That Time When Ted Cruz Faced off Against Austan Goolsbee in a Pickup Basketball Game

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 21 2013 11:49 AM

"Ted Couldn't Help Himself From Taking the Shots"

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Ted Cruz, debate circuit stud

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Patricia Murphy's sort-of illuminating, sort-of bizarre story on Sen. Ted Cruz's Princeton years depicts the senator as just as conservative and polarizing as he is today. His freshman-year roommate, Craig Mazin, provides some nice color:

"I remember very specifically that he had a book in Spanish and the title was Was Karl Marx a Satanist? And I thought, who is this person?" Mazin says of Ted Cruz. “Even in 1988, he was politically extreme in a way that was surprising to me.”
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The article goes on to describe Cruz as being "creepy" for donning a paisley bathrobe and wandering past the girls' bathroom on his dorm floor, yet by another (anonymous) account he was "sort of a stud" with the girls on the college debate circuit. What do other people who debated with Cruz think of him?

I talked to some Yale debate team alumni who competed with Cruz in college—Yale and Princeton have a decades-spanning, Crips/Bloods sort of debate team rivalry. Slate's own Dahlia Lithwick faced off against Cruz in college tournaments, and remembers his high-minded rhetoric. "He wasn’t ‘creepy’ on the debate circuit—he was a phenom," she said. "When Ted was 19 people knew he’d run for president."

Cruz competed against and lost to former White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee in the American Parliamentary Debate Association's 1991 Team of the Year* contest. (Cruz went on to win in 1992.) Goolsbee's debate partner, David Gray, recalled that after beating Cruz and his partner, David Panton, one team challenged the other to a pickup basketball game. As Gray remembers it, Goolsbee was matched up to guard Cruz, and proceeded to trash-talk Cruz up and down the court.

"Austan can be very, very funny. He kept challenging Ted to shoot the ball from outlandishly long places—'I bet you $20 you can't make a shot from right here,' " Gray said. "Austan would bait Ted to shoot, shoot, shoot, and it was not a good result for him. ... Ted couldn’t help himself from taking the shots." Princeton lost the game.

Goolsbee wouldn't comment on the basketball game, but said many of Cruz's debate mannerisms have stayed the same over the years; he has the "same raised fist gesture and eloquent outrage over the philosophical offenses committed by his opponents." Harry Susman, a Houston-based attorney who was also on the Yale debate team, knew Cruz from their high school years in Houston and on the Ivy League circuit. He recalled Cruz as being nerdy but not as openly conservative as the Daily Beast story painted him.

"The guy was a great debater, he really was. I don’t think anyone would dispute that," Susman said. "The guy’s really smart, he’s quick on his feet, and he’s very serious about issues of public concern, so that’s a pretty good combination." Was he really a "stud" with girls on the debate circuit? Susman laughed. "I will say this: Being a stud with girls on the debate circuit does not mean you’re a stud with girls."

*This post has been clarified to reflect that they were competing for Team of the Year, not the APDA's national championship.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.

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