First Cambridge Varsity win in over a decade; despite Oxford being filled with Rhodes Scholars – Basketball becoming Full Blue in Cambridge
(text by Kevin Nicholls, CUBbC 1984-1987, Blues Captain 1986/87, and Michael Higginbotham, who is our first Full Blue, added by Michael Hofstetter in January 2022, image of Pat Madden added by Michael Hofstetter in February 2023)
We were delighted to receive the following article by CUBbC alumni Kevin Nicholls.
I played for the University for three seasons from 84/85 through to 86/87 and was Captain in my final year. I see that you in fact have the team photo from that last season and some information supplied by Peter Henshaw whom I recall as a handy perimeter shooter!
I’m going to see if I can dig out any pictures or info from the prior seasons of my own, though I’m not overly hopeful; I’ve lived in Australia since 2005, spent the 8 years prior in the US having left the UK in 1998, so not every piece of memorabilia has made it this far! I do however, still have the incredibly fashionable singlet and shorts similar to the kit featured in ’82/83 Team photo – I’m sure we thought they were pretty cool at the time, but let’s just say they haven’t aged too well. The current kit looks like a significant improvement and less likely to ignite if in close proximity to a naked flame…
As for scores, I can’t recall the actual scores of the Varsity Games I played in but do know that the 1984/85 team was the first to defeat Oxford in at least 15 years (some believed it to be even longer) and I see there is only one solitary W in the OUBBC spreadsheet all the way back in 1956 prior to that win. I can also confirm we won by a single point! I made the team as a first year player and warmed the bench for the entire match, as it went down to the wire and the best players pretty much played out the entire game. The celebrations that followed were suitably liquid and lengthy…
The Captain of that winning ’85 team was an American at St. Johns (I think), whose name frustratingly escapes me for now, but he led the team superbly, instilling training discipline, confidence and fun. I recall him laying the foundations for our change in fortune over Oxford by not buying into the Rhodes scholar hype (the Oxford team being predominantly US-college Rhodes scholars at that time) and by playing tough ‘local’ matches against the likes of RAF Lakenheath (the USAF base), Loughborough University, LSE and even some London senior mens league teams. As mentioned on the website, a College Basketball competition existed at the time – which were generally bruising encounters given the number of Rugby players that participated – and CUBBC was very much a multinational crew of (in the main) post-grads or Masters students from the traditionally strong basketball nations including the ‘States, Canada, Israel and Sweden. Brits were a rarity!
The Club’s reputation within the ‘Blues community’ grew significantly following that 1985 win and basketball’s headlining at the (first?) Varsity Games held at Kelsey Kerridge, with acknowledgement of the effort and training the team put in, as well as the standard of play, particularly following good showings in the annual BUSF tournament (the forerunner to BUCS).
An appeal to the (Rugby, Cricket and Football-dominated!) Blues Committee in 1986 for Basketball to be recognised as a Full Blue sport was, however, unsuccessful, though the sport was elevated to “Discretionary Full Blue” status for any player selected to the British Universities Sports representative team. We certainly had at least one player from the 1985/86 team and a couple from 1986/87 – Tom Terrell (USA) and Matthew Ryder (UK) if recollection serves.
If anyone has team photos and names from the 84/85 or ’85/’86 teams, I’m sure I could put a few more deeds to faces…
In the 1985/86 Season we lost to Oxford at Iffley Road, not I think by a huge margin, and reversed that result in ’86/’87 with a dominant 96:67 win. My over riding memory was one of relief that we’d got the win as it never felt certain until the last couple of minutes, and some personal pride on achieving that success after a challenging season both on and off the court.
It’s great to see how the Club has grown since my time at Cambridge. The broader participation and the sense of community that’s clearly been created around CUBBC is no doubt down to a lot of hard work and passion from many. I’d like to wish you and the squad all the very best for the Varsity Game coming up this weekend. Three wins in three years would be quite something but regardless of the outcome, enjoy the opportunity and treasure the moment. Representing the University is a rare privilege and something to be very proud of achieving. Looking back from my 34year+ perspective, playing basketball for the University was one of the highlights of my time at Cambridge and I’ve no doubt it will be the same for all of you.
Kevin Nicholls, Fitzwilliam College and CUBBC 1984-1987
We also received the following personal memories from Michael Higginbotham, who writes about his earning a Basketball Full Blue (the first in the club’s history) and his selection to the British Universities All Start team and designated as its captain:
When I arrived at Cambridge in 1984 as a 27 year old, I still had a few years of ball playing left in me. My sports were football, baseball and basketball with football being my best sports. Unfortunately, at Oxbridge neither baseball nor football may be offered as university-wide or intercollegiate sports. The closest thing to baseball offered is cricket and the closest thing to football offered is rugby. After watching a cricket match I quickly gave up on playing, as I could not figure out the rules at all. And I said no to rugby, when I saw that the players wore no equipment like shoulder pads or a helmet. Had enough of those risks playing tackle at La Cienega Park in 1970. So my only choice seemed to be basketball. At Oxbridge in 1984, a few sports like rugby, tennis, cricket, soccer, golf and rowing were all designated as full blue sports. Track was designated as a discretionary full-blue sport and most other sports were designated as half-blue (basketball and ice hockey) or no blue (frisbee or racquetball). Sports were originally to be the same designation at both universities, but a historical anomaly caused basketball to be the only sport that was not uniform. Because of the Rhodes Scholarship Program at Oxford where 100 scholars were selected each year from the US and where sporting achievement was a factor in selection, Oxford would get several strong basketball players every year and a few superstars (Bill Bradley/Tom McMillen) every now and then. As a result, not only did Oxford dominate over Cambridge in Basketball (Cambridge had not won a blues basketball match in 25 years), Oxford usually was the best collegiate basketball team in the UK winning the British Universities basketball tournament most years. In recognition of this high caliber of play, the Oxford Blues Committee designated Oxford basketball as a full-blue sport. In order to be awarded a blue in a full-blue sport, on must participate (get in the game) in the Blues match. In order to get a blue in a discretionary full-blue sport, one must participate in the blues match and beat Oxford in that match or in your particular event, or otherwise distinguish yourself at the national/country-wide level.
In February 1985 in the blues basketball game, Cambridge beat Oxford 63-62 for the first Varsity match victory in 25 years. I was the leading scorer and sunk the game winning free throws. As a result of avenging 25 years of embarrassment, the Cambridge University Blues Committee were so impressed that they designated basketball as a discretionary full-blue sport, raising the level from half-blue status. The following year in 1986, I was awarded a full-blue (the first for basketball at Cambridge) after participating in the blues match and being selected for the British Universities All Start team and designated as its captain.
Finally, we we were notified by his previous College, that Queens’ alum Pat Madden visited Cambridge in March 2022. You see him in the team pictures on the left side in the back row. He won a half-Blue when Cambridge won Varsity for the first time in a decade in 1984/85. His legacy still lives on to the present day, as he donated The Madden Cup, the trophy that is handed out every year to the winner of the Cambridge University Basketball Cuppers competition. Thanks to Queens’ College for keeping an eye on the trophy, which would have otherwise long disappeared in the CUBbC archives.