When Penn basketball graduates its senior class this May, the program will send off some of the school’s most committed athletes ever.
Three-time captain Zack Rosen will headline a class that includes: Tyler Bernardini, who played fearlessly for about a month on an injured foot; Rob Belcore, who hustled maniacally every second he played; and Mike Howlett, who battled nagging injuries to bring veteran leadership. On the women’s side, Jourdan Banks will graduate alongside Jess Knapp, who tore the MCL and ACL in her left knee midseason, yet missed just five games after foregoing surgery.
It’s a class of grit, resolve and toughness and it will now include its valedictorian of sorts — Palestra custodian Dan Harrell.
The “dinosaur from Southwest Philly,” as he calls himself, plans to retire at the end of this school year after 23 years tending to the Cathedral of College Basketball.
The 68-year-old came close to retiring last year, but decided he wanted to go out with the current crop of seniors, whom he called “a class class.”
The physical nature of his job, which includes punching in at 5:00 a.m. every morning to clean all the locker rooms and the court, has become routine for Harrell, but he admits, with a hearty chuckle, “I just don’t kick ass like I used to.”
Still, when Harrell eventually files his retirement papers, he can know that his impact on Penn athletics goes beyond just how clean he leaves the Palestra. From the time he started in 1989, he has been as integral to the basketball program as anyone, a steadying presence perhaps overlooked by many, but deeply loved by the core group he has touched.
Just prior to the start of his sophomore year, Rob Belcore had a bit of a problem on his hands. Rosen, his roommate and teammate, had “messed up” the housing situation and Belcore ended up on campus a week early with no place to live.
Belcore’s last resort?
A futon that he set up in the Palestra coaches’ locker room. He became a gym rat by nature and necessity.
For those few days, his stay at the Palestra included complimentary 5:00 a.m. wake-up calls. Each morning, “Daddy,” as Harrell is affectionately known, clocked in and then went to wake up one of his newest best friends. Belcore would then get an early morning workout in to start off his day.
It was a special bond that developed. Belcore admits he struggled early in his time at Penn to find his niche. But faced with a campus full of different kinds of people, he knew he had his rock, whom he could turn to for advice or just friendship.
And it was the little things Harrell said that always kept Belcore’s head up.
“Every day you see him, you ask him how he’s doing, his response is always, ‘Better now that I’ve seen you,’ and legitimately, that’s the truth,” Belcore said. “That guy lives and breathes for the players.”
Belcore isn’t the only one who has figured that out.
On December 30, Jess Knapp suffered the dreaded one-two punch of a torn ACL and MCL. Unsure whether she would ever be able to play collegiate basketball again, Knapp was in low spirits as she walked out of the Palestra one day.
But there to meet her was Harrell. The man whose go-to greeting is the fist-bump approached Knapp and threw a change-up: he embraced her.
It was a simple gesture, but it meant the world to Knapp. The tough senior soldiered on and did what few in her situation have dared to attempt — foregoing surgery for the time being and rehabbing religiously.
Along the way, Harrell remained omnipresent, a fixture in the Palestra during Knapp’s shooting workout routines. During one such workout, a rebound off Knapp’s shot rolled away from her.
As she began to retrieve it, a familiar face saved her a few steps, picked up the ball and handed it to her, saying, “You know, I’m going out with you guys, your grade. My knees are just not good anymore … Yeah, but you know that story too.”
Again, a simple moment, a joke, did so much more.
“He manages to turn even bad things into something you can laugh about,” Knapp said.
Harrell’s cheerful disposition and unspoken encouragement, especially during Knapp’s arduous rehabbing period, makes him someone she won’t forget.
“The only person who was in [the Palestra] every single time I was, was Dan … Even at my low point this season, he was still there.”
In May of 2000, Harrell graduated from Penn with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Liberal and Professional Studies. After 10 years of taking classes part-time, he had finally received the college diploma that evaded him as a youth — Harrell spent just one day at St. Joe’s as a freshman before dropping out.
Walking down Locust side-by-side with Penn basketball seniors, Harrell carried with him a mop featuring pictures of lost loved ones taped onto the handle. He explains, “it was a flag for all of us [housekeepers and custodians]. Everybody is capable of [getting a degree] if they want to.”
Here Harrell was again, a source of unspoken encouragement.
It continues to this day, as the men’s team often wears the Harrell-inspired “Yo Daddy!” T-shirts — which include a tribute to Harrell’s good friend, the late Dr. Pandolfi — as warmups.
And his unspoken encouragement ironically shines through the quasi-speech he delivers to the women’s team before its annual bouts with Princeton.
“If you need a pep talk for Princeton, don’t show up.”
Right down to his distaste for the Tigers, Harrell has the pulse of the team and bleeds Red and Blue. As Rosen says, “He brings life and energy to the production we have going here. He’s our best actor.”
Beginning at 5:00 a.m. each morning, the Palestra awakes from its slumber with the soothing, subtle harmony of classical music.
The sounds of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach seem to emanate from the building itself, but they actually originate from the radio speakers belonging to Harrell, whose presence seems just as fitting in the building.
“[That’s] my Ivy League ambience,” Harrell jokes, before qualifying, “[But] it’s not Princeton. They play that other crap.”
At such an early hour, the music acts as a companion to Harrell, often the lone person in the building. But to hear Harrell explain it, he may have company even before he plugs in the radio.Harrell says he is probably the only person who will publicly admit that the Palestra is “spirited.”
“There’s definitely a presence,” he says. “There’s definitely something here … It feels like people never wanted to leave the Palestra.”
Harrell has received his fair share of ribbing for believing in the spirits and also for his quirky superstitions.
He always cleans the hardwood in the same north-to-south direction and he always enters and exits the Palestra through the same door because if he did otherwise, he fears he wouldn’t make it back.
So sometime this spring, Harrell will (maybe) punch out for the final time. But just like his spirit companions, he is not likely to leave the Palestra anytime soon. He vows to attend every home game next year and after each game, he’ll leave through that same door, knowing the inevitable.
He’ll be back.