The bleachers in Herr Hall are full. Ryerson’s men’s basketball team is battling the Queen’s Golden Gaels in its season opener. The bass beat that fills the gymnasium stops. To Bob Todd, a retired Inco engineer, I suddenly vanish even though I sit next to him. Shoulder squared and eyes glazing at centre court, Todd loses himself in the moment: The tip off of Ryerson men’s basketball league play.
The last time Todd attended a league opener, he didn’t watch from the bleachers. It was 31years ago, that 6-foot-4 “Tiger” Todd started at forward for the Rams, patrolling the post and defending the boards.
“I used to pull that all off the rim,” Todd, now 53, says. “And I was able to get up high enough that I could turn around and hit the guard with a pass before I hit the floor to start a fast break.”
Todd helped the 1966-67 Rams become the first Ryerson team to advance to the Ontario East finals.That Ryerrson team, however, would not be the last. Ryerson has a tradition of excellence in men’s basketball dating from the early 1950’s to this day. Legend has it that when Ryerson was still an institute, universities like U of T refuse to play the basketball teams because the Rams was so strong.
Last season was the Rams’ best ever, with the team taking the OUA East championship for the first time, beating rivals Laurentian and Carleton to make its first ever appearance at the national championships, keeping the tradition alive.
Todd is part of that tradition. A former star with Sudbury High School, Todd didn’t play varsity ball his first year, choosing instead to focus on his studies. However forces beyond Todd’s control would make him wear Ryerson’s white and gold.
“I was fooling around in the gym one day,” he says. “And the coach at the time,Angelo Di Thomas, saw me playing. I went to the basket and did a two-hand stuffer. He liked it.”
Todd payed for the Rams during the 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons. The team struggled during Todd’s first year of play but flourished in the second, advancing to the Ontario East finals. There, the Rams were edged out by Waterloo Lutheran, now Sir Wildrid Laurier, for the right to advance to the Canadian finals. No Ryerson basketball team had advanced so far before.
Basketball was big at Ryerson during Todd’s heyday. Upwards of 700 rowdy students would crowd the bleachers and mezza-nine for home games. Busloads of fans would follow the Rams on road trips.
On one road trip, Todd recalls, the Rams opened a double-bill by edging the Detroit Institute of Technology.
“I reember walking off the court and looking up, an there were people right up to the ceiling. Over 16,000 people in all.”
The second half of the double-bill was a NBA match pitting the Detroit Pistons against the San Francisco Warriors.
The earliest Ryerson teams were known simply as the Whites and Golds. They became the Rams in 1951 and played solid basketball in local leagues. Ryerson teams were strong well into the 1960s but struggled through the 1970s. At one point, the Rams lost 41 consecutive league games, an ONtario University Athletics Association record.
The Rams re-emerged as a force during the 1980s. Phil Row, second-team OUAA all-star in 1984-85, and Jamie Vozkuil, Ryerson’s all-time leading scorer, guided the team from marginality to respectability.
But for current men’s basketball coach Terry Haggerty, the Rams have enjoyed their great success over the last eight years. Haggerty points to Carl Harper (team captain in 1997-98) and to Alex Bason. Bason holds the OUA record for most points in a season (401), and most points in a single game (52 in 1994 against Laurentian). These two led Ryerson teams to seven consecutive births in the OUAA playoffs and to the finals in 1993-1994 and 1994-1995.
After last year’s historic season, the Ryerson Rams are poised to do even better this year. While last year’s teams co-captains Brian Smith and Rob Armstrong have graduated, division rookie of the year Ben Gorham and star rookie Jan-Michael Nation are returning. They will be joined by third-year forward Sasha Ivankovic to lead an experienced and powerful team.
Bob Todd says he likes Ryerson’s chances. “This Ryerson team deserves good support,” he says. “Ryerson is strong, real strong. Aggressive defence, good rebounding. If the Rams shoot from the outside and set p good picks more consistently, you never know.”
And who am I to argue with the Tiger?