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Dunk City: The year that changed everything for FGCU

The lights were low as presenters Lake Bell and Bill Hader took the stage July 17 in front of a sea of famous athletes and Hollywood stars at the 2013 ESPYS.  NBA champions LeBron James and Dwayne Wade sat in the front, eyes hidden behind designer sunglasses.

Two rows behind James and Wade sat six very nervous students from a previously obscure school in Southwest Florida. While comedian Hader’s awards-show banter kept the audience laughing, for Sherwood Brown, Brett Comer, Eric McKnight, Bernard Thompson, Eddie Murray and Chase Fieler, all thoughts were turned to the envelope in actress Bell’s right hand.

The contents of the envelope would determine if the six Florida Gulf Coast University basketball players would walk away that evening with the ESPY for “Best Upset.”

“The cameras start swarming you and you’re like, ‘Uh … I think we might be winning something,’” said Murray, the 23-year-old senior captain.

As Bell began to open the envelope, time seemed suspended. This was the final chapter in the story of a year that had changed everything for the school few outside Southwest Florida had previously heard about.

David vs. Goliath: FGCU takes down University of Miami

The beginning of the college basketball season was anything but typical for the FGCU Eagles.

On Nov. 13, FGCU knew a challenge was brewing as the Miami Hurricanes made their way to Alico Arena for the Eagles’ first major test of the year. A record 4,522 fans came out to watch what was expected to be an easy victory for the Hurricanes.

And for the first part of the game, it seemed the predictions were right.

The Eagles fell behind by double digits as Miami dominated the court in the first minutes of the game. However, FGCU had only begun to fight.

By the end of the first half, the Eagles had taken a 7-point lead.

“Our coach told us to keep our composure when we were down,” FGCU senior guard Sherwood Brown said. “We felt like they threw the first punch. We took it, punched back and kept fighting.”

The Eagles didn’t stop fighting until they had finished with a 63-51 win.

The men’s basketball team had ignited the fans’ school spirit. Students rushed the court in celebration of the school’s biggest victory in its men’s basketball history.

This was the first taste of major success for FGCU. It would be far from its last.

The road to the NCAA

After months of hard work, FGCU made it through the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament and took on top-seeded Mercer at Macon, Ga., in the championship game.

It was here the Eagles scored the first victory of the year by a visiting team on the Bears’ home turf. As sophomore Comer lead the team with 21 points, 3,200 fans watched as FGCU earned the first NCAA tournament bid in the school’s history with only two years of eligibility under its belt.

FGCU’s next step would be to learn against whom they would be paired in the first round of the tournament in Philadelphia.

On March 17, fans gathered in Alico Arena once again, this time to listen to CBS’ announcement of the NCAA matchups.

One by one, teams were announced and paired off in the various brackets.

Finally, Big East Conference runner-up Georgetown appeared on screen. CBS studio analyst Greg Gumbel asked, “And who will Georgetown face in Philadelphia?”

The answer: Florida Gulf Coast.

The Alico Arena crowd went wild as the players shot out of their seats with excitement.

While CBS analyst Seth Davis acknowledged the Eagles were a “dangerous 15 seed,” the Georgetown Hoyas’ were ranked as the No. 2 seed. Once again, FGCU had its work cut out.

Despite the challenges the Eagles faced, the world began to take notice of the small school in Fort Myers.

FGCU immediately began receiving attention the likes of which had never been seen at the University. ESPN, CBS Sports and Yahoo! News all began covering what they referred to as “Florida G.C.”

After five days of build-up, the Eagles flew to the City of Brotherly Love to kick off the NCAA Tournament.

At 6:50 p.m. March 22, as cameras went live nationally, the Hoyas and Eagles took to the court for the game that changed everything.

The FGCU Cinderella Story 

The game began as most viewers had anticipated: Georgetown moved to an 18-11 lead.

Most experts had predicted Georgetown would eliminate FGCU with little difficulty. For the first few minutes, it looked as if they were correct.

Then the Eagles woke up.

In an outrageous display of fun and finesse, FGCU began tearing up the court. The Eagles’ signature style: dunking with the swagger of the NBA pros.

FGCU mesmerized the crowd with theatrical alley-oops as Georgetown’s defense took a back seat. The tables turned and FGCU took control of the game.

With 1:56 remaining, Comer passed to Fieler for a dunk that drew fans to their feet in a roaring celebration.

“It was a great feeling,” Fieler said.  “We were still trying to stay focused, not get too happy about it, not get too excited to where we weren’t playing defense and so we wouldn’t start gambling.  We just knew we had to keep getting stops.”

The game ended 78-68, Eagles.

In a night that dazzled the sports world and destroyed hundreds of brackets, all eyes were on FGCU for the first time.

The rise of Dunk City

Fort Myers, Florida, had never seen a night like the Georgetown-FGCU game.

In the heat of all the excitement, an official FGCU tweet about the win proclaimed the university, “Dunk City.”

The tag stuck, and Dunk City was born.

Local bars were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with Eagles fans, some old and some new. Local news teams swarmed the campus and neighborhood hangouts for reaction. Students in the dorms came out in droves to celebrate the arrival of the University on the national stage.

People could not get enough of the Cinderella Story from Southwest Florida.

But the next challenge was looming. Two days later, March 24, FGCU would take on the bracket’s No. 7 seed, San Diego State University.

If the Eagles claimed victory over the California school, history would be made. FGCU would become the first No.15 seed in NCAA history to make it to the Sweet 16.

With new confidence, the little school that could was ready to put on a show.

Once again, fans in Philadelphia and a national TV audience were wowed as FGCU took no time grabbing the lead and running away with it. The Eagles continued their theatrical, over-the-top dunking style over San Diego.

With the same flair that had stunned Georgetown, FGCU claimed another 10-point victory over San Diego State, 81-71.

The Eagles had made history.

And yet again, the world went crazy.

Back at the Fort Myers campus, the student body refused to let their moment of glory pass quietly. Approximately 400 sweaty, ecstatic FGCU students swarmed the North Lake Village housing streets that night in the fiercest celebration the University has ever seen.

Guard Jamail Jones, a redshirt sophomore at the time, beamed with joy.

“It means a lot, not just for the basketball team, but for the University as well,” Jones said. “Having that kind of publicity, it helps our basketball team, but it definitely puts our University on the map.”

By next morning, the already-limited parking on campus was impossible to find.

The school had become the hub of NCAA fandom.

New fans visited the campus to have their picture taken where it all began. The media had a field day with coverage of FGCU and its newfound glory.

Any attempt to purchase FGCU merchandise at the University Bookstore was met with two-hour waits as the checkout line snaked around the store. Sales of FGCU merchandise were sky-high as women’s apparel sales shot up 822 percent and the men’s merchandise sales ballooned to an astronomical 2,270 percent, compared to the previous March.

Even the city of Fort Myers’ website temporarily changed its name to Dunk City.

Once the men’s basketball team returned triumphantly from Philadelphia, the craze became even more ferocious.

The Eagles’ fledgling stardom found the team unable to move around the campus, let alone the town, without droves of fans asking for pictures and autographs.

Even ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi joined the horde of media on campus to interview the history-making team. Rinaldi had dropped covering one of the biggest celebrities in sports to report on the Sweet 16-bound team.

“The past five days I was covering the person I would say might be the most famous athlete on earth, Tiger Woods, at Bay Hill,” Rinaldi said. “We covered him for five days. Then you guys win late last night … .” He waved his hand dismissively and said, “Tiger Woods?”

Rinaldi, like many reporters who had flocked to FGCU, declared the exposure from the NCAA wins started a worldwide love affair with the school.

“It’s almost hard to try to quantify (what this means for FGCU). There’s a cliche but it’s true: Sports are the front porch of your university,” Rinaldi said. “(FGCU’s) admissions page had almost 500 percent more traffic Friday in the first period of time they measured after you beat the Hoyas. No judgment, that’s just reality.”

All good things must come to an end

FGCU next met the University of Florida Gators in Arlington, Texas, on March 29. This would be the Eagles’ last stop. The Gators defeated FGCU, 62-50, and sent the Eagles back home to Dunk City.

Yet team returned home not as losers, but as history-makers. The campus still buzzed with excitement each time a player was spotted. Locals still proudly donned Sweet 16 T-shirts. The nation was still enamored with the NCAA tournament darlings.

Then Coach Andy Enfield dealt the University an unexpected blow.

Fewer than 72 hours after being knocked out of the tournament, Enfield announced he would leave FGCU to become head coach at the University of Southern California.

“It’s bittersweet for me because what we did at FGCU is so special for the University and for the community,” Enfield said. “It’s extremely sad for me to leave these players.”

While some speculate that Enfield made his decision to leave FGCU due to the reported multimillion-dollar salary USC offered, Enfield maintained that was not the deciding factor.

“I didn’t take this job just because of the money. USC is one of the greatest places in the United States to go to school,” Enfield said. “It has an unbelievable campus and atmosphere. The athletics program is as good as it gets. It’s an opportunity, not about money.”

FGCU acted quickly to replace Enfield. On April 17, Athletics Director Ken Kavanagh announced it had signed former Kansas assistant coach Joe Dooley as the new head coach of the Eagles.

Dunk City lives on

After the whirlwind romance of the NCAA tournament died down, life in Fort Myers returned to its typical pace.

Slowly, the line at bookstore regained its normal length and parking could once again be found on campus. The players still signed autographs, but were no longer mobbed.

The Dunk City era still lived on in memory as a nostalgic sort of athletic Camelot, where anything could happen in Fort Myers.

Then in June 2013, ESPN announced its list of ESPY nominees. The category for “Best Upset” included a nominee that would reignite the Dunk City flame:

“Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown.”

So Brown, Comer, McKnight, Thompson, Murray, and Fieler reunited and flew to Los Angeles to find out if they’d be returning to Dunk City with a shiny new ESPY.

“We’re just wondering who we’re going to meet, who we we’re going to see. Are they going to know who we are? And we got there and it was just amazing,” Murray said. “People like (Miami Heat guard) Ray Allen were there and we got to take pictures with them. And then they saw our shirts and were like, ‘Oh, you’re those guys that are dunking all over people!’ People definitely started to realize who FGCU was and they like our style of play and watching us dunk on people.”

And the ESPY goes to…

Lake Bell fumbled the envelope as the world waited to hear what its contents would reveal.

It was the answer every Eagle, every Southwest Floridian, every person who had ever rooted for the underdog had hoped for: Florida Gulf Coast won the Best Upset ESPY on national television.

Comer was only thinking one thing.

“Don’t fall walking up the stairs,” he said. “We kind of knew we were going to win it. We figured out what was going on. We just didn’t want to embarrass ourselves going up there. Once we got up there, everyone was so nervous and shaking.”

For Fieler, happiness and excitement also brought waves of relief.

“If we had flown all the way out there and not brought an ESPY back, people would have (been upset),” Fieler said.

Enfield accepted the award with his former team. Surrounded by the players he had fearlessly led on a history-making run, he beamed with pride.

“The thing that impressed me most as a coach with these players was the level of preparation and their confidence,” Enfield said.  “They expected to win those games,  and that’s what upsets are all about — teams preparing for their moment — and they seized their moment.”

For the FGCU men’s basketball team, the moment will be cherished for a lifetime. Standing in the presence of their athletic idols, the Eagles stood together one final time as a team as the world watched.

Brown would soon leave for Israel, where he will play pro basketball. Enfield would stay in California and his new job at USC. Murray would graduate.

But for one moment, one final time, they were the team that stole the heart of the nation. The team that changed everything for the school that few had ever heard of.

“Coming here two years ago, I never thought any of this would happen, but now that it has, the sky’s the limit,” Comer said. “We can do anything, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens next year.”

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