irrational loyalty to the perpetually lost cause known as Penn State basketball,* but every so often they reward my patience. Once every decade, a team emerges from out of nowhere, like this one did, and just when you think they're going to fall away into the historical oblivion of the NIT they pull some kind of irrational stunt. Granted, it was perhaps the ugliest miracle you'll ever see, four straight days of teeth-pulling, gear-grinding Big Ten tournament basketball, four days of the best player in Penn State history struggling for every single shot he took, four days of the basketball establishment continually casting doubts on a team that probably deserved quite a bit of that doubt after losing to Maine in December.**
But every so often, whether by pure chance or pure will or pure want, this happens. And it is a great feeling, a joy that is rare and unique and exhilarating and exhausting. I don't permit myself many pure sporting pleasures, due partly to my job and due partly to a veil of skepticism that keeps thickening with age, but Penn State basketball is one of the last unfettered allegiances of my existence. Because they are always underdogs, a school without a true recruiting base, a school so devoid of tradition that you get the feeling they wouldn't even know how to cheat effectively even if they wanted to, a school with five very good starting players and absolutely no bench at all***, a school that doesn't even have a true practice facility, a school with so much working against that it's a miracle they ever find a way to compete in the Big Ten.
Sometimes makes me angry that it has to be that way, but it's the truth, and I don't know if they'll ever find their way to a higher plane. As I've said before, I kind of hope they don't. There was something hyperkinetic about watching those wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State, as sluggish as they appeared to an impartial observer. Because Penn State has no real bench, because their margin of error is so slim, because Talor Battle--and I was convinced Battle was going to become the greatest college basketball player to go four years without ever appearing in an NCAA tournament--plays forty minutes game after game, because every defensive stop is key, because a forward named Jeff Brooks has suddenly found himself, because you feel the urgency with every possession, watching this team somehow win games has been one of the great joys in my increasingly segmented life as a sports fan.
And so now I shouldn't really care what happens. But I will. I will sweat every posession against Temple, and I will spout irrational thoughts, and whenever it is over, against Temple or San Diego State or Duke or whoever, I will feel a distinct sense of sadness. Because it is not often that something so raggedly beautiful unfolds before your eyes.
*And if you arrived here because of either of those posts, you should probably read this, by the always insightful Dave Jones.
**I've never paid much attention to announcer bias. When I was kid, my parents would throw parties to watch Penn State games, and we would listen to Frank Broyles, who was an unapologetic SEC guy through-and-through, and the word was that Frank Broyles hated Penn State. I have no idea if this was true, and even if it was true...who cares? But it was rather strange to watch two days of Big Ten tournament coverage on CBS, because it was clear no one on that broadcast team expected Penn State to be playing in any of those games, and no one on that broadcast team was willing to even accept the fact that Penn State had a better case for an NCAA tournament bid than Michigan State. Clark Kellogg maintained this stance even after Penn State defeated Michigan State. And I generally like Clark Kellogg quite a bit. But his refusal to acknowledge statistics was mind-boggling.
***There is one player who comes off the bench for Penn State--and I shall not name names--who at times appears so utterly befuddled and physically overmatched that his play reminds me of the old days, when Penn State would recruit big kids from rural Pennsylvania who would have otherwise wound up at Lock Haven State just to fill their scholarship quota. At one point during the Big Ten tournament, this kid was on the floor with a walk-on whose primary job is to fill space. And somehow, through sheer force of effort, Penn State won anyway.