Years ago, back in the black and white, pre-digital ether, I attended my first Penn basketball game on a chilly, late fall evening. The Cathedral, an edifice I didn’t even know existed until I was nestled wide-eyed within its cavernous nave, was steamy and the burgeoning Big 5 crowd, restless, loud and profane. In my hand was a game program with Penn’s All Time Leaders featured prominently across its center portion.
Naturally, my eyes drifted to the sexiest stat of all: all-time scoring leader. It was Ernie Beck, 1951-1953, 1,827 points. “Ernie Beck.” That name sounded old. It conjured up mental images of the colorless, antediluvian days of a two-handed set shot sailing through the air before orderly rows of spectators wearing suits and ties. As my attention quickly returned to the spectacle before me, I recall thinking, “That record may never be broken.” I was right — until now.
AJ Brodeur will most likely be remembered for finally eclipsing this lofty personal milestone for a school with a long and proud basketball tradition, but what he really did over his four years wearing the Red & Blue was something much greater — he saved the program.
Of course, a statement like this seemingly exaggerates his importance over dozens of worthy teammates and a coach who was not only astute enough to see his potential as a prep star, but also experienced enough to help nurture his prodigious skill set. It makes little difference. For a player in this era of bigger and stronger athletes, to never miss a practice, start every game, and frequently out-duel opponents who are often bigger, stronger and faster and to do so for almost the entire 40 minute contest (the famous “Brodeur Motor”) without ever incurring a serious injury over a four-year college career is by itself an extraordinary achievement.
Penn basketball was a rudderless mess until Mr. Brodeur came to campus. Years of thoughtless mismanagement and inexperience had relegated Penn to a formerly unthinkable place: the Ivy cellar. Yet as a reliable pillar in which a rebuilding program could rely upon, he not only realized many great achievements for himself but, in the process, was able to help bring Penn an Ivy League championship, a Big 5 championship (perhaps a much more difficult achievement in that it entailed defeating the defending national champions), four consecutive years of Ivy League Tournament berths, and most importantly, helped return the Quakers to a respectable place within the Ivy League. I’m not sure any of this would have been possible without him.
What’s more notable, he achieved all of these milestones without ever winning Ivy League Rookie or Player of the Year honors. (He better win the latter this year, though.) I have seen five decades of Penn players and there have been many great ones. Speedy, fearless guards like Zack Rosen who could distribute the ball while simultaneously carrying the team on his shoulders. Bruising big men like Tony Price who always seemed to hit the big shot when it was needed most, and lithe, athletic forwards like Paul Little who could float across the Palestra hardwood as if lighter than air.
AJ has all of these qualities (except, perhaps, the latter) which makes him all the more noteworthy. From a spectator’s point of view, he just doesn’t look fast, musclebound or astonishingly nimble, yet he could do all that was asked of him better than the majority of his seemingly more preternaturally “gifted” hoops predecessors. His selflessness as a teammate is indisputable. Now, combine all of these qualities with being Penn’s all-time scoring leader, all-time leader in blocks, and owning the sole triple-double in school history.
Without a doubt, AJ Brodeur is the most complete player for Penn I have ever seen.
It has been an amazing and memorable college basketball career for Mr. Brodeur which, unfortunately for Penn fans, will end sometime this month. Still, what I will remember most is not how he outplayed 7’6” Tacko Fall as a freshman or his patented jump hook swishing through the net to win a game. It will be how he saved Penn basketball and, because of this, it has been a delightful four years. On behalf of a grateful Quaker Nation, thanks AJ.
Stay Red and Blue, my Friends.