This is a story that begins approximately thirty years ago, in a little bandbox of a gym that smelled of sweat socks and stale hot dogs. I cannot tell you precisely when it began, because I do not remember the first Penn State basketball game I ever attended; it is possible I have blocked this memory out, as one might with any number of slightly more serious childhood traumas. In scanning the documented history, the first game I distinctly remember attending occurred on November 28, 1980, when Penn State defeated Ursinus, 101-68. I did not know then, and do not know now, what an Ursinus is, or where it is located, or if it is infectious--it has always sounded more like a brand of baby aspirin than an actual college. But this is what Penn State basketball has traditionally been about: We perform astonishingly well against schools with names that sound vaguely like pharmaceuticals, or against vo-tech academies, or against hairdressers' colleges. (Philadelphia Textile, anyone?) Against actual colleges--well, let us just say the record over the past three decades has been decidedly, um, mixed.
I am writing this on Sunday afternoon, as I watch the announcement of the NCAA tournament pairings; Penn State, despite a valiant season (and a win over the New Jersey Institute of Technology), has fallen just short of a tournament bid for what only seems like the 19th consecutive season. Actually, it has been since 2001, which was the year that my alma mater somehow blundered its way past North Carolina and into the Sweet Sixteen. That whole thing seemed illogical and surreal. It is perhaps the only modern sports moment I can remember that actually felt like an out-of-body experience.
This is because I know the history. This is because I have been following and watching Penn State basketball games for the better part of three decades, and I know where we came from. And somewhere, I still have the scorebooks to prove it.
I grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, you see, in a town where, if football is king, basketball is something like the royal food-taster. It exists in a vacuum, ignored until it is suddenly thrust into a brief moment of national relevancy, and then it vanishes again for another decade or so. After a while, I kind of figured this is the way it should be; I kind of figured that any major college whose football program and basketball program manage national relevance at the same time is somehow cheating fate. Those who support Ohio State and Florida do not know what it means to truly suffer; those who support Ohio State and Florida do not know what it is like to watch a Division I basketball team with a 6-11 center (nickname, pre-Bull Durham: Nuke) who is simply not athletic enough to actually dribble a basketball.
Well, I have seen this. I have also seen passes fly into the stands and I have seen coaches so exasperated they've nearly lost their minds and I have seen 10-point leads blown in the final 45 seconds and I have seen epic games lost in two and three overtimes. I have been a fan of a program whose high watermark in the 1980s may have come in '85, when a guard named Craig Collins made 95.9 percent of his free throws, thereby setting a national record. I have watched a forward named Tom Hovasse, an awkward sharpshooting redheaded who broke his nose and was forced to wear a mask that made him look like a hybrid of Richie Cunningham and an ostrich. I have seen the inimitable Frank Brickowski, who somehow played 73 years in the NBA despite having no discernible skills, and I have seen Calvin Booth (ditto), and I have seen John Amaechi, who was/is perhaps the nicest and most intelligent athlete I have ever met, and who, next to a young Chris Webber, appeared to actually be wearing concrete shoes. I have witnessed the brilliance of Carl Chrabascz and Mike Iuzzolino and Elton Carter (who only sounds like a character from the movie Clueless). I have met a genial skeletal dude with a fade who nicknamed himself Q-Tip and a power forward with a considerable rear end who called himself Big House.
Over the years, from the age of 5 to the age of 17, I actually kept a scorebook at many of these games, for reasons I cannot explain, except it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, if only because nobody else (including the official scorekeeper) seemed to be paying attention. Over time, I expanded my scorebook to include rebounds and assists and steals, until I left for college, at which point I realized this scorebook did not bode well for my chances of having a girlfriend before I turned 30.
I have seen four coaches in three decades: Dick Harter, a short-fused former Marine lieutenant who could not stand to be there more than five years before jumping to the NBA, where he did not have to deal with the likes of Dick Mumma (a center whose name, I can assure you, personified his style of play); Bruce Parkhill, a disarmingly handsome man and an outstanding bench coach who lasted 12 years before departing under circumstances that were never really explained; Jerry Dunn, a longtime assistant coach who never seemed particularly excited to be anywhere, let alone on the Penn State bench; and now Ed DeChellis, a balding former Parkhill assistant who seems perpetually neurotic, like a poor man's Jeff Van Gundy.
Perhaps I have lost you already, for speaking about the lore of Penn State basketball is nothing like speaking about the lore of Penn State football. Discussing the history of Penn State football is like breaking down 1960's Rolling Stones albums; even those people who don't follow music probably know something about Beggar's Banquet. Discussing the history of Penn State basketball is like analyzing the oeuvre of an obscure Akron band that opened for the Feelies back in 1985. In a way, this is why I have always liked it better. It is a well-kept secret--it is like a cult. The Cult of Mike Peapos. The Cult of Michael Joseph. The Cult of Steve Wydman and Nate Althouse and Greg Bartram.
I can go on here. I can tell you about 1983, Parkhill's first season, when Penn State still belonged to the Atlantic-10 conference, when my brother and I listened to the first round of the A-10 tournament on the radio, dreaming only a single postseason victory over the likes of St. Bonaventure (we lost by 14). I can tell you about 1991, about two guards, Freddie Barnes and Monroe "Money" Brown (who later went to prison on charges of cocaine trafficking), leading Penn State to the Atlantic-10 tournament championship and then springing an upset of UCLA in the first round of the NCAAs. And I can tell you about 1993, about the Lickliter Conspiracy, when an official's beguiling and indefensible call prevented an upset over Indiana, then the No. 1 team in the country.
Most of all, I can tell you about Rec Hall, a 7,000-seat gym on the west side of campus where Penn State played until the mid-1990s. I can tell you that even now, Rec Hall is the loudest gym I have ever been to--the bleachers, where the students sat, extended onto the floor itself, so that you could actually whisper in Jalen Rose's ear when he tried to inbound the ball from the sideline. Soon after I graduated, the team moved across campus to the Bryce Jordan Center, a sterile 15,000-seat arena that hosts monster-truck rallies and Tim McGraw concerts and is generally half-full for basketball games, because most of the prime seats are held by people who bought them simply because the purchase of basketball tickets affords them the privilege of being able to buy football tickets
It is not the same anymore, and the older I get, the more I realize that my complaints sound like empty nostalgia--but I do believe that when it comes to gyms, this is one thing that the new economy of sports has completely ruined. When it comes to gyms, in my mind, smaller is ALWAYS better (See: Cameron Indoor).
Anyway, that's the story. It is a history any fan of a perennially underachieving franchise can relate to; it is the same reason a longtime Cleveland Indians fan feels his history is more authentic and more personal than that of a Yankees fan. And because of it, some selfish and nostalgic and entirely irrational instinct buried deep within my psyche is glad that this Penn State team didn't make the tournament, and hopes that they never make it big, and that they never become a perennial power.* In a way, this history is one of my oldest and most prized possessions; it is difficult and awkward and intimate and seasoned with outsized ambition. These moments, these names, these scores--these are some of the oldest and most pleasurable things I own.
*Though generally, this instinct is overpowered by the pipe dream of Talor Battle somehow leading Penn State to the Final Four before he graduates, at which point my head might explode.
(Amaechi photo by Jonathan Daniel)