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Returning to Dunk City

When I started teaching at Florida Gulf Coast University in 2005, people would sometimes ask which state it was in.

“It’s in Florida,” I would say.

“Oh, that’s right.  I can see it in the name.  So, where is it?  Is it in Tampa?”

After the men’s basketball team made it to the NCAA tournament in 2013, I no longer had to explain where FGCU was.  Thousands of fans were pouring onto campus every day, looking for T-shirts and other paraphernalia.  People took tours, bought sweatshirts and sneaked into spots in the parking lot. Southwest Florida was genuinely excited to be part of something big, and everyone was an Eagle fan during that magical week in March.

People around the country loved the FGCU team. They were the classic underdogs, and FGCU was the most outrageous “rags-to-riches” story in NCAA history. A 15 seed had never made it to the Sweet Sixteen before. What more could we ask for?

Two years later, Dunk City is still going strong.  When I mention where I teach these days, people usually say, “Oh, that’s the basketball school. Isn’t it?” For those of us who are lucky enough to be at FGCU, we know it’s so much more.  But at least people are finding out about the Eagles.

Walking through the Atlanta Airport in February 2015, I spotted the FGCU women’s basketball team. I was returning from a conference in Athens, Georgia.  It was the beginning of February, and the team was off to a strong start.

A few weeks later, the basketball teams were appearing on TV at the local level on a daily basis.  Would the basketball teams make another run to the NCAA tournament?  With both teams in the running, students were already trying to figure out how they would attend the games.  This time the women’s team, coached by Karl Smesko, was finally attracting the national attention it had long deserved.

During those early weeks in March, I was proud to see the men’s team play so well.  It looked like we were heading to the tournament again, thanks to Joe Dooley’s coaching skills. But by the end of the game against USC–Upstate, there were tears of disappointment.  Surely a team that had played this well deserved a few more games.  But it was not to be.

The women’s team headed to the NCAA tournament and won their first game against Oklahoma State.  They carried the Dunk City brand to a national audience, enchanting audiences around the country.  In the second round, the Eagles were excited to play Florida State. My friends and I sat in front of the TV, trying to send karma to Tallahassee. Once again, it was not to be. While the ending was sad, the FGCU team returned to a warm reception from its loyal fan base.

Two years after the NCAA 2013 tournament, Dunk City has a brand that flies higher than an eagle. It began with a dunk in March 2013 and continues long after the last buzzer in Tallahassee.  And we’re all part of it — students, alumni, parents, faculty, staff and fans. We all carry the torch of Dunk City, no matter where we are.

And the Cinderella tale isn’t completely over. As we head back to campus this fall, our recent trip to the NCAA tournament is fresh in people’s minds. The spirit of FGCU flies as high as an eagle.

This year I’ll meet new students, who are just as excited as Sherwood Brown was several years ago, when he slam dunked through my composition class. Maybe one of these students will be the next Chris Sale and play in the major leagues. Or the next Priscilla Navarro and play in Carnegie Hall. Or the next Danielle Beaubrun or Karen Vilorio, and swim in the Olympics. I’ll just have to wait and see, but meanwhile, FGCU is on the map to stay!

— Sue Henshon, Ph.D. teaches composition and creative writing at Florida Gulf Coast University.

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