Tyler Bernardini sits bug-eyed, chipping away at a muffin between hacking coughs, with a blanket covering him below the shoulders. He has seen this movie before, he fears. Mom is about to say something.
“Oh, oh, oh, I got one,” Melanie Bernardini says, her son grimacing from his kitchen table. “Did you tell him about the time you were playing and you called me because you had to go to the bathroom and…?”
Tyler stares, then smiles faintly, shaking the head that’s been throbbing for days.
That one again? he seems to plead. Twenty-two years of memories and you land on the pee story?
“You know, sweetie,” Melanie soldiers on, “you should really sit outside. It’s good for you.”
“I don’t wanna.”
“It’s good for you, Tyler. I’m telling you.”
It is less than 36 hours until perhaps the biggest weekend of Tyler’s collegiate basketball life. The team will seek its best conference start of his Penn career. Students will pack the Palestra for an Ivy League game in numbers he’s never seen. Many of those closest to him — Jack, Chloe, even Mom, who’s taking a long weekend 3,000 miles from home — will share in the moment.
But something is amiss in Penn basketball land — something so universal to the campus population, some might consider it common. The eyes that see the cutter streaking towards the basket? Droopy. The fingers that send the deep three into orbit? Clammy. The nose that smells the soft pretzel rotting in the third row? Clogged.
Something is amiss in Penn basketball land.
Tyler Bernardini has a cold.
Jack’s on it.
Tyler’s week, like the Penn basketball team most evenings, is a story with four lead actors. And, as with the Quakers, none is more reliable than Jack Eggleston, the pride of Noblesville, Indiana.
“All the guys want to turn into a comedian at times,” coach Jerome Allen says. “Except Jack.”
The senior will have his man ready for Friday night — he’s been doing it, in one way or another, since freshman year.
Sure, this week has its particular set of obstacles: making sure that Tyler’s taking it easy at practice, that he’s getting his fluids, and that he’s safely tucked into his bed well before Jack and teammate Danny Monckton — who shares the apartment with Tyler — battle on Super Nintendo until the wee hours of Thursday morning.
But these are just microcosms of what Jack’s been telling Tyler since they arrived on campus nearly four years ago. Just relax. You don’t have to prove anything.
There’s a term for such teachings in the locker room: getting “Jacked.”
“He used to say he was on the three-year plan: three years at Penn, then straight to the NBA,” Jack says of Tyler, the Quakers first-ever Big 5 Rookie of the Year, once upon a time. “But he has to let the game come to him.”
For the first time in over two seasons — since before the sports hernia and broken finger he played through sophomore year and before the fractured foot that cost him nearly all of the 2009-10 season — Tyler looks comfortable. Like himself. Like the player his high school coach, Jim Tomey, calls “as good as any I have ever had in his senior year,” including NBA veteran Luke Walton. Like the kid whose 26 points against top-ranked North Carolina three years ago prompted Tar Heels coach Roy Williams to ask his staff, mid-game, “Why the dickens didn’t we recruit him?”
Jack knew that this Tyler would return — just as he knows, pale face and all, that his swingman/wingman will take the floor Friday night when his number is called.
As for life outside the four lines?
“I used to tell him all the time, ‘Tyler, you’re a terrible person,’” Jack says, serious as advertised. “I find myself saying that less and less.”
Chloe’s on it.
She’s an athlete, too — a master motivator. She knows how to coax the best out of Tyler when the circumstances require it and — in weeks like this — she can be counted on to deliver the goods: offers of milkshakes and congestion meds, a get-well card, a shoulder to rest on during Friday Night Lights marathons.
None of it compares to her first trick, of course.
“I’ll make you a bet,” Tyler proposed on that fall day in statistics class three semesters ago. “I do better on the exam, and we go on a date.”
Turns out the guy who famously dubbed himself the “athlete-student” once as a mop-topped high schooler, is actually pretty sharp when he studies.
“I think he’s just matured,” Monckton says, gazing toward the duo’s Scarface poster. “Enough…”
That, according to friends and teammates, is at least partially the handiwork of one Chloe Heckman — the sophomore lacrosse defender who leads the cheers in her “Penn Basketball” hoodie in Section 108 of the Palestra on a given weekend evening.
Not that Tyler was particularly sinister before, he insists — though there was that time he convinced his professors he was Jewish to get off on Yom Kippur.
“I was a little bit wild, a little crazy,” says Tyler, whose birthday dinner guest list in December included only Jack and Chloe. “At a certain point, you start to rather be at home with one person.”
Particularly when that person knocks on the door with a plate of cookies to chase a sore throat.
“We all do what we can,” Chloe says. Tyler did, after all, perform equivalent duties last year when mononucleosis felled her for much of the spring semester.
“He’s always strong for other people,” she adds, nodding. “He’s had to be.”
Mom’s on it.
Seriously, she can handle it on her own. Three words: chicken noodle soup.
There are, of course, a few more words — go outside, finish that juice, get some rest — but that’s mostly semantics from the woman who raised Tyler and his younger sister solo in Carlsbad, California. Their father made it to ball games, sure, but it was Melanie who brought them home. From the start, she says, friends and strangers seemed to think she’d been doing a pretty good job of it.
“In elementary school, he was picked to be Joseph in the school play. His teacher said, ‘Once in a lifetime, you get a kid like Tyler,’” she recalls. “In junior high, another teacher called and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you what an amazing kid you have. Once every 20 years, you get a kid like Tyler.’”
“I dropped off from preschool,” Tyler chimes in, mouth full of cereal and a V8 his mother bought him. “Now I’m probably once every five years.”
Melanie was the one who fielded the near-daily calls freshman year after her son chose to come east despite flirtations with superior basketball powers Stanford and San Diego State. The adjustment period would fade, she told him.
Friction between Tyler’s recruiting class and upperclassmen teammates never really dissipated, he says, despite — or perhaps because of — Tyler’s stellar rookie campaign.
The cultural shift — coming from a place that allowed surfer shorts at church services — took some getting used to, as well.
“I’m goofy, so when I got here, it was weird just meeting people,” Tyler says. “Someone would be like, ‘I’m from Jersey.’ I didn’t know anything about New Jersey. What do I say about New Jersey? It was tough.”
Even today at the Francis Parker School, according to high-school mentor Erin Aiston, a visiting Tyler can’t make it three feet down the hallway without someone throwing an arm around him to yak about the glory days.
“No one knew him here yet,” Melanie says. “I told him, ‘Just be who you are, play your game, and you will be known.’”
“And at forward, a 6-foot-6 senior from Carlsbad, California. Number four. Tylerrrrr Bernarrrrrdiniiiiiii.”
His name is announced last, in the “star” position, by Palestra public address announcer Rich Kahn.
Eggleston’s comes shortly before — and the visiting Dartmouth team before that. Chloe is rushing from her own practice with a few teammates hoping to make the tip. And Mom is in the stands already, clapping, her week’s work complete.
“He was always running as a kid, that hair bobbing up,” she had said earlier. “Always smiling.”
The same is true tonight. The shot is falling, the aches appear to be on hiatus, and the Quakers open up a double-digit lead behind a string of Tyler threes in the early going.
It isn’t until late in the half that Tyler’s expression turns suddenly. He mumbles to the official, holding his stomach, then breaks into a jog. He leaves the court, eyes on the locker room but makes a sharp turn behind the bleachers, where a trash bin accepts his deposit.
Moments later, he returns to the court, primed to finish what will become perhaps his best game of the season. His smile returns, too — and a certain crowd member with a steel-trap memory and a killer chicken noodle soup recipe reciprocates in kind.
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