(WBNG) — 10 years ago on March 19, 2009, the Binghamton University men’s basketball team was playing the Duke Blue Devils in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but a scandal months later would tarnish it all.
The Binghamton Bearcats began the 2008-09 campaign with a 13-8 record. Their team of transfers, led by Emanuel “Tiki” Mayben, D.J. Rivera, and Malik Alvin, showed flashes at time, but nothing consistent. That all changed when the team visited Vermont on Feb. 4, 2009.
“When Binghamton was down at the half in Vermont, which is always tough to win in by 25 points at halftime, and came back and won the game in Vermont, leaving the entire building stunned,” Roger Neel, basketball play-by-play broadcaster for WNBF, recalled. “It was usually boisterous there, it was almost total silence. They couldn’t believe any team could come back from 25 points and beat them in their own building. Binghamton did. And at this point all of a sudden the lights came on and this team could play pretty well.”
The Bearcats did not lose the rest of the regular season, taking a 10-game winning streak to the America East semifinals. They found themselves down 67-62 with 2:20 to play.
“I just remember we won all these games and we’re about to lose to New Hampshire,” Malik Alvin told 12 News.
A quick 6-0 run put the Bearcats up 68-67. With New Hampshire inbounding the ball with a chance to score and win the game, D.J. Rivera stole the ball and flew down the court for a dunk. The Wildcats then ensued to throw the ball away. Binghamton would make two foul shots, icing the game, winning 72-67.
Next up would be the America East Championship at the Events Center against the defending champs, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Neel got to the Events Center three hours before the game and outside there were “lines 100 yards or more long.”
“The night before the game, we didn’t, we weren’t even able to stay in our apartment on campus,” Alvin recalled. “We had to stay in a hotel because it was like people camped out at the Events Center. Sleep, they get tickets to get into the game. I never seen that in my life.”
“That’s everything you can dream of right there,” D.J. Rivera said. “We were ecstatic at that point. Sometimes unbelievable, like we’re really in the America East championship, so it was definitely a moment of a lifetime.”
The Bearcats would control the game, winning their first America East championship 61-51. Fans stormed the court capping off a magical season.
“All of a sudden, the realization is that ‘hey, it’s not over yet, there’s another game or two hopefully coming up’,” Neel told 12 News.
The Bearcats would find out they’d be facing No. 2 seed Duke in Greensboro, NC, in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Devils would prove too much for the Bearcats winning 86-62, ending their season.
“I knew for sure if we, if I came back to school, we were definitely going to go back to the NCAA Tournament,” Rivera said.
“Well it got close, but it didn’t happen, which was the sad part of it,” Neel said.
“That was like the, that was like the most disappointing part,” Alvin reflected.
In the midst of the magical run, the New York Times published an article on Feb. 21, 2009 titled, “At Binghamton, Division I move brings recognition and regret” detailing questionable recruitment of star players, run-ins with the law, and issues in the classroom.
“They would come late. They would come about 15-20 minutes late to class,” Sally Dear-Healey, an adjunct lecturer in the human development department at Binghamton University told 12 News. “They’d all sit in the back row. They’d slump down, put their hoods up, basically not participate at all. It was a three-hour class so it was meeting once a week. And that was the fateful class in the Fall of 2008. And then break came up at about an hour and a half in and they would leave and not come back. They would sign in for each other. How did I know that? Because they signed their friends names in misspelled. So they were signing each other in and out of class. They were coming late. They were leaving early. They were not turning in assignments.”
While she wouldn’t say which players were in her class due to privacy reasons, she did say, “I would argue that they would remember me and remember that class.”
The players however, did not agree.
Alvin said he didn’t have her. Rivera said he didn’t know about her. But that wasn’t the only issue surrounding the team.
“I received a visit from the assistant dean who basically said in almost these exact words, it would be in your best interest to change this grade,” Dear-Healey explained. She also said grades were “absolutely” changed by other professors at the university.
Both Alvin and Rivera deny that allegation. Alvin said, “I didn’t get my grades changed, I earned my grades. Coach Kevin Broadus he always told us we had to take care of our schoolwork, study halls, getting there on time, handing in our work in order for us to play in games”
Rivera told 12 News, “Me personally, I never had issues with academics. None of the team from what I knew of had any problems with academics. Guys before us, there were seniors on the team that year, they all graduated that year so we were basically following in their steps.”
While issues in the classroom remain disputed to this day, problems off-campus were well documented. Before the magical season began in 2008, Malik Alvin was said to have stolen a box of condoms from the Vestal Walmart. Here’s what Alvin told 12 News, telling the story publicly for the first time ever.
“I wanna say like three of my other teammates at Walmart, shopping. And I got all this stuff for my room. And there was like a box of condoms like spread out on a whatever the thing is. Not in a box it was like spread out. So I’m walking around and I think I might’ve been on my phone and I picked two up put them in my pocket, totally forgot that I had them in my pocket. I was in the store for maybe like 15-20 minutes later. I paid for all the stuff I had in my cart and a guy walk up to me with like regular street clothes on asking to speak to me. Everyone know the basketball team around there so everybody always walk up to us, ask us to talk or whatever so I’m just thinking this is a regular person that wants to talk. So the guy walk up to me like can I speak to you, so we walking and talking and then he’s like ‘Oh yeah I’m with the Walmart security.’ So me still not thinking, I forgot that I put them in my pocket. So the guy grabs me so when he grabs me I flung him off of me and there was a lady walking in the store coming in from behind me. So when I flung him, he knocks the lady over and I just walk out of Walmart, get in the car with my teammates and go back to campus. So I get back to campus, maybe like an hour later, Broadus called me, like ‘Um what happened at Walmart?’ And I’m like, “Ain’t nothing happened at Walmart.’ And he like, ‘I’m gonna ask you again, don’t lie, what happened at Walmart?’ And I’m like, ‘Ain’t nothing happen at Walmart.’ I’m in my room. So he called me down to his office, he’s like ‘Yo I got they got you on camera.’ So I went down to his office and told him what happened but they were making it seem like I went in there, just took stuff, ran out, knock somebody over and it didn’t happen like that. I mean the lady did fall and get knocked over but it wasn’t because I ran in there and knocked her over. I met with the lady, she was like you’re not a bad kid, I don’t want you to get in trouble. I had to write her a letter. I had to do, I believe, maybe like 120 hours of community service and I was suspended for the three games.”
That issue resolved itself as the season went along. Fast-forward one year when the team was set to defend its America East championship. Two major problem arose. First, on Sept. 14, 2009 a student reported her debit card was stolen and used illegally. It later became known, several members of the basketball team were behind it.
“Obviously back then we were young,” Rivera explained. “I think we were all 19, 20 years old. Going to a party. Everybody’s having a good time. I think a fight may have broke out. Someone picked the debit card up. It was used. Obviously young kids just made a mistake. Once we found out later that night, that next morning I woke up, I knew that that was a bad decision, bad judgment call by doing that. Basically from there on in, report came out. And I owned up to it. If I could go back in time, I would take it back. Especially to the young lady it happened to. I apologized to her back then, I apologize to her now 10 years later. But I definitely owned up to it back then.”
“Couple days later, they’re like ‘Malik, you’re in trouble,’ Alvin says. “I’m like in trouble for what?’ And they like, ‘something happened with a debit card, blah blah blah.’ I’m like to the AD, ‘I gave you my word last year I’m not gonna get in trouble no more. I really didn’t get in trouble.’ And then everyone is telling them, Malik had nothing to do with it. He was in the car asleep.”
Nine days after the debit card incident, Tiki Mayben was arrested for possessing and selling cocaine. The next day, he was kicked off the team. Athletic Director Dr. Joel Thirer said that was the final straw. Along with Mayben, Rivera, Alvin, Paul Crosby, Corey Chandler, and David Fine were all dismissed from the team.
“I could never forget that day,” Rivera says. “That was one of the most disappointing days of my life. Like I said before obviously having such a great year, me entering the NBA draft and deciding to come back to school. I made the decision to come back to school. To go back get back to the NCAA Tournament, things of that nature. For that to happen, like I said, that was a traumatic time in my life to also. To know you worked hard all your life for something and it could be taken away for making a bad decision so I had to own up to it and from that day forth I knew I had to make better decisions.”
That was probably the worst feeling I’ve ever felt,” Alvin admits.
“You see other things at other colleges, getting in fights, weapons, things of that nature, you might see suspension for that case at that time I thought it was something minor, the penalties and consequences were major that’s how life goes,” Rivera said. “You have to own up to what you do.”
“The credit card thing they didn’t really know what it was so they couldn’t pinpoint why they were kicking us off the team,” Alvin explains. “But when the Tiki story came out, there’s no way to kick Tiki off and have us halfway in trouble for something they don’t know so they just got rid of everybody. To kick us off the team and not know exactly going on, that was ridiculous.”
“I think in this case since it was so new to Division I and bigger-time athletics that the shock of it was something the upper administration felt they had to act on and did,” Neel said.
But the upper administration was beginning to feel the heat. Just one week after kicking six players off the team, Thirer was reassigned to a different department. Two weeks after that, head coach Kevin Broadus was placed on paid administrative leave. He later sued the university in a racial discrimination lawsuit which was settled for $1.2 million. The high-profile departures didn’t end there. Amid the scandal, BU President Lois DeFleur announced on Jan. 13, 2010 she’d resign in July. All these incidents led to Binghamton commissioning long-time chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, Judith Kaye, to investigate the basketball program.
No major wrongdoings were found in the 99-page report, but it did find admission standards were lowered saying “Coach Broadus assumed wider latitude to apply minimum NCAA standards for all player-applicants – including candidates who had struggled at prior institutions.”
“I believe that they basically were treated as if they weren’t smart enough to do the work,” Dear-Healey said. “That it wasn’t an expectation that they were there for academics. That there was the expectation that they were there to play.”
These scandals of this magnitude have happened at blue-bloods like Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville to name a few.
“What most people find astounding is that it actually happened at Binghamton University,” Dear-Healey explains. “So why BU, why did this happen at BU? Why did BU take all of this so seriously, this basketball victory and this need to do whatever you had to do to achieve that over all else, over the other admissions of the university, the main one of which is to provide people with an education.”
Since that big basketball victory 10 years ago, the team hasn’t had any remote of success. The Bearcats have not won more than 13 games in a season, reaching double-digits four times. Their combined record is 80-231.
When asked about the state of the program, Patrick Elliott, Binghamton University’s Director of Athletics told 12 News, “We all want to be better. I mean I’m a competitive person, I know coach [Tommy] Dempsey’s a very competitive person it’s not easy being to to to lose and no one wants to. As I’ve said, my main responsibility here is as an educator and is to develop our student-athletes. So when I look at that, certainly those numbers the first thing that certainly jumps out is that and I look at a lot of metrics and I don’t know this and I don’t know the exact number but if you really took over the last five years, the number of games missed by scholarship student-athletes because of injury, it’s pretty substantial.”
This past season, the team lost big-man Thomas Bruce for the season due to a concussion. In 2017, Willy Rodriguez was in-and-out of the lineup all year. In 2016, J.C. Show was injured before conference play began.
While Elliott says he’s not trying to make excuses, he does say he’s very happy with some parts of the program. Some of those include having a perfect Academic Progress Rate during the 2016-17 season.
Neel travels to the Bearcats road games and sees how the players act on-and-off the court.
“The players are as fine of young men as you’ll see anywhere. They have tremendous character. I see what they do on road trips with academic advisers on hand. I see them study on the bus. They take the academics very seriously. I think certainly academically they’re in the right direction.”
Neel also acknowledges that if the scandal did not hit, “the team would be in the top two or three of the conference each year. No question.The potential was there. The fan-base would be 4,000 or more and I asked this question, why couldn’t Binghamton University have a program like Gonzaga for example? They’re great academic school. Is that a dream? Why would it be a dream, you’ve got a beautiful events center, great marketing, a campus that’s superb, great academics, I don’t know why you can’t reach that type of Butler, the competitiveness of that level. I don’t see why you couldn’t, but it’s not something that happens everyday. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
While the potential is there to win, Elliott says it is more important for him to graduate all the players than to win every game.
Binghamton University’s president, Harvey Stenger, said, “It’s not about winning it’s about how these young men have grown up, become great people. How they’re going to go out and represent us as great business people in the real world and they’re going to look back at this experience and say ‘this is why I’m successful’ 15-20 years from now.”
The Bearcats did see a glimmer of hope this season behind the emergence of freshman star and America East Rookie of the Year, Sam Sessoms. Thomas Bruce also returns after missing this past season to concussion symptoms. But some still wonder what could have been with the team a decade ago.
“Athletics is supposed to give people motivation not a chance,” Neel reflects. “I wonder if the players had all worked out and played like they could, and for whatever reason, big or small did not get into trouble, I wonder what the reaction would have been around the country because if it is about second chances for people, Kevin Broadus gave them to that players. The fact that they didn’t follow through of that opportunity – in my opinion – shouldn’t be a reflection totally on him or the school. They gave those players a second chance. What happened happened unfortunately. But I think if the ability was there to have a better season in the next year after the America East championship so if they would have stayed out of trouble, it would have been a nationwide story of giving people the chance to make good.”