With classes online, the nonconference basketball slate canceled this fall and not all students invited back to campus, at least seven of the 12 returning players on the Yale men’s basketball team have decided to take leaves of absence this semester, they told the News.
Before the Ivy League canceled athletic competition until at least Jan. 1, players had already begun weighing options for the fall and this full year. When the time came for final decisions, non-basketball factors related to careers and job opportunities also significantly influenced their individual plans.
Nearly half of the returners are still in New Haven, either enrolled or working virtual internships. A slight majority of the team is taking the chance to pursue other opportunities away from the Elm City.
“We as a team were pretty aware before [the Ivy League’s July announcement] just based off what was happening in the world that there was going to be at least no fall,” said captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22, who is taking a leave of absence this semester. “We knew that was not going to happen [and] it was pretty evident to us … so people kind of had plans in action.”
In addition to Gabbidon, who told the News he is not currently planning to enroll this spring either, classmate and forward Jameel Alausa ’22 is planning to take a full gap year. Nearly all of last year’s sophomore players are taking leaves this fall, each of them told the News: forward Isaiah Kelly ’23, forward Jake Lanford ’23, guard Matthue Cotton ’23 and guard Michael Feinberg ’23, who intends to take a full-year leave of absence like Alausa. Would-be sophomore and guard August Mahoney ’24 said he is also taking a leave this fall.
On the other hand, forward EJ Jarvis ’23 is enrolling remotely since sophomores are not welcome back in New Haven this fall semester. Junior guard Eze Dike ’22 told the News he is enrolled this fall, but unsure about his status for the spring. Finally, returning senior forwards Wyatt Yess ’21 and Paul Atkinson ’21 are both enrolled in residence this fall.
Atkinson, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, said he intends to enroll in the spring as well. The 6-foot-10 forward, whom Mid-Major Madness named to their list of five mid-major players with potential for national stardom last month, briefly declared for the NBA Draft in the spring before removing his name and preserving his final season of collegiate eligibility. In the event the Ancient Eight has no season this year and the NCAA extends Ivy basketball players an extra season of eligibility, Atkinson would likely generate interest from several high-major programs searching for a graduate transfer if he does not immediately pursue a professional basketball career.
“It just came down to me wanting to enroll in school rather than take the year off,” Atkinson said. “I’m still hoping for the best for the spring season but if not, I’m looking forward to the future after I graduate, which I know will hold options for me.”
Would-be senior and guard Azar Swain could not comment on his final fall-term status in time for publication, but said he plans to announce his decision soon. Yess and other players said that three of the five first years initially in Yale’s class of 2024 ultimately decided to enroll, while two — guards Yassine Gharram and Emir Buyukhanli — are taking a gap year.
Gabbidon said head coach James Jones and the rest of the Yale coaching staff helped players consider the real possibility of no basketball season this year and did not want anyone to be “thrown off guard.” Still, for many, decisions about their ultimate fall statuses required serious thinking and exploration into potential job and internship opportunities.
Many players spent the summer going back-and-forth. Gabbidon, originally against the idea of a leave of absence, said he wanted to make sure his enrollment decision was not only about basketball. A computer science major who has worked at Google for the past two summers, the 6-foot-5 captain thought there would be little benefit to taking time off once he removed basketball from his thought process. But then, when he found the perfect opportunity, it suddenly became a no-brainer. “It was an instant yes,” he said.
Jones and assistant coaches Matthew Kingsley and Justin Simon ’04 invited some alumni of the program to speak at team Zoom calls this summer, and when Gabbidon approached his head coach about the possibility of working at a startup, Jones helped connect his captain with former forward Jason Abromaitis ’07. Gabbidon now works in Denver with Abromaitis and one other partner on an unpublicized stealth startup that blends artificial intelligence and athletic training. To him, the work is so exciting that he said he would have considered the opportunity in a regular year.
“For people who want to take leaves of absence, coach Jones has been really amazing, connecting people with different alumni and unique opportunities,” Gabbidon said. “I know some pretty awesome opportunities that guys are excited to pursue. We don’t have these opportunities traditionally. We’re a two-semester sport, we have to play both semesters, so this is honestly the best way to leverage our Yale education and the network that comes from being a Yale student, and I think that’s what’s really driven everyone to decide this is actually something that can really help us long-term. It’s not like we’re doing this for basketball. We’re doing this because it’s going to help our futures.”
Alausa is home in Chicago after spending the summer working at a lab in New Haven studying COVID-19 and conducting nephrology research. Although he thought about continuing at the lab this fall, he decided to return home instead, where he is studying for the MCAT and taking online classes through Washington University in St. Louis.
A new tutoring organization he founded called VTS (Virtual Tutoring Sessions) also occupies his time. Alausa said he and friends sought to fill a need for academic help in their communities, and he received mentorship on the project from Arne Duncan, the former United States Secretary of Education under Barack Obama. The organization consists of 20 Black college students from across the country who are collectively helping to virtually tutor a group of 20 students this fall, and Alausa said there are plans to take in 10 more students as the months progress.
Alausa, who is pre-med, thinks a season this year is unlikely.
“Realistically, looking at the numbers and things like that, I don’t really see it,” he said. “But obviously it can happen. That’d be exciting and good for the people on campus. Personally, I’m not sure how it’s going to happen.”
Others, though not necessarily optimistic, are still hopeful. Yess, who is enrolled this fall, pointed out that Yale’s testing program and low student case numbers to start the year have been encouraging, especially in light of dramatic spikes some other schools have experienced after reopening campuses.
After a summer at home, he said it was nice to be back at Yale, but the decision to enroll was not an easy one.
“It was one of those things that went back-and-forth for me all the time,” Yess said. “I wanted to enroll, I wanted to get my degree and finish out my time at Yale. I really enjoyed it, but I have one year left. And then the other side was I love basketball and want to keep playing as long as I can, especially at Yale. So at the end of the day, just for me personally with one year left and all the uncertainty going on, I just liked the idea of finishing up at Yale, getting my degree and having that aspect of certainty in my mind, and then assessing my options after the fact, whether that be basketball or a job or anything along those lines.”
After finding parks to work out at back home in St. Louis, Yess has not played much basketball since returning to the Elm City — hoops are still without rims on many outdoor courts in New Haven — but has managed to lift weights at his off-campus residence. He said strictly phased workouts for those enrolled in residence are set to begin soon and will at first only include strength and conditioning.
In a normal year, players would be preparing for the preseason together, tackling a timed mile, helping first years through shopping period and gearing up for real workouts back in the John J. Lee Amphitheater. But with everyone on a different wavelength this fall and the Bulldogs’ three first years only just emerging from their campus quarantines, group chats and the occasional Zoom call are tying everyone together. Only time will tell what the spring might hold.
“[COVID-19] has been crazy, and it has demonstrated that opportunities can be taken away from you in an instant,” Dike summed up. “That being said, not having basketball for the moment allows me to put more time and energy into my studies. As for next semester, I really have to wait and see.”
William McCormack | [email protected]