Recently, I came across one of my old undergraduate notebooks. It was from a rather derivative course in Philosophical Anthropology, The Death Ritual in Ancient Civilizations: Meaning and Myth. As I flipped through the tattered, yellowed pages, I perused the notes on the practices of the Aztecs during the Feast of Toxcatl.
For one year, a flawless youth was selected by the Ancient Mexicans to live among the tribe as a God. The young man was perfection personified: the avatar of beauty and health. He was given lavish clothes, eight servants and four virgins to attend to his every wish. However, at the end of the year when the feast began, The Chosen One climbed the stairs of the great temple where priests cut his heart out and offered it, still beating, to the sun.*
*Full disclosure: There was never any course in “Philosophical Anthropology.” I’m not even sure such a discipline even exists. I simply lifted the preceding material from an article on Megan Fox in the February edition of Esquire Magazine. The actress’ sultry eyes, dangerous curves, and tattooed skin served as a necessary distraction to keep my eyes averted from the television as the St. Joe’s Hawks opened a “can o’ whup ass” on the Quakers.
The above historical tale could be considered a rather grandiose metaphor (hey, it’s me) for my recent life as a Penn hoops fan (minus the clothes, beauty, servants and, of course, virgins.) After living for decades as a basketball God, I am slowly getting my heart ripped out as my team continues to find new and innovative ways to lose. They lose when they shoot 60%. They lose when they turn the ball over 26 times, when they commit 24 fouls, when they don’t rebound, when they outrebound, when they play defense, because of illness, because of scandal, but mostly they lose because, for the moment at least, the Quakers are hopelessly inexperienced. This obviously is not news, but it bears repeating as the fan base now appears to be in a state of complete revolt with the team’s undeniably pathetic 3-15 record.
The student body is angry. The graduating seniors will be one of the few classes never to have witnessed a Quaker team as an Ivy League champion. The Daily Pennsylvanian has been rather petty and sarcastic in its coverage of the team. They have printed articles proclaiming, among other things, “Come Back Zack,” and have gone so low as to
even belittle the Quakers’ “tacky, poorly designed, bright red mesh” uniforms. After Miles Cartwright went 1-7 against Princeton, The Buzz sports blog published a piece complete with video (http://blogs.dailypennsylvanian.com/thebuzz/tag/miles-cartwright/), ridiculing the team captain by saying that he should be “taking notes” from his 5’7” younger brother. (Parker- Jackson Cartwright is a top high school prospect in Los Angeles who ESPN calls “the best point guard . . . [it has] seen since Baron Davis laced them up at Crossroads High School.”) In addition, there is now a weekly Haiku feature often mocking the team’s ineffectiveness.
“Locked in the basement
Quakers’ only thought “oh crap,
We’re playing Temple”
The alumni are restive. They are used to a basketball program that not only wins, but dominates. Many blame President Guttmann for being indifferent and the Athletic Director for being cheap and self-serving. Most call the team “horrific”, “completely undisciplined” and “overmatched.” Others have been even less charitable. I have read myriad blog entries which basically state: “this team is destroying what little connection I have with my alma mater” and “if you are a young high school student athlete, don’t come to Penn!” There has also been an ongoing dialectic in the Penn media about whether we as a school, given the recent rise of Harvard and some other basketball programs, should still possess the same sense of “entitlement” we’ve had for decades when it comes to winning the Ivy title every year.
And it goes further.
Everyone from Rush the Court, to television analysts, to the entire Penn community is now questioning Jerome Allen’s ability to coach at the D-I level. They point to his lack of prior head coaching experience, question his player substitutions, and are continually irked by his penchant for deflecting responsibility for the team’s failures. Even opponents have gotten into the act. Princeton’s Ian Hummer found it somewhat humorous that Steve Rennard, a player he “outweighed by about 100 pounds” was chosen by Coach Allen to guard him three weeks ago at Jadwin. (Naturally, that was before Rennard caused him to turn the ball over six times and limited him to 13 points.) Despite all of the outrage, Athletic Director Bilsky has recently given Coach Allen his full support. But in this “win now” collegiate athletic environment, there are already strident calls for a change in command.
Ugly uniforms, little brothers and snarky opponents aside, clearly it has been a dreadful winter so far in Philadelphia. Of course, as you might guess, I tend to see things differently.
First of all after losing two assistant coaches, the Ivy POY, four seniors, and the current star player for much of this season due to illness, it seems like the only person of import returning to the Penn roster for 2013 was Coach Allen. What’s more, the only player this year who had significant playing time last year is the now much maligned Mr. Cartwright. (Fran Dougherty came off the bench contributing only 16.6 MPG vs. Cartwright’s 33.2 MPG in 2012.) Tell me, who could win consistently with such an upheaval of personnel? Regardless, the freshman-laden lineup has managed to hang tough against both Butler and Temple. There have also been nine losses by a total of only 53 points. That works out to about 6 points per game. So a 3-15 record could easily be a very respectable 12-5 going into Ivy play. Admittedly, there have been many unquestionably poor showings for a multitude of reasons, which is now well-covered territory. Contrary to popular belief, I think Jerome Allen is in fact doing an
admirable job at handling the fragile psyche of his fledgling charges. This is an extremely difficult challenge in itself because last time I checked “youthful experience” is still an oxymoron.
It’s true 3-15 is not a pretty record, and the tough Friday-Saturday Ivy schedule will undoubtedly be yet another difficult adjustment on such a young group of players. But Penn is the one 3-15 team that I’m certain no one wants to play against right now. With the return of Fran Dougherty, the rise of Darien Nelson-Henry, and Miles Cartwright finally looking like he is peaking at the right time, I give the Quakers a decent chance to do some real damage over the next couple of weeks. If they can play like they did against Temple on a more consistent basis, who in the league is going to beat them?
I can assure you the waiting is extraordinarily difficult to a former “God” like me. Much more time will be needed before the program can finally right itself and, although it won’t be this year, the resurgence of Penn basketball may finally be within sight. Remember, the Feast of Toxcatl didn’t last forever for the Aztecs either.
Stay Red and Blue my friends.