It is high noon on a Thursday. The sun beats down as heat rises from the black asphalt of Occidental College’s outdoor basketball court. The pangs of basketballs careening off rims and the occasional ‘swish’ permeate the sultry air. This is the Occidental tradition called “Noonball.”
Noonball is a pick-up basketball game that takes place inside Rush Gymnasium or the adjacent outdoor court every Thursday, starting at—as the name suggests—noon. All faculty, students, staff and professors are welcome to play.
Noonball dates as far back as the 1960s, when faculty would play together and participate in intramural tournaments against student teams. English professor Eric Newhall 67’ recalls playing Noonball when he arrived as a professor in 1975.
“For the faculty members, it was the escape from being the authority figure in the classroom,” Newhall said. “You’re just one of the guys down in the gym.”
One of the students Newhall faced was President Barack Obama.
“My observation on television is that his jump shot seems better now,” Newhall said. “I remember him as a slasher. A couple of times, he gave me too much space. The way to play me, the way to play a pure shooter, is just to get up in his face and make him put the ball on the floor. And he didn’t do that. So I made him pay the price a couple of times.”
Newhall was the knockdown shooter amongst a group of Noonball legends, including big man and current biology professor Gary Martin and Emeritus professors Dennis A. Vanderweele (1973-2006), Martin L. Morton (1967-2000) and Michael A. McAleenan (1972-2005).
Like on any team, each one of these faculty players had his own distinctive style of play. According to Martin, Vanderweele was the indestructible gutsy type.
“He’d do layups and crash into the bleachers, and his glasses would fall apart, but I never saw him get hurt,” Martin said.
According to Newhall, Morton had great hands that could make his teammates’ bad passes into assists and McAleenan was a blue-collar player who grabbed boards and played lockdown defense.
In one intramural game, only the trio of Newhall, McAleenan and Vanderweele showed up to play.
“We decided, let’s just play it, and see what happens,” Newhall said. “We played three-on-five and won. Those poor guys.”
These early faculty teams won at least three intramural championships and did so in loud fashion, according to Newhall.
“You would better believe there was a lot of smack talking going on,” Newhall said. “I mean we would just crow. And I crowed the loudest.”
Along with trash talk on the court, Noonball provided a vehicle for casual but valuable communication between faculty members. Martin said that by interacting with each other in the locker room and on the court, professors were able to get a picture of campus news beyond their department.
After Morton, McAleenan and Vanderweele retired and Newhall was forced to stop playing due to knee injuries, only Martin and a few others continued to play.
“It wasn’t like it used to be, and then it pretty much died,” Martin said.
Fortunately for the basketball-loving faculty and staff, professors recently wanted to bring noonball back. In 2011, biology professor John McCormack arrived from Louisiana State University where he worked on his post-doctorate and played lunchtime basketball.
In his first fall semester, McCormack sent an email to as many list serves as he could in an attempt to organize weekly basketball games
“When I got here, I had the idea that I wanted to start this up, because it didn’t seem like anything like that was going on,” McCormack said. “So the first email I sent out, I got a lot of great responses from Emeritus faculty, people whose fondest memory of being here seemed to be the Noonball tradition.”
Today, McCormack, a crafty point guard, Art History & Visual Arts Professor Ari Laskin and Diplomacy and World Affairs Professor and Hussein Banai, nicknamed “The Hummingbird”, “The Professor” and “The Game-Changer”, respectively, are among a core group who continue the Noonball tradition of basketball and community engagement.
“You’re out here playing but you’re also talking,” McCormack said. “It’s a place to say hello and get to know people across campus that you wouldn’t otherwise know.”