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Life After Dunk City

Brett Comer, Chase Fieler, and the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles were the biggest story in sports for one week last March. Now, they’re just another mid-major program, trying to earn a bid to this year’s NCAA tournament.

Let’s start with a dunk, because — let’s not kid ourselves — that’s why we’re here.

We can cover the rest later. We can talk to a 21-year-old, 11 months removed from his life’s defining moment. We can see what happens when a university becomes a meme. We can check in on the rapper who is no longer viral and on the small forward who has graduated from life as an enfleshed GIF. We can even follow prospective students around the institute of higher education that has staked its identity on a hashtag.

But in the beginning of this genesis story, there were dunks. This is Florida Gulf Coast University, one year after #DunkCity, and even now, the dunking comes first.

So here it is: Thursday night, February 6, in a game against Jacksonville University at Alico Arena, a few hundred yards away from swamp, a few miles from the largest strip mall you’ve ever seen. If you want to watch this human loop of no-looks and lobs, first you have to walk in from the parking lot, past the yellow truck that’s been painted to say “Dunk City.” And then past its neighbor, a black-and-green vehicle labeled the “Dunk Truck.” And then, of course, past the green “Dunk City” Mustang parked right in front of a sign adorned with the same name. Inside, you’ll find a sign advertising the Eagle News, “Dunk City’s Official Newspaper,” and, waving pom-poms on the sideline, a group of young women whose T-shirts declare them to be the “Dunk City Dancers.”

It has been nearly a year since Florida Gulf Coast upset Georgetown and San Diego State in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament to become the first 15-seed to reach the Sweet 16, and it’s hard to think of another team that has embraced a new identity as swiftly and wholeheartedly as FGCU. In fact, as you look around the gym, you’ll probably notice the word “Dunk” before “Gulf,” “Coast,” or “University.” It’s on signs. It’s in the media guide, in all-capital letters at the top of the front page, and as you flip through the official literature, you’ll see that Dunk is a city that exists largely in hashtag form.

Once you’ve finished deploying that or one of the other suggested tags — #PROTECTTHENEST, #WEAREFGCU, or #DunkTank — you’ll look up and see point guard Brett Comer streaking down the sideline, teammate Bernard Thompson to his left. Comer approaches the 3-point line and stops. He takes the ball in his right hand and loops it outward and upward — a sky hook of a pass. The ball sails into the lane, just far enough from the basket that Thompson has to reach to his side to catch it, which he does, and then he slams it through the rim.

The crowd erupts. Attendance was sparse this time last year, but now the fans are here in full. FGCU will go on to win, 100-71, and it will set a season high with eight dunks, and it would be nice if you would tweet this, because this is still a small program in the mostly unknown Atlantic Sun Conference. They’re a long way from the tournament venues and CBS cameras, and if a dunk goes untweeted, then how will the rest of the country know it happened?

After the game, Comer sits at the brand-new podium in the brand-new media room, just in front of the brand-new “Dunk City” press conference backdrop. A reporter comments on Comer’s lob to Thompson. It looked familiar, the reporter says, like his famous lob against Georgetown, the over-the-shoulder pass to Chase Fieler that became the most famous play of last year’s tournament.

Comer thinks about it. Soon he’ll play for the chance to make another run through March. He’ll do so with a new coach, a few new teammates, and a new sense of what they must do to get there. All around the school, the memory of that run has been distilled into a marketing pitch. In a strictly literal sense, we’re seated on the FGCU campus, on a street called FGCU Boulevard South, but it feels as if everyone understands that this is really Dunk City U. For Comer and his teammates, however, memories of last March are more complex. The run was dizzying and euphoric — 10 days of ever-increasing joy. But now it’s over and they’re left chasing that high, working toward a day when they won’t be defined by only those two games.

Comer looks at the reporter. “Actually,” he says, “I don’t think they were alike at all.”

♦♦♦

If you want to tour Florida Gulf Coast University, start at the Sugden Welcome Center. You’ll be met by a blonde, country-music-loving, polo-and-shorts-wearing senior public relations major named Christy. She will be smiling. She will be thrilled to see you. She will be ready for any question. She’ll assure you: All you have to do is ask.

On this morning, a handful of prospective students are here with their parents, ready to check out the university. One is from Massachusetts. (“Let’s not pass judgment,” his mother says to his father, “until we’ve actually seen the campus.”) Another is from New Jersey. She’s pointing at the residential life brochure, which features almost as many photos of people who aren’t wearing shirts as photos of people who are wearing long pants. “That’s where I want to go,” she says, finger resting on a picture of a few tanned and muscled guys in board shorts. “I want to see the beach.”

She will get her chance, but not before she sees the basketball court. Just a few years ago, these tours barely passed by Alico Arena. Now, the hub of Dunk City is the very first stop. We will get to the dorms and the academic buildings and even the cafeterias, but not until we’ve spent about five minutes talking hoops. “How many people followed us in the Sweet 16 last year?” Christy asks as the group walks inside the gym. She smiles as several hands shoot up.

It’s not a stretch to call last year’s run the greatest moment in the history of Florida Gulf Coast University. On this point, you will get no argument from Susan Evans, the vice-president and chief of staff. She’s been here since the beginning, since FGCU was no more than 760 acres of marshland and a set of blueprints. That was just 22 years ago. She remembers riding through the brush on four-wheelers, following machete-wielding consultants as they hacked their way through the donated land. She remembers the school’s first holiday party — five people sitting at one table in a local restaurant. And, of course, she remembers last spring. “When I saw Charles Barkley talking about us,” she says, “I cried.”

FGCU opened its doors in 1997. Like fellow upstart schools South Florida and Central Florida, it used athletics to lure applicants who might otherwise dream of spending four years in Gainesville or Tallahassee. In 2011, FGCU hired Andy Enfield, then an assistant at Florida State, to coach its men’s basketball team. “I heard that Andy was going to Florida Gulf Coast,” says Michael Fly, who was then a video coordinator at FSU, “and my first thought was, Why would Andy take a job at a junior college?” Never mind that by that point, FGCU was in its fourth year in Division I. Around the country — hell, around most of Florida — no one had a clue what Florida Gulf Coast was.

Still, Fly followed Enfield to Fort Myers, and became an assistant coach. “You’d be on the phone recruiting kids,” he remembers, “and they’re basically asleep by the time you finish saying the name of the school. You had to say it really fast. ‘I’m from FloridaGulfCoastUniversity; we’re a Division I program,’ and then go on from there.”

But then March 22, 2013, rolled around, and by the end of that night, Fly knew he’d never worry about name recognition again.

♦♦♦

On the day Florida Gulf Coast upset Georgetown, a young woman named Natasha logged on to Twitter and typed in the words “Dunk City.” She did so at 4:51 p.m. Eastern Time. At that moment, Florida Gulf Coast was more than two hours from tipping off. Natasha didn’t care about the Eagles. She was watching LaSalle play Kansas State. An hour and six minutes later, a Victor Oladipo parody account, @VictorJetways, responded to a play from its namesake. “Dunk City #Sheeladipo,”1 it posted.

And then, at 7:18 p.m., the floodgates opened. It started with @colter_: “Dunk City for FGCU.” That same minute, @willgraupman took to the hashtag: “#fgcu #tearinitup #dunkcity.” Seven minutes later NBC’s College Basketball Talk blog posted, “Apparently FGCU is located in Dunk City, Florida,” and 19 minutes after that, the university’s Twitter account joined in: “When people ask you where FGCU is, just tell them Dunk City, Florida!” One upset and 1,792 retweets later, an Internet phenomenon was born.

Today, if you log on to FGCU’s athletics website, the dateline at the top of home game recaps says “Dunk City, Fla.” The phrase is written on posters, on T-shirts, on vehicles, on coasters. It is engraved in the tiles that adorn one of the university’s pools. When this year’s crop of freshmen visited campus for orientation last summer, they could take their very first FGCU class, Dunk City 101. (Part of the syllabus: a game called “Eagle pong.”)

Yet ownership of the phrase is in dispute. Within a week of the Georgetown game, a Fort Myers–based music producer named Charlie Pennachio filed a trademark for “Dunk City.” By that point, the university had been licensing its logo for Dunk City–themed merchandise, but it hadn’t yet legally claimed the term. Days later, when USC hired away Enfield, the Pac-12 school began using the hashtag #DunkCityUSC. After drawing ire from Fort Myers, the Trojans dropped the phrase from their promotions.

Ownership of “Dunk City” matters, because those two words represent FGCU’s greatest claim to a sense of school identity. For more than a decade, the university was viewed as little more than a commuter school. In recent years, it’s been thought of as just another second-rate state university for students without many better options. One of the basketball team’s managers, a Fort Myers native, tells me, “Growing up, if you ever said, ‘I’m going to FGCU,’ people were just like oh, OK, you must have really messed up or something. I mean, I got in here with a 2.3 GPA.” But that was before Comer lobbed alley-oops to damn near everyone on the team, before Sherwood Brown celebrated with the Eagles cheerleaders and before Enfield’s model wife became more famous than any of her husband’s players. “Now,” says the manager, “anytime I go back to my high school, all I hear is ‘Dunk City, baby! I’m going to Dunk City!’ It’s the first time people have been proud to go to school here.” Last March, the school’s bookstore increased sales of men’s apparel and hats by 2,270 percent over the previous year. This year the overall number of applications has risen by 36 percent, with out-of-state applications increasing by 41 percent.

In the university president’s conference room, there are few decorations save for a couple newspaper clips from last March. Administrators talk about the run as both a mystical ride and as the moment when the institution’s ambitions became realized. Says Evans, the chief of staff: “It represented so much more than basketball. It was reflective of what we did with this university. Everyone had said: ‘Those people think they’re going to start a brand-new university on land that has cows and alligators roaming.’ Well, yeah, that’s what we did. And then to see that team play that way in the tournament, it was just … It was, ‘This is who we are. This is what we do here.’”

♦♦♦

That’s what it meant to the school. But for the players, those two weeks weren’t about giving life to university administrators’ dreams. They weren’t playing to extend their school’s brand; they weren’t dunking in hopes of being immortalized in YouTube videos and GIFs. The basketball team’s average home attendance that season had been below 50 percent of the arena’s capacity. They’d been winning and dunking all year. It wasn’t their fault the rest of the school had barely noticed. “Literally the only people you ever saw wearing FGCU gear were other athletes,” says Fieler. “Everyone else was wearing stuff from Florida or Florida State.”

So they entered the NCAA tournament playing for their teammates, their coaches, and themselves. As much as anything, they played for Enfield. “He had sold me on nothing,” says Comer, who’s sitting in a conference room just above the Eagles’ gym, sipping a canned tea with Fieler to his side. “Really, when he convinced me to come here, it was nothing. It was the hope of something. That was it.”

But suddenly, come March, that hope was turning into something greater than most of the players ever would have imagined. Suddenly they were in Philly and Comer was throwing lobs, one after another, always on point, always finished with dunks, always drawing screams from announcer Kevin Harlan and applause from a neutral crowd. And suddenly they had won, now on to the round of 32, and traffic to their university’s website had more than doubled, all because of what they’d done. And suddenly it was two days later and they were blowing out San Diego State to advance to the Sweet 16. And suddenly they returned to a campus where they’d once been anonymous and now found themselves welcomed as gods. “People who had never been to the school before,” says Fieler, “now all of a sudden [were] mobbing us.” And suddenly there was a rap video to film and there were autographs to sign and pictures to pose for until it was time to play basketball again. This time it was in Texas, against a Florida team they knew they could beat; only, it turned out, they couldn’t.

And suddenly it was over. The Eagles had lost, and they were back in the locker room, crying, dwelling on what they could have done instead of taking pride in what they did. A half hour after the game, a man from the NCAA walked in, asked for Comer and Fieler, and politely told them to piss in a cup.

It was time for a drug test. “We didn’t even have time to let it sink in,” says Fieler. “It was that fast.” And they wouldn’t get time, because by the time they arrived back in Florida, rumors were spreading that Enfield would soon be gone. That next Monday, a friend asked Fieler what he thought about his coach’s future. “There’s absolutely no way he leaves,” Fieler said. “Not for a few more years.” Enfield had been the one who turned Fieler from an immobile spot-up shooter to a galloping all-conference forward. He’d been the one whom Comer viewed as a father figure, who’d encouraged Comer to see a counselor soon after his actual father died of cancer.

But late that night, Comer picked up his phone and saw a tweet. Enfield was close to taking the job at USC. He called Fly, the assistant coach. Everything’s good, Fly told him. We’re getting ready to get out on the road and recruit. Minutes later, Comer saw another tweet: Enfield had taken the job at USC. Minutes after that, he got a text. Meet at the locker room. Enfield wants to address the team.

And then it all ended. There in the locker room, Enfield told them he was gone. Two weeks ago, they’d been anonymous. One week ago, they’d been gods. And now, the man who’d led them on that euphoric, unprecedented journey was leaving, and there the players sat, wondering how they’d been left behind. “The whole thing was a roller coaster,” says Comer. “It was all of these highs. One after another. And then it starts going down. We lose. And now there’s this guy who sold me the program when it was nothing, and he’s gone. He left me. He left all these guys we made a magical run with. So what’s next for us? We have no coach, no sense of what to do with ourselves. I love Andy to death. I still do. He was like family to me. But there was a lot of anger.” Says Fieler: “I almost felt betrayed.”2

Comer thought of transferring. Fieler, with only one year of eligibility remaining, decided immediately that he would stay. Their anger softened when they heard the details of Enfield’s deal: reportedly $842,500 a year, more than quadruple what he made at FGCU. Says Comer: “Can’t be mad at that.”

♦♦♦

Comer and Fieler weren’t the only stars of Dunk City, of course. There were Enfield and his wife, Amanda, there were Brown and his adoring cheerleaders, and there were high-flying underclassmen like Bernard Thompson and Eric McKnight. There were bench players Eddie Murray, who graduated, and Christophe Varidel, who transferred to Chaminade in Hawaii because — no lie — he wanted to learn how to surf.

And then there were Black Magic and Bambi — the amateur rap duo who helped turn Dunk City from a cute nickname into an all-consuming meme. The video, which features the two rappers rhyming FGCU-inspired lyrics over clips of first-round highlights, appeared online almost instantly after the Georgetown game. Within 24 hours of the upset, Black Magic and Bambi had become more famous than half the Eagles’ roster. Online, it was impossible to consume anything about the team without also consuming the song; the rappers and the players seemed to exist as a single, interdependent supercut of outrageous dunks and rhymes. Wherever you saw Comer, you heard Black Magic: “I know you mad now / Built your brackets up / Put it on your wall / Thought that was enough / But then you watched the game … Comer to Fieler / Damn, rip your brackets up.” The sight of Sherwood Brown evoked the sounds of Bambi: “We fly like a bird and we balled like an eagle / Smashin’ those brackets should be illegal / Wearin’ those crowns, man, we look so regal / We’ll hunt you dogs down like a b-b-b-b-beagle.”

The video and the team and the school all clicked together because they seemed to confirm every last Floridian stereotype: Florida was a place where a university that didn’t exist yesterday was in the Sweet 16 today, where a silver-haired and tatted-up point guard threw nothing but lobs to a collection of teammates who were all dreadlocks and tans and smiles, where coaches were married to models, where wins came accompanied by hype videos and where hype videos were filmed in nondenominational church basements, where you could go from anonymous to famous to anonymous again, all before you had time to wonder if you’d ever been famous at all. If you wanted to explain Florida to someone, you would show them the “Dunk City” video. That’s all you needed.

I went to Fort Myers expecting to find Black Magic and Bambi still chasing a music career, perhaps doing shows in Florida college towns, maybe getting some airtime on local radio. Instead, when I requested an interview with Bambi, we decided to meet at Christa McAuliffe Charter Elementary School, in a room on the second floor. I walked in to find a whiteboard decorated with notes on potential and kinetic energy. Standing in the middle of the room was the same woman who became Internet famous for rapping while dunking stuffed animals through a Nerf basket less than a year ago. But instead of a backward snapback and jeans, she wore a business casual skirt and sweater. Bambi was no more. This was Amber Angeloro, first-year third-grade teacher.

“Honestly,” she said, “I kind of felt obnoxious. It started as just a joke, just a random thing for our friends, and then all of a sudden we were everywhere. I’m sure people were thinking, These two again? Really?

She sat at the children’s table in the corner of the room and told her story. She’d gotten a text from her friend Malike Adigun, then a fellow senior in FGCU’s education department. Let’s write a rap, it said. Angeloro had been known to perform Nicki Minaj at karaoke, and she’d recorded a few rhymes for fun with Adigun and other friends. Sure, she’d said. Spring break at Oasis Charter School, where she was a full-time intern, had just begun. She had nothing else to do. Why not commemorate FGCU’s upset with a few celebratory bars?

Forty-five minutes later, they met at the Vineyard Community Church in Cape Coral. They decided to use Tyga’s “Rack City,” turning the hook into “Dunk City.” They spent a few minutes writing lyrics over the beat and then entered the church’s studio to record. Immediately after that, they made the video, though at that point, Angeloro said, “I could barely even remember any of the words.” It didn’t matter. They spliced in some highlights and posted the video on YouTube, sharing it with their Facebook friends. It went viral overnight.

FGCU won again that Sunday afternoon. For a few more days, the team would remain the biggest story in sports. When the players returned home to chaos, Angeloro and Adigun got swept up alongside them. Suddenly they were cohosting radio shows and doing interviews with TV stations. A local channel, WINK, wanted them to record a sequel to be premiered on its newscast. So they laid down some lyrics over the beat to Drake’s “Started From the Bottom,” and they joined the players for a shoot on campus. Suddenly everywhere Angeloro went, she was recognized. Then came a call from CBS. They wanted a third video, but this one had to be made with an original beat. So they flew to Dallas for the Sweet 16, they went to Cowboys Stadium to start filming, and then, before they had put it all together, the week had ended and FGCU had lost.

The run was over. “I think this is a sign,” Angeloro remembers saying. “I think our rap careers are over.”

Just as quickly as they’d entered the spotlight, Bambi and Black Magic disappeared. They posted footage from their third video shoot online. The original video has gotten more than 750,000 views. This one got fewer than 400. They returned to school. They graduated. They looked for jobs and fell back into their normal lives.

When Angeloro interviewed for her position at McAuliffe Elementary, she prepared a response in case the principal asked her about her rap career. It never came up. But when it came time for orientation last summer, a couple of parents pulled her aside. “We wanted to find out more about our son’s teacher, so we Googled your name,” they said. She remembers her face going red, her eyes turning down. She looked up to see disapproving nods.

Then on the first day of school, one student raised his hand. “Are you the girl from the Dunk City video?” Yes, she admitted, it was true. The 8-year-olds gasped and asked her to rap, but Miss Angeloro declined. This was her first day as a teacher. She wasn’t going to let it be defined by the memory of one week last spring.

As for Adigun, he didn’t respond to interview requests. Adigun is also a teacher, now at Challenger Middle, and he works as a DJ on the side. If you visit his website, you’ll find all you need to know about booking DJ Malike for your next Southwest Florida wedding.

But you’ll find no mention of his viral fame. Just like Bambi, Black Magic has left Dunk City behind.

♦♦♦

It’s now February 2014, 11 months after Dunk City became famous and one month before they’ll try to do it again. The sports information office has turned to a new hashtag, this one saying #StillHere, sent into the ether to let all who follow them know that the Eagles are still lobbing, still dunking, still one or two good matchups away from dancing their way deep into the bracket.

They have a new coach, Joe Dooley, formerly the lead assistant at Kansas. It’s fallen to him to turn a one-weekend phenomenon into a nascent mid-major power. “This is a program that had never experienced success until last season,” says Dooley. “They had to learn how to handle expectations.” Enfield encouraged freedom within his system, imploring the players to relax and remain aggressive. Before practice, the players warmed up by playing freeze tag. Turnovers drew little criticism. Enfield believed it was better to be aggressive and risk losing a few possessions than to play scared.

The players admit they were inconsistent last season. “We could blow a team out by 30,” says Comer, “or we could lose to that team by 30. You never knew.” Dooley has slowed them down, preaching patience and discipline, but the team’s early results were discouraging. FGCU lost five of six games from late November to early December. In one early-season practice, Comer remembers, “We ran the same play over and over for more than an hour. I felt like we would never get it right. Last year, if we didn’t get what we wanted the first time through a set, we’d just go straight to pick-and-roll. Now we’re pulling it out, going through it again, trying to be more patient.”

FGCU’s offensive efficiency is down from last year, but defensive efficiency is up. And though Dooley wants his players to cut down on turnovers, he knows that FGCU has a brand, and that brand requires lobs and dunks. “When we were looking for a new coach, we made it very clear that we wanted someone who could coach a similar style of play,” says athletic director Ken Kavanagh. “That’s what recruits like. That’s what fans like. That’s what we’re known for. We feel like we’re getting that with Joe.”

They stand at 17-10, 11-3 in the Atlantic Sun. Attendance has nearly doubled. Ranked 202nd in the BPI and 159th in the RPI, they stand no chance at an at-large berth, but they’ll be cofavorites alongside Mercer in the Atlantic Sun tournament. Win and they’ll have a chance to prove that last year was no fluke. That’s been the mantra. Says Fly: “All year we’ve been saying, ‘Don’t let last year be the peak. That was not the highlight of your life.’”

♦♦♦

The reality that last year had ended came into full focus in November. Enfield was on the other side of the country, preparing for an uneven debut season at USC.3 Sherwood Brown was headed back Stateside, weeks after being cut by Israel’s Maccabi Haifa. “It was frustrating,” says Brown, now playing with the Maine Red Claws in the D-League.4

FGCU was set to open its season at Nebraska. The university’s president, Wilson Bradshaw, told Kavanagh he wanted to attend the game. “What time does the charter flight leave?” he asked. Kavanagh informed him there would be no charter. Dunk City aside, this was still a low-budget program in a mid-major league. Charter flights would be reserved for the postseason.

They arrived to play a middling Cornhuskers team. In the crowd, students held signs that said, “We’re the real dunk city.” Soon it dawned on Comer that he had become, he says, “one of the most hated players in the country.” Nebraska rolled, 79-55. Comer shot 1-for-6. Three weeks later, FGCU was blown out again, this time at NC State. Fieler scored 18 that night, but he believed he could have played better, that he could have done something to prevent a blowout, to keep his team in the game.

After both games, both players responded the same way. They opened their laptops or turned on their phones. They clicked their way toward YouTube. They pulled up one of the dozens of highlight videos from last March. And no matter how bad they lost or how poorly they played, no matter how difficult it may be to recapture the joys of last year, they could sit on the plane or in the dorm and for at least a few minutes, they could watch themselves, fearless on the screen: a loop of their lives’ greatest moments. And if they ever felt like they weren’t ready for it to be over, they could click refresh and watch the whole thing again.

Filed Under: College Basketball, FGCU, Brett Comer, Andy Enfield, Dunk City

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn

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