By Bennett Garcia
On a Thursday night on March 17, Yvon Raymond sat at home in Maplewood, New Jersey. Along with more than five million other viewers, he had his television tuned in to CBS, and watched the unthinkable happen in the world of college basketball. As time expired at the end of the fourth quarter, the score read 85 to 79. The number 15 seed, Saint Peter’s Peacocks, had remarkably upset the number 2 seed, the Kentucky Wildcats, in the opening round of March Madness.
The team ultimately went on to have a historic tournament run, which saw them become the first-ever number 15 seed to advance to the Elite Eight. The Cinderella story went on to captivate the country, making both national and international headlines. But for Raymond, who played for the Peacocks from 2009 to 2013 and now works in truck leasing, the success was something he saw coming for a long time. According to four former players, the Peacocks have long been underdogs, even within the Jersey City community, where the private Jesuit university with a student population of around 3,000 students and a campus size of 30 acres is located.
Having played on the team himself, Raymond knows what the players are made of. As a result, the win “wasn’t a surprise to me, because those guys work hard,” Raymond said. “It may be a surprise to other people because they’re not watching the program up close and personal.”
Other alumni shared Raymond’s perspective, saying the win came as no surprise for a team that has long been underestimated despite the grit characteristic of its players.
“A majority of us came from tougher backgrounds. We came from that blue-collar, hard work, and nothing is given. You’ve got to work for and claw and scratch for everything that you have so I think we all kind of had a chip on our shoulder. We had to make something out of nothing, essentially,” said 29-year-old Elias Desport, who played basketball for Saint Peter’s from 2012 to 2016.
Making something out of nothing, as Desport put it, is by no means an exaggeration. Former players described playing and training in subpar facilities and a lack of fan engagement. “People weren’t even really focused on us . . . New Jersey, you know, it’s a high school basketball state . . . I feel like they were more interested in that and obviously the bigger college programs,” said Desport. “People weren’t really familiar at all with the program . . . some people thought it was a community college,” Desport added.
Recently though, things have changed and both the university and team’s profile have risen considerably since the March Madness success. “Now people will say ‘Oh you went to Saint Peter’s? That’s amazing!’ Before I would tell them I went there and they would say, ‘The high school?’,” said 31-year-old Blaise Ffrench, who played for the team from 2010 to 2013.
Proof of the team’s underdog perception was also pervasive during practices, according to several former players, who said that until very recently, the team’s facilities were more akin to that of a struggling high school rather than a Division 1 sports program that plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. And many mentioned having nicer weight rooms and gyms at their high schools. “I mean, we had, like, the smallest weight room — my high school weight room was better than that,” said Ffrench. “And there were classrooms right next door, so we couldn’t even play music or get hype in there. So it was a real struggle.”
The facility struggles did not end there. In 2016, the team had a home game canceled at the last minute against rival Manhattan College, which was also scheduled to be nationally broadcast on ESPN. The cause of the cancellation? As Desport recalls, the game was just about to tip off but water from a burst pipe leaked from the ceiling onto the court of the Yanitelli Center.
Such an occurrence was not uncommon, Desport added.
“That could happen on any given day, we would walk into practice a few times and there would be a water leak somewhere and the whole place would be flooded. I mean, the facilities were just in bad shape.”
Ffrench shared similar memories.
“The arena would flood all the time,” he said. “If it was snowing, water would start leaking onto the court and we would have to cancel practice or go to the local high school.”
As 29-year-old former player Tyler Gaskins, who played for the Peacocks from 2013 to 2015, put it: “When you think about D1 programs, you know, you kind of have this expectation that everything is supposed to be nice. Everything is supposed to be handed to you, I guess — like the school, how it looks, the facilities. And Saint Peter’s was the total opposite.”
Even with the adversity and various struggles it faced, the team still managed to find some success in the past, making it to the first round of the NCAA Tournament during the 2010-2011 season and finishing the season with a winning record in six of the last thirteen seasons.
But recent years have seen massive upgrades to the facilities. In 2020, Saint Peter’s received a five million dollar donation from alumni and former Peacocks basketball player, Thomas P. Mac Mahon — a member of the class of 1968 — to update the Yanitelli Center. The renovations included the creation of a modern basketball/volleyball arena, upgraded locker rooms, retractable bleachers, full replacement of the hardwood court surface, a reimagined entryway to the facility, enhanced lighting and new video scoreboards. Now known as the Run Baby Run Arena, in honor of the 1967-1968 team, the remodeled facility debuted on Nov. 1 of last year, representing a stark contrast compared to how things used to be.
Moving forward, this newfound national success and recognition is no longer the exception for the team and its former players, but instead the expectation, according to Gaskins: “Now we’re the team to beat, so it’s a good feeling.”
Bennett Garcia just finished his sophomore year at New York University