually, victories will outnumber defeats as Dempsey continues to rebuild the program. This year’s seniors won’t win those games on the floor, but they’ll be credited with the assist as they helped set a winning tone for a team accustomed to losing.
“As each year goes,” Horn said, “I hope in the next couple of years when Binghamton’s on the rise — because I think they’re already going to be on the rise next year — that they can say this year really changed the culture.”