Early in the 2005 men’s soccer season, Colorado College’s team captain Brian Tafel ’07 seriously injured his knee and was sidelined for the rest of the games. He was, understandably, hugely disappointed. But, as one who “overcomes adversity well,” according to Soccer Coach Horst Richardson, Tafel pondered the opportunities presented to him by this premature ending to what was supposed to be his last campaign.
How could he serve for one more season as team captain, and achieve his degree requirements as a history major? He decided he could use the recuperation time to expand his senior essay into a full thesis, enhance his academic experience with in-depth research, and lead his soccer teammates to the playoffs in 2006. Tafel was a man with a plan. “He is strong and tenacious,” says Richardson. “And he’s a sports nut.”
Tafel, whose dad is a basketball coach and educator, also played basketball for CC his sophomore year and hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps. Always looking to maximize an opportunity, Tafel wanted to take on a history thesis project that he was passionate about, and that would help him as a future coach. “The good thing about history is that everything has history,” says Tafel. And he was irked by recent basketball history.
Tafel felt the poor performance of the 2004 USA Olympic basketball team was a serious wake-up call for the game’s enthusiasts. The team, which had never lost an Olympic game since professionals were allowed to play in 1992, dropped three decisions (to Argentina, Lithuania, and Puerto Rico) and ended up with the bronze medal in 2004. Tafel believes those losses stem from a change in emphasis from the team to the individual in basketball today. “It’s something the National Basketball Association not only condones, but even promotes, and that’s scary,” he says. He also is concerned with the image the NBA is projecting to other countries. He believes solutions can be found by taking a historical look at how basketball was played.
“The way the game is played now is different from the way it was played in 1891, when it started. I wanted to look at how the game evolved, the social context and environments, and especially the coaches,” says Tafel. That is how he chose the working title for his thesis: “From Cagers to Ballers.” The thesis explores how basketball shifted from a simple gym game to arguably one of the most popular sports in the world. “From the structured, low-scoring, no-dribbling, underhand-shot affair of basketball’s early years, to the high-paced, dunking, three-point shooting, high-scoring excitement that describes the game today, there is no doubt that how basketball is being played is rapidly changing,” asserts Tafel. “I wanted to answer the questions of how and why these changes have occurred. To do that, I needed really good resources.”
Indeed, a senior thesis project requires the use of primary sources. “Brian had to take basketball and approach it intellectually,” says Tafel’s academic advisor, Susan Ashley, history professor and dean of the college/faculty.
Tafel turned to the world’s most extensive collection of library and archival material on basketball: the Edward J. and Gena G. Hickox Library at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, located in Springfield, Mass. He checked out the Hall’s Web site and learned the library was noncirculating. Undaunted, Tafel applied to the college for a venture grant that would allow him to roam the facility, study the exhibits, and handle the materials offered at the Hall.
Upon arrival, Tafel was given a small desk “wedged between the electrical guy who was working on a Hall of Fame event, and the archive, which had wheels and moveable shelves. The books and archives were not catalogued,” says Tafel. But he persevered and discovered a gold mine of information that provided a golden opportunity for productive, hands-on research.
“For two weeks, I was the mystery college kid who showed up every day and spent from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. wandering the Hall and library,” says Tafel. The coaching section with its numerous manuals created by coaches over the decades captured his attention. “Through the coaching tree or lineage of basketball, you can link the most successful college basketball coaches by who their mentors were, who assisted whom.” Their protégés wrote similar books but tailored theirs to the time. In this way, Tafel could better understand the influences these coaches had on one another and the sport itself. The coaching tree is one of the centerpieces of his thesis, along with the development of basketball’s fundamentals.
For Tafel, to breathe in the musty smell of old manuals drafted by basketball’s greatest coaches, to take in the expansive exhibits and run his hands over their artifacts, was to experience history with the senses. Tafel is a physical guy, and “that type of intellectual engagement appeals,” he says. “Without the injury, I wouldn’t have done a thesis, but would have done an essay instead. And I wouldn’t have spent time at the Hall of Fame.”
Regrettably, late in the 2006 campaign, Tafel injured his foot and was again sidelined for the remainder of the season. “He is an unbelievable competitor with an unbending will to win,” says Richardson. “How improbable that over two successive seasons he would have two season-ending injuries.”
But Tafel focuses on the silver lining. “I took four blocks off in the middle of the year, which I couldn’t have done on the semester plan,” says a grateful Tafel. CC’s Block Plan and venture grant program gave him the chance to pursue a project that has never been done before.
After graduation in January 2007, Tafel will head to graduate school at the University of Northern Colorado, where he will pursue a teaching license.
“Brian’s visit to the Basketball Hall of Fame truly transformed his idea into a thesis,” says Ashley. A copy of Brian’s thesis will be housed in the archives there, ready and available as a resource for the next visitor seeking to transform an idea into something much more.