Thursday, January 20, 2011

On The Long and Illustrious History of Penn State Basketball, Part II

I don't have children, and I don't know that I ever will have children, but if I did, I would wish one thing upon them: That they not be born into royalty. I am speaking metaphorically, of course, unless you happen to be a member of the British royal family, in which case you probably do not seek advice on child-rearing from obscure blogspot outposts. I am speaking of sports*, and specifically, of rooting interests, because I find that many of the most interesting people I know did not grow up enamored of teams who enjoyed a particular amount of success.** Every child with literary aspirations should bear an allegiance to at least one franchise/program for which there is little to no hope; it is what builds us as human beings. Losing, to me, will always be more interesting than winning, which is why Cleveland is the most interesting city in America that no one actually wants to be associated with.

Anyway, I've been thinking about this lately. I've been thinking about this because I've been watching a number of Penn State basketball games, a yearly exercise in a futility and frustration that I've written about before--but it's worth revisiting, because Penn State is in the midst of a somewhat remarkable stretch of moderate success and near success that ultimately seems destined to add up to failure. Here are the scores of Penn State's last four games, all against Top 25 teams:

Michigan State W 66-62
Illinois W 57-55
at Ohio State L 69-66
at Purdue L 63-62

This is pretty much the epitome of fifty years of Penn State basketball***: Every time they begin to show promise, they fall short. Every time you think perhaps they're about to leap to a new plateau of success, they fall backward. I can't imagine any team in the country has played harder than Penn State in those last four games, but in the end, what the hell does that matter? They lost to Ohio State on a last-second shot; they lost to Purdue after a terrible out-of-bounds call and a last-second shot. They are now 10-8, and 3-4 in the Big Ten, and because they somehow lost a home game to Maine during their non-conference slate, they will have to run the table at the Big Ten tournament in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-eight. They are thisclose, and yet not close at all.

That's the thing about sympathizing with a team that never really wins: You start to think that they deserve better. You start to think that their karma has somehow gotten unjustly twisted. You start to question the very nature of the universe, which is outstanding for the creative process but not particularly good for one's stress levels. It's funny: Nothing makes me angrier than watching a Penn State basketball game. Watching Penn State football, I get confounded and upset, but there is always that sense that this program has had its moments, that it will someday have them again, that the occasional interlude of a 7-6 season is a hiccup that will eventually be overcome. But watching Penn State basketball, I actually feel like throwing things. Why aren't they better? Why can't they be better? What did we do to deserve this? What does it take to rescue a program from itself?

There are four seniors in Penn State's starting lineup, and their coach, Ed DeChellis, is a cancer survivor and by all accounts one of the nicest men in a profession dominated by self-aggrandizing cads. Their best player, a guard named Talor Battle, is the leading scorer in the Big Ten and almost certainly the best player in school history. Battle is one of those undersized guards who shoots 40-foot jumpers with the shot clock running out over players a foot taller, and makes them at least fifty percent of the time. This is what Talor Battle does. This is what Talor Battle does. A dozen years ago, when I was a young sportswriter in Akron, I covered a guard named Jimmal Ball, who was one of the best unheralded players I'd ever seen; Ball has since played a decade overseas, and I imagine Battle will have the same kind of career if he wants it. If there were any justice, Talor Battle would be at least have the opportunity to play in an NCAA tournament. But that seems increasingly unlikely.

On Wednesday night, Penn State traveled to Purdue. They trailed by 14 points in the first half, then cut the lead to six at halftime. They went back and forth the entire second half, and then took the lead when Battle, double-teamed, passed up a 30-foot jump shot and gave it up to senior named David Jackson, who hit a clutch 3-point shot with under 20 seconds to play. And then...well, then you just knew something would happen, something ugly and undeserved and perhaps even unjust. Because it always does. Because it has before, in what I would argue is one of the five most devastating non-tournament losses in major college basketball history. And so Purdue advanced the ball into the frontcourt, and there was a scramble, and the ball went out of bounds, and it seemed clear to everyone that the ball had gone off the hands of a Purdue player...

And the officials gave it back to Purdue.

Even as both coaches called time outs, you could see it coming. "This is not your parents' Penn State team," Big Ten Network commentator Tim Doyle had screeched at some point, and I'm not sure what he meant, and I'm almost certain he didn't know what he meant, and yet he was both right and wrong: Because this team, like all the others that came before it, doesn't want to be that team, and it rages like hell to roll that boulder up the hill once and for all, but sometimes a program cannot help itself. Sometimes there is no way to fight fate. Purdue put the ball in the hands of JaJuan Johnson, a 6-foot-10 All-American of the type that Penn State has never had before, and Johnson lined up a jump shot, and Johnson sunk it. And afterward, Penn State won praise from coach Matt Painter for their fight and their poise and their ability to hang around in difficult circumstances on the road, and then they flew home with another loss.

*Not in a Cosellian manner, unless you're into that sort of thing.
**Exhibit A here.
***And, for that matter, approximately 10 percent of all major college teams and professional franchises.


Eric P said...

One PSU alum to another (and in my case a Pennsylvanian whose formative 1970s/early 80s years in NE as an Indians fan taught me all about futility), I've learned it's best to soak in those runs in the NIT. Much better shot at getting a banner for the Jordan Center rafters and makes those very rare NCAA tourneys that much more special.

I've also started paying a lot more attention to our volleyball teams this time of year. Much easier on an aging heart.

Ben said...

Great post. Can't find the quote, but Gay Talese shared the sentiment. The losers in sports are by far more interesting than the winners.

I'm an Auburn fan, and this year has been all sorts of strange. I've always thought of Auburn as an underdog, the team overlooked (1983, 1988, 2004). And then this year happened. I'm happy, of course, but not as happy and joyous as I thought I'd be. (The Newton Saga hasn't had an effect. Screw 'em. We done won it.) More relieved really.

I always find myself silently cheering for PSU basketball. Down with OSU, MSU and IU. Long live the losers.

Eric P said...

As we learned in half the games Michael mentioned, even the losers get lucky sometimes.