Carnegie Mellon University
July 02, 2020

The Lunch-bunch

A decades-long basketball tradition brings CMU staff, faculty and students onto the court

By Michael Henninger

Jason Maderer
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Zack Rubinstein and Sean McGowan hurriedly changed out of work clothes into T-shirts, shorts and basketball shoes in the locker room adjacent to Wiegand Gym. Earlier that morning, their Carnegie Mellon University colleague Kareem Demian started an email chain on a distribution list affectionately called the "Lunch-bunch" with a simple message: Let's do this.

Rubinstein and McGowan tried each week to arrange their Tuesday and Friday schedules around a long-running lunchtime basketball game held in the Cohon University Center's basketball court. They worked as a steady stream of one-word replies to Demian's message filled their inbox. "In," each one read, as colleagues across the university signaled they would show up at noon for the game.

Rubinstein, a principal project scientist at CMU's Robotics Institute, and McGowan, an assistant director of employer relations, might otherwise never have interacted at a university that employs nearly 7,000 people. But because of the biweekly game, open to all-comers, the two became fast friends. A wide range of staff, faculty and students — an English professor from the Dietrich College of Humanities of Social Sciences, a campus chaplain and MBA students from the Tepper School of Business among them — find a way to keep coming back for midday hoops.

McGowan was eager to play. He treasured these games, and knew he'd soon be taking a hiatus. He and his wife, Briana, a donor relations specialist working for University Advancement, expected their first child to be born in December.

As Rubinstein and McGowan were subbed in on opposite teams, they found themselves guarding one another on defense. They hustled down the court for the first sequence, which ended when Rubinstein uncharacteristically turned over the ball by missing a shot. As both teams jogged down the court, McGowan looked back at Rubinstein, who had stopped running.

"Wait..." Rubinstein's voice trailed off, and he collapsed to the ground.

His heart had stopped.

1989-2020

Joe Mertz started playing with the Lunch-bunch in 1989, the year "Batman," starring Michael Keaton, premiered in theaters, George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency, and Michael Jordan hit "The Shot" to eliminate the Cleveland Cavaliers from the NBA playoffs. Mertz was in his second year of graduate school. Thirty years later, he's the game's longest-running player, and is now director of the Undergraduate Information Systems Program.

"I hate exercise. If I had to go running, after a quarter mile I'd likely pass out from boredom," Mertz said. "But I can run playing hoops for an hour and 15 minutes and not even notice. It's a great way to exercise, to burn off energy."

Mertz said the game had been going strong for years when he started playing. It ran three days a week in Skibo Gym. Throughout his career at CMU, his role has evolved from graduate student, to director of the Center for University Outreach, to teaching faculty, but the Lunch-bunch game has, at its core, stayed the same.

"This game is a pretty friendly one," Mertz said. "Everyone who's waiting gets to play."

Four years ago, Ivan White left his part-time job at Carnegie Mellon as a fitness instructor, personal trainer and group exercise leader. Today, he's still a staple in the Lunch-bunch games. White schedules his personal training clients in nearby neighborhoods at times that allow him to make it to the game.

"What's kept me coming back? I look at the folks there as my brothers," White said. "I love ripping and running, hearing the guys joking, arguing and just having a good time while getting some exercise."

"When I first started working here, I fell in love with this school," White said. "The institution has character-driven folks who are getting the most out of themselves. The student athletes are just as passionate about their sport as they are academics and I love to see that."

At 52, White is far from the oldest player on the court. Yet he's aware of the importance of finding ways to stay healthy while continuing his basketball exploits.

"Zack's heart attack was a little bit shocking to me," White said. "He's a little older than me, but not much. But he has the explosiveness of someone in their 20s. He's like an anomaly, a great competitor."

Saving Zack


John Alison, an assistant professor of physics, is a true hustler during the Lunch-bunch games. After any change in possession, it's rare not to see Alison in a full sprint heading to the other end of the court.

Alison watched that day as Rubinstein hit the floor. Unbeknownst to the group, a piece of plaque had broken off the walls of Rubinstein's left anterior descending (LAD) artery, causing a complete blockage of blood flow to his heart. It only takes minutes without oxygen for permanent brain damage to occur in the victim.

"I watched it all happen in slow motion," Alison said. "I knew immediately that whatever was happening with Zack, we were going to need professional help."

Alison's characteristic hustle kicked into gear. He sprinted out of the gym and to the nearby Information Desk, explaining quickly what happened and asking the attendant to call 911. As he did that, Stan Krowitz, the Cohon Center events and facilities coordinator, overheard. He pulled an automated external defibrillator (AED) off the wall and headed for the gym.

Carnegie Mellon Police Officer Brant Waugaman, who at the time was still in training, sat outside the Connan Room. Nov. 5 was election day, and he was assigned to ensure things went smoothly for voters. Alison spotted Waugaman on his way back to the gym and quickly enlisted him in the effort to save Rubinstein's life.

"When we got back in the gym, Zack had gone from bad to worse," Alison said. "I thought he was already dead."

Waugaman started performing compressions and CPR as Krowitz began to unpack the AED.

Jim Moran, a CMU security officer, heard the call for aid come in over his radio while getting a cup of tea in Entropy, the convenience store in the Cohon Center. He ran to the Wiegand gym and took over doing chest compression from Waugaman, who shifted his attention to helping Krowitz attach the leads from the defibrillator to Rubinstein's chest. Officer Adam Wade also had responded and was helping to count out compressions.

Once the AED was attached, it gave out the command to get clear, and twice delivered electrical shocks, restarting Rubinstein's heart.

Rubinstein came to, disoriented but alive, and emergency medical services personnel arrived on scene ready to treat him further.

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Security Office Jim Moran, one of the officers involved in saving Zachary Rubinstein's life, poses for a photo with Rubinstein upon encountering him in the Cohon Center months after the event. 

 Recovery

Rubinstein came to CMU in 2006, and found the Lunch-bunch game not long after. He's been playing ever since.

"There's something very therapeutic and restorative about the game," Rubinstein said. "After playing, I feel relaxed and fortified to take on the rest of my day."

While he recovered from his heart attack at UPMC Presbyterian, at least five Lunch-bunch regulars, enough to field a team, visited to check in on how he was doing.

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The Lunch-bunch players pose for a photo after Zack Rubinstein's first game back after his heart attack. They are, from left to right, Jackson Brietzke, Stephen Hardesty, Joe Mertz, Zack Rubinstein, Christopher Warren, Nick Wechter, John Alison, Eric Andrae, Garrett Goon and Tom Link.
"In life, you hear people talking about having your back. That can be family and friends. But the reality is I feel very close to the people I play basketball with," Rubinstein said. "The fast actions of these people saved my life. They got the help, and the police gave me CPR. The stars were aligned. The first time I saw my cardiologist, he told me, 'You have had an incredibly unfortunate thing happen, and you have had the most fortunate outcome.'

Rubinstein cited basketball as a key motivation in his path to recovery. Even before he was cleared to play in games, he would show up during the Lunch-bunch's game time and practice shooting on an adjacent court.

"Returning to normalcy was incredibly important, and for me, normalcy is basketball," Rubinstein said. "Play basketball. It's a very basic and simplistic kind of thought. But I've been playing for so many years, it was a big deal for me to get back on the court."