I have seen a lot of Penn Basketball over my lifetime. Thus I must say Dave Zeitlin’s great piece in the Pennsylvania Gazette about the 2005 Penn-Princeton game, filled me with much wistful melancholy.
First, a confession: I was more than 100 miles away from the Palestra on game day. Instead of being in the stands, I was sitting in my car on that cold, rainy night in Rockaway Beach Queens near JFK Airport listening to the Princeton broadcast as it faded in and out across my car radio. Unimpeded by the tall buildings of Manhattan and beamed over a frigid New York Bay, I knew from years of experience that this secluded landmark could adequately receive a reasonable but faint signal from the New Jersey hinterlands. To get to my vantage point I took a 20-mile detour on my way home from work. If that’s not fandom I don’t know what is.
Today, the idea of not being able to instantly punch up the score or even watch the game on my phone seems almost quaint, but the first generation iPhone, with all its app power, was then still more than two years away. As I strained to listen, I heard the Princeton student broadcasters convulse with delight, as the favored Tigers buried Penn before halftime. Disgusted, and angry at myself for driving so far afield to listen to a basketball game, I turned the ignition key and headed back to Gotham. It wasn’t until the next morning when I heard what actually transpired.
There is no need for me to recap the details. Mr. Zeitlin has done an excellent job of chronicling the outcome of the game for the interested reader. Yet, after watching the video clips of screaming fans and reading the interviews with the former players of that wondrous comeback, I felt strangely sullen and empty. After some reflection,
I realized what was bothering me was the prior relevance the Quaker hoops program has had for generations of students and alumni. For over forty years, this “Pennstitution” has always been an irreplaceable source of pride and, to many, an essential part of our college experience. However, given the pathetic state of the current varsity team, I assure you this relevance has all but disappeared. A mostly empty Palestra on game days is all you need to see that I am correct. Even this week’s Daily Pennsylvanian unabashedly agrees. Through a series of poor decisions by your predecessors, the Penn Basketball “brand” has been severely damaged, perhaps irreparably so. Still the sport, more than any other on campus, continues to be a significant part of our lives both during and after college. Crazy, pensive, disillusioned hoop fan hyperbole you say? Here is the link to the Ivy League Basketball Message Board. Notice that Penn fans have left over 56,000 messages on over 4,300 topics. This is almost six times the number of messages left by the next closest schools. Translation: There are legions of people who still care deeply about what happens each winter inside The Cathedral–but for how long?
Every few weeks, I receive a “Penn Basketball Memories” email from the Athletic Department. In it, as I’m sure you are aware, are the musings of former players and students as they recount glorious moments in Quaker basketball history. It is a fitting title since there is no longer anything to see or root for. The Ivy League schedule has abundantly shown that this team is no longer competitive within its own conference. Embarrassing blowouts to frontrunning Harvard and Yale as well as a disheartening loss to a recently depleted Brown squad, all at home, is ample proof. The level of play, which used to be so elegant, now sometimes rivals that of a high school team; not one that is one of the most accomplished in NCAA history. Since our last championship in 2007, the team has mostly maintained its status quo of poor play. Along the way there has been discernible dysfunction, insubordination, puzzling season-ending injuries and several players of poor moral fiber. There has also been no discernible growth in skill and many, including me, would say that this season there has even been some regression. The coaching staff has managed to lose in the exact same fashion with players conscripted by the former coach as well as those that they have recruited themselves.
In short, the names and faces all change, but unfortunately the disappointing, and often disastrous, results remain the same. What’s more, we have forever lost two entire generations of alumni supporters who have never seen Penn win. Is this the type of athletic program you want to represent the University of Pennsylvania?
Please understand that I am not one of those whacked-out fans who achingly yearns for the past and all its glory. (Personally I’m shocked, yet gratified nonetheless, that the Penn-Princeton duopoly lasted as long as it did). On the contrary, I’ve always made it a point to live in the moment and welcome the challenges of the future. Regardless, times change and every person, enterprise or technology must continue to evolve or risk being left behind. Penn Basketball has already become a car radio in an iPhone world and unless we start evolving, “Penn Basketball Memories” is all we’ll ever have.
Stay Red and Blue my friends,