It’s 4:50 p.m. on a Sunday and Rudy Wise is getting ready for practice in the Palestra. Zack Rosen is sitting on the bottom row of the bleachers next to a bucket of ice. A sweaty Rob Belcore is taking some extra shots.
But Wise, the second-year assistant coach for the men’s team, isn’t here for varsity practice.
For the team lacing up their hightops, Wise is no assistant. He’s their head coach.
At 5:00 p.m., at its coach’s behest, the Penn junior varsity men’s basketball team takes the court.
The group of 12 who have shown up are decidedly smaller in height and stature than their varsity counterparts, but any doubts about their basketball prowess quickly vanishes as they run through shooting drills.
For the next hour, the Palestra is theirs.
These players labor in obscurity to be a part of the Penn basketball program, and, cliche as it may sound, for the love of the game. They receive no accolades, and they won’t see mentions of their team in the paper (with today being an exception). What they do have is the privilege to wear ‘PENN’ across their chests and play in the Palestra.
Wise shouts encouragement from half court as two teams of six compete in a rapid-fire shooting drill.
“I can honestly say it’s one of the highlights of being on staff and being the third assistant,” Wise said of his JV duties. “I was told as I was interviewing for the job that this was an extension and a part of the program that has been around for quite some time.”
Though the JV program is no longer a feeder for the varsity squad, the zeal of its players remains high.
Sophomore big man Mac Gorcey-Biblowitz compared his teammates to a pride of lions.
“It’s a tremendous group of kids,” Wise said. “Each guy that comes in, they’re committed to it.
“They practice hard. They play hard. They let me know when they want to get in the gym for extra time to workout, and when you’ve got guys committed like that, I try to maximize and give them everything I have.”
Wise said he treats the JV gig as if it were a full-time job, albeit one with some restrictions. The team is limited to 10 games per season, no travel, and fewer gym hours and resources than Penn’s varsity basketball teams.
“I try to simulate as much as I can from varsity as far as the style of play,” Wise said. “But I have total reign. Coach Allen says it’s my team, it’s my program. So with that I try to put my spin on it.”
When Wise, now in his second year at Penn, accepted the position of third assistant for the varsity team and junior varsity coach, he succeeded the man who is now his boss and mentor.
Yup, Jerome Allen.
About halfway through the hour-long practice, Wise splits the team up for mini full-court scrimmages. As players gallop up and down the court, Wise shouts instructions and admonishments to his players.
His coaching demeanor, the way he points, stands, yells, is evocative of Penn’s last JV coach.
Jerome Allen, with a twist.
“I get a chance to work next to somebody like Coach Allen on a day-to-day basis,” Wise said.
“Will I use this as a stepping stone in my own coaching career? Absolutely,” Wise admitted. “Wherever this takes me, I will always be appreciative of the opportunity that I had here at Penn and being able to coach this JV program.”
The players are preparing for their most anticipated game of the season Wednesday against Big 5 rival, St. Joe’s.
While grabbing a cup of water during an off moment, junior Ovie Onobrakpeya says, perhaps to no one in particular, “We gotta beat St. Joe’s, man.”
Two Saturdays ago, the varsity team did just that, besting the Hawks in front of a soldout Palestra crowd.
When the JV team hosts its rival, the game won’t be sold out. Not even close.
The team doesn’t care.
If a game is played in the Palestra and nobody is there to see it, does it still mean anything?
The junior varsity basketball team knows the answer to the question, and that’s enough for them.