No matter how loud it got inside the Rutgers Athletic Center, no matter how intense the action became on the court, Kathy McAdam never flinched.
She would sit in her seat — in the third row right along the metal barrier where the players made their entrance and exit — and calmly keep score. And, whether the Scarlet Knights won or lost, the 85-year-old Douglas College graduate known to most as just Aunt Kathy would make her way onto the court to share her stats and observations.
Players. Coaches. Parents. Aunt Kathy would linger and chat after ever game, for both the men’s and women’s teams, until everyone else at the RAC had headed to the exits. That’s when Mike Greengarten, who was in charge fan experience at the old barn, would help her back up the stairs and out into the parking lot.
“She was the first one in and the last one out — somehow, someway,” said Greengarten, now an assistant development director for the R Fund. “We couldn’t kick her out. We couldn’t! That’s just who she was.”
So, yes, Aunt Kathy would have loved Saturday afternoon in Piscataway. Rutgers, the No. 14 team in the country, had played a thrilling college basketball game against No. 11 Iowa that went down to the final seconds that was missing one thing and one thing only.
Fans. Noise. The Scarlet Knights lost, 77-75, after taking a seven-point lead late in the second half, and it was hard not to think that their intimidating and incomparable home court would have pushed them over their top.
It was hard not to watch the action — when star Ron Harper Jr. drained three straight NBA-range 3-pointers, or when guard Geo Baker fed center Myles Johnson with a pair of no-look passes for dunks, or when freshman Dean Reiber came up with an out-of-nowhere block — and imagine the ear-splitting decibel levels that would have followed.
“We wish we could have had the real RAC today,” Baker said after the game.
“Today would have been an unbelievable environment,” head coach Steve Pikiell said.
They miss Aunt Kathy the most. McAdam injured herself in a fall a few weeks before Christmas and, days after the holiday when it appeared she was on the road to recovery, died unexpectedly. The news spread quickly on social media, with players — young and old — paying tribute to the woman who always greeted her with a smile after games.
The RAC built a national reputation last season because of the team’s 18-1 record inside its walls, and in some ways, the out-dated trapezoidal arena became as notable as any single player in the program’s rise back to relevance.
Longtime fans, however, appreciate it more in the quiet moments that happen an hour or more after the final buzzer. That’s when family and friends wait for the players, showered and dressed, to emerge from the locker room. That’s when McAdam would greet them with her stats, her observations, and most of all, her smile.
“I saw her after every game. I saw her before every game,” Pikiell said. “She’s such a wonderful person, so passionate about Rutgers and Rutgers basketball and Rutgers everything. She was a true blue Rutgers person.”
McAdam graduated from Douglas College, and after a career working as a systems analyst for PSE&G, started going to games with her brother, William Jacobsen, in the early ‘80s. No one knew exactly how long she had season tickets for both the men’s and women’s teams, but it was long enough that she was friends with all-time great Sue Wicks, had a Facebook profile pic posing with former coach Bob Wenzel and inspired this Twitter tribute from recent star Corey Sanders:
“No no no! She was the nicest individual ever!”
The label “super fan” doesn’t begin to describe her. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple years ago, McAdam scheduled her radiation treatments around the teams’ games. She didn’t miss a single one, and when Greengarten checked up on her to see how she was feeling, the response was always the same.
“Why wouldn’t I be great? I’m here!”
McAdam has binders filled with her scoresheet, player photos and newspaper clippings tucked away in her Piscataway house. Neighbors might know her more for the beautiful front-yard garden and a friendly cat named Baby, but when they were invited inside, Aunt Kathy would break out her favorite snapshots from the RAC.
She became president of the Cagers’ Club, the booster club for the women’s basketball team, but it was an unofficial role — team aunt — that made the biggest impact. The teams, its players and coaches, were her big extended family.
“This team would mean the world to her,” said Jana Jacobson Adamczyk, one of her nieces. “She’d be so excited right now to know where they’re ranked and how they’re doing this season. That would mean everything to her.”
When the team’s season was abruptly canceled with the rest of college basketball just days before the NCAA Tournament last March, it wasn’t just the games that Aunt Kathy missed. It was the social aspect of going to games.
The fans miss the RAC. The players miss the fans. It feels like this team is about to take this university on a wild ride over the next three months, but instead of hanging on every dribble inside the old trapezoid, the people who love the program the most will have to watch from a distance. It stinks.
And it seems cruel that one of its biggest fans won’t see it all. Or, at least, won’t be here to share it with the world.
“I’m a spiritual guy,” said Cal Schwartz, another longtime Rutgers hoops fan, “and I’m fairly certain she will see what this team accomplishes. She might not be sitting at the RAC, but she’ll see.”
Rutgers lost a heartbreaker on Saturday afternoon to Iowa, but the result did little to dampen the excitement around the program. This team is still at the beginning of this promising journey, and no one knows when or how it will end.
But everyone at Rutgers know this: Aunt Kathy would have soaked up every minute — and have her own stats to prove it.
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Steve Politi may be reached at [email protected].