Paul Klee: At the corner of astronomical engineering and backdoor cuts, you'll find Air Force basketball
The night before Air Force senior Trevor Lyons scored 13 points in a 62-58 loss to Abilene Christian, he was telling me how you take down a terrorist organization.
You know, normal college basketball stuff.
Except not at all.
This is Air Force basketball: five games in 10 days smack in the middle of Study Week, their critical preparation time for final exams, and guys like sophomore guard Lavelle Scottie rationalizing it this way: “Honestly, this is why we came here.”
This stretch for the Falcons? Toughest schedule I’ve ever seen for a college basketball team. Not simply because of the five games, including one in Indiana and one in California — “The games are the easy part,” Scottie said with a laugh — but also because of the academic curriculum at stake. Final exams for these college basketball players are not like final exams at North Carolina, Syracuse or even up the road at CU-Boulder — nothing against those fine institutions of higher learning. It’s just different here, and I know that because never in 15 years of covering the sport has a player explained the change in the velocity of a Stage 1 rocket (“There can be multiple stages of a rocket,” Lyons said, kindly, to avoid making me feel like a dummy) or the hierarchy of Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group from Nigeria.
“They’re similar to ISIS because they do the whole kidnapping thing,” said Lyons, a starting guard. “But they use child soldiers.”
Lyons' finals presentation on Boko Haram was on Monday, the same day Air Force played Western State. That came after his final exam in astronomical engineering — “Space, satellites, calculating orbits, that kind of thing” — on Friday, the day before Air Force played at the University of Denver. See what I mean? It was at that point in the conversation that I realized why Air Force recently found itself trailing Denver by 22 points and Western State, a Division II program, by 23 points. Considering what is demanded of them off the court, the question isn’t why the Falcons keep digging these huge deficits.
It’s this: How did they find the mental fortitude to come back and win both games?
“I think it starts on the defensive end for us,” Lyons said.
I think it starts when you’re up till 2 a.m. calculating orbits.
“Yes, sir,” Lyons said. “That’s probably true, too.”
Lyons is a senior whose older brother was one bad dude for Air Force basketball. Michael Lyons scored 1,527 career points, fourth all time at the academy, and warned Trevor all about the unflinching requirements of playing a sport at the academy. And baby bro still signed up for a daily grind that begins with morning accountability formation at 6:30 a.m., the first of four classes at 7:30, lunch, basketball walk-through at 2 p.m., study hall and meal at 3 p.m., tip-off at 7 and, this week, group studies past midnight.
You know this isn’t normal for a college basketball player, right?
“I talk to some guys at other schools,” said Lyons, who scored 80 out of 100 on his astro engineering exam, by the way. “What I’ve learned is college is one of two things: a piece of cake or really hard. If they say college is a piece of cake I know they’ve never been to the academy.”
And if a senior is saying that, what’s this time like for the underclassmen?
“It's tough. It's really tough right now, honestly. But when I came here I was thinking about after basketball was over for me,” Scottie said. “This place sets you up better than anywhere in the world. So you do it.”
Wednesday night at Clune, there were no cadets in the bleachers where cadets usually sit. They were off studying, Falcons coach Dave Pilipovich said.
“For me finals week was great. I was so far gone, I wasn’t going to get a passing grade anyway. It was just a week off,” Pilipovich joked.
Astro engineering wasn’t on your class schedule?
“I was music appreciation and ‘art in the dark,’” he said.
One of the few easy moments of the past week came in the first half against ACU, when Scottie rifled this sweet 60-foot football pass to Pervis Louder, a junior guard, that led to a layup. The Falcons almost pulled off another ridiculous comeback — this time from 17 points down — but fell a couple of possessions short. And then Scottie trudged off through the hallway, back to the dorm to file a chemistry paper and prepare for his six final exams.
Yes, six, with a game at the University of California-Riverside in between: physics, chemistry, economics, political science, history and law. Scottie was the first member of his family to graduate high school, and can you imagine what graduation from the Air Force Academy will mean to him?
“It gives me chills just talking about it with you,” Scottie said. "The world. It will mean the world."
This is Air Force basketball.