THE NEW ENGLAND dusk, dank and gloomy, was spreading over the Trinity College campus, a preppy haven in a working-class section of Hartford. In dribs and drabs, students, hundreds of them, were making their way down the hill and into the Ferris Athletic Center. There's no boulevard of restaurants around Trinity. No Barnes & Noble. No Starbucks. What there is is squash. ¬∂ Princeton was in the house, and the longest winning streak in the history of collegiate sports—176 team matches—was on the line. Trinity had not lost since Feb. 22, 1998, to Harvard, but if any team could beat the Bantams, it was Princeton. The Tigers, in their spiffy blue warmup suits, looked ready. They were standing on center court, waiting for the team introductions, and the Trinity coach was scrambling around, trying to find his guys. "They're waiting for us," Paul Assaiante called out. "They're waiting."
THE 55-YEAR-OLD Assaiante (pronounced ah see ON tay) doesn't fool himself. Yes, his team, thanks to a stream of foreign talent, has won nine straight national championships. But that streak doesn't make him John Wooden or Bud Wilkinson or even Geno Auriemma. Assaiante coaches squash. A couple of years ago he threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park. He bounced it in, and as he came off the field somebody yelled, "What the f— is squash?"
Squash, in the U.S., is a sweaty, intense winter sport dominated by Type A personalities and popular at boarding schools, in the Ivy League and at private clubs. You play it in a cramped box with a smaller, thinner version of a tennis racket and a ball that barely bounces. The game's U.S. demographics have started to change, in part because squash altruists have built public courts in North Philadelphia, the South Bronx and other places way off the cocktail-party circuit. The day may come when the squash rosters at Yale and Dartmouth and Williams have kids from the inner city and the game sheds some of its John Cheever image.
For Assaiante, who grew up in the South Bronx and never touched a squash racket until he was 27, that day can't come too soon. In the meantime he combs the Internet and works the phone (he has no recruiting budget) to find talent from Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Sweden and other countries where squash is part of the mainstream sporting culture. For the Princeton match, on the last Wednesday in January, Trinity's nine man lineup included not a single American, and the players ranged in age from 18 to 23. One Bantam had played professionally. Two had come to the U.S. speaking halting English. Four had been admitted only weeks earlier. But they had all been vetted by the NCAA.
Trinity, which was founded in 1823, has no religious affiliation, and the squash team has been a religious melting pot, with Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and atheists. A Division III school that does not offer athletic scholarships, Trinity graduates nearly all of its athletes. The squash players are polite, engaging and earnest. On a team trip to Philadelphia to play Penn last month, Simba Muhwati, a co-captain from Zimbabwe, said, "How can you hate another human being?" Before long the talk returned to ... you can guess. It's college.
The players all have nicknames. Their resident computer expert, Neil Robertson (also from Zimbabwe), is Bill Gates. Supreet Singh, a Sikh from India who wears ritual rings and necklaces and bracelets, is Bling. The players sing on road trips, and the coach drives the school van, often with a 44 ounce Big Gulp Diet Coke between his knees. Meal money is $18 per day, and the players sleep three-to-a-room in $100 a night hotels. Assaiante shares a room with two freshmen. Most of the players have on-campus jobs. Players who can't travel home for winter break wind up at Assaiante's house for Christmas dinner. Squash at Trinity is not a business. It's sport.
Assaiante, who is also the Trinity men's tennis coach, is a nonstop talker who begins a dozen phone conversations a day with, "How are you, my friend?" He's a compulsive person who preaches balance even though he has none in his own life. He talks openly with his players about how his obsession with coaching contributed to the demise of two marriages and other relationships. He talks to them about his eldest son, a recovering heroin addict now in prison for armed robbery. He talks to them about drinking, knowing that they will and wanting them to be sane about it. He sees lessons in everything, especially his own mistakes; his life is as messy as Wooden's is neat. What they both do is teach.
"I love the guy," says the Bantams' best player, Baset Chaudhry, a 22-year-old sophomore from Pakistan who played professionally but is eligible for college squash because he could prove that he spent more in expenses than he earned in prize money. "We play for him." That's the trick for Assaiante: He turns his handpicked international all-stars—with their different religions and homelands and native languages, a few of them rich, others poor, some in between—into a team.
THE PRINCETON match got steamy quickly. Two years ago at Trinity, Princeton was one point from ending the Bantams' winning streak when Gustav Detter, a Swede who was then a Trinity freshman, made an epic comeback to beat Tigers senior Yasser El-Halaby of Egypt, who is widely regarded as the best collegiate squash player in history. Detter's 3--2 win cinched a 5--4 Trinity victory, and the next morning he received a standing ovation in Mather Hall, the school's main cafeteria. Princeton had not admitted Detter, but at Trinity he has become fluent in English and has earned excellent grades. Describing his crucial victory against the Tigers, he said, "I wanted to show them they made the wrong decision." He only looks mild-mannered.
This year against Princeton, Detter played Kimlee Wong, a junior from Malaysia. (The Tigers have a lot of foreign talent too.) Just watching the match was exhausting; there were dozens of rallies with 50 or more hits. It was a battle of attrition, and when the sneaker squeaks finally stopped, Detter had won the best-of-five match in three straight games, 9--5, 9--2, 9--1. When all the matches were over, three hours after they had begun, the Bantams had prevailed again, 6--3, dealing Princeton its first loss of the season. Hundreds of students traipsed back up the hill, and alumni in their grosgrain belts and Cole Haan loafers and Trinity baseball caps headed home.
With three more victories last weekend, the Trinity winning streak was up to 179. (UCLA basketball, under Wooden, once won 88 games in a row.) If the Bantams defeat Harvard on Wednesday night, they will have their 10th straight undefeated regular season. All that will remain is the national championships, from Feb. 15 to 17 in Cambridge, Mass. A Trinity-Princeton rematch there is a distinct possibility.
In the final match of the evening on Jan. 30, Princeton won its third team point. Afterward Assaiante huddled with his players and said, "The last food you eat for the night is what you remember. We ended with a loss. This should feel like a loss. We need 30 percent more effort." The players nodded in agreement.
Assaiante then asked the boys to go into the stands and pick up the fans' trash—water bottles and pizza boxes and programs. The coach was right there with them.
Assaiante sees lessons in his own mistakes; his life is as messy as John Wooden's is neat. WHAT THEY BOTH DO IS TEACH.
Photographs by Al Tielemans
FOREIGN LEGION Coach Assaiante looked overseas for players such as Chaudhry (above, and opposite, left), Muhwati (opposite, center) and Detter.
Photograph by Al Tielemans
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS Fans packed the stands as the Bantams' Singh took on Santiago Imberton of Princeton.