I'd heard about them before, sure - even seen a couple on TV courtesy of this year's Detroit Lions and the old New Orleans 'Ain'ts teams of the early '80s.
But it wasn't until Saturday night at the Palestra that I encountered one in person: the paper bag head, complete with two holes for the eyes, a frowning face penciled in, and a gangly, anonymous body dangling underneath.
And if it hadn't been for a certain gregarious governor, I probably would have missed it.
The first half buzzer had just sounded, with Brown - the Ivy's cellar-dweller at 1-10 coming in - leading 23-21 after an opening 20 minutes that would have moved basketball's founding father James Naismith to tears (not in the good way).
Ed Rendell, Penn alumnus and superfan, got up to stretch his legs when the youthful bag-head whizzed by. The governor stopped him, whirled him around to read the contents of the makeshift mask, then threw an arm around the kid and led him across the hardwood to the scorer's table.
"Take a look at this guy!" he said, grinning, before pointing at the bag's writing for all to see.
"Embarrassed Penn fan," it read, the lettering etched beneath the eye holes. "I already paid for the ticket."
Welcome to Fan Appreciation Night at the Cathedral of College Basketball.
Sure, there were praiseworthy performances on the court. Penn thankfully avoided getting swept by Ivy teams at home for the third straight weekend. Harrison Gaines led the team in scoring on consecutive nights, and sealed Saturday's win with a gutsy offensive rebound and put-back in the final minutes.
Kevin Egee, in his final weekend at the Palestra, single-handedly buoyed the offense for most of the opening frame, while freshman Rob Belcore had perhaps the best game of his young collegiate career, burying three huge trifectas en route to an 11-point performance off the bench.
But it's been quite awhile since an Ivy game in late February has meant less to the Quakers. An official crowd of just 3,142 came out for the team's last home game before spring break.
Until Penn's rally to pull away over the final four minutes, many of the night's loudest cheers came when a female fan drained a three-pointer as part of a Qdoba giveaway during a timeout. For much of the first half, the gym was so quiet I could hear the Brown radio call from halfway down press row.
Does all this mean that the program is in irreparable shambles? Hardly. It's true that for underclassmen like me, mediocrity is all we've known - no Big 5 wins and 13-12 basketball in the Ancient Eight in two years
But with impact freshmen like Belcore and Zack Rosen, the marked improvement of Gaines and the potential for growth in two-year starters Jack Eggleston and Tyler Bernardini, it's not crazy to think I might be covering this team in the NCAAs before Amy Gutmann hands me a diploma. Wishful thinking, sure, but not crazy. (Right? Please?)
As for this year, though, Rendell's new friend summed it up well. Regardless of how the final three games unfold, the 2008-09 season will go down as an unmitigated disappointment.
That much is in the bag.
Matt Flegenheimer is a sophomore Economics major from New York. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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