There's a cozy, familiar place Josh Sanger hangs out at quite often these days. It's a place former teammate Michael Jordan rarely frequented, a place current teammate Ugonna Onyekwe doesn't show his face too much anymore. It's a place the average fan never steps foot into, but Sanger all but has a permanent seat there. The place is The Fringe of the Spotlight, and while you won't find it on any map, there are other ways to locate it. Plastered to the wall of the Penn's men's basketball office is a poster of former Kansas center Raef LaFrenz winning an opening tipoff. The opposing center in the poster? Sanger, basking in The Fringe of the Spotlight. Four years ago, the Carolina Warriors -- an AAU team from North Carolina that included current University of North Carolina hoopsters Brendan Haywood and Kris Lang -- finished fifth in the nation. A top sub on that team? Sanger, in The Fringe of the Spotlight. It may not be quite bright enough. It's definitely not his idea of the perfect locale. But entering The Fringe of the Spotlight for Sanger is like putting on a pair of worn-in jeans, an old T-shirt and a beat-up baseball cap -- he's used to it. Sanger has been the backup center to Geoff Owens for each of the last two years. He's used to being the forgotten man, the guy who comes in, gives Penn five to 10 minutes of solid but unnoticed defense. He's used to spending most of the game cheerleading off the bench. He's used to it. He deals with it. But he's never quite content with it. "There are times when I look out at the court and think I could be playing a lot better than that person," Sanger says. "But you just sit back and wait your turn." The soft-spoken Southerner is just 21, but he speaks like a world-weary middle-aged man -- a guy who's been there, done that and learned from it. Maybe that's because has been there and done that. His journey to The Fringe of the Spotlight included a lengthy stop in the Spotlight. Sanger started playing basketball almost as soon as he was able to walk. An old video shows Sanger's father, John, blocking the shot of his three-foot-tall son. And from the start, Sanger was a star on the court. Always a little taller than everyone else his age, he used his height and practice-honed skills to dominate shorter players. By the time he entered Harding High School, other basketball players inched closer to Sanger in height and skill. But the 6'8", 235-pound big man still had an edge. Scoring points with putback jams and post-up shots, Sanger was All-Conference as a senior. But that spotlight was fleeting. Once he came to Penn, he was no longer a bass in a puddle. He was a minnow in the ocean. He was perched on The Fringe. "In high school ball, I was basically the man," Sanger said. "Here I'm basically one of the subs." Coming in, Sanger's role was to back up Owens. That's what he expected. That's what Penn coach Fran Dunphy expected. But then a medical condition forced Owens to sit out the 1997-98 season, thrusting Sanger into the starting center spot. The Spotlight turned back on Sanger. But its glow was a familiar one for the Charlotte, N.C., native. "I didn't see that transition at the time as that big," he says. He was a starter in high school. Now Sanger was going to be a starter in college. It wasn't a big deal -- until he stepped out on the court for the opening tip of the season against Rice. That's when it hit Sanger. He was playing Division I college basketball. Sanger scored two points in that game on a 10-foot transition jumper from the left side. But he also committed four fouls in just 11 minutes. He realized the Spotlight shone a little brighter on the Palestra floor. "There was pressure," Sanger admits. "The starting position always has that pressure on you." Sanger started 15 more games that season. He averaged 2.4 points and 1.6 rebounds a game. He played solid defense. But it was far from enough to supplant Owens. Come sophomore year, Sanger was back on The Fringe, back to being Owens' personal substitute. And that's where he has stayed, incessantly battling Owens in practice but unequivocally deferring to the 6'11" captain in games. It's not a glamour spot for Sanger. The average fan doesn't know about -- much less appreciate -- the Owens-Sanger practice wars. The average fan doesn't get to see Sanger's Owens-stifling defense. But Owens sees it. And he appreciates it. "It's so hard to score on Josh," Owens says. "Defensively, he reacts so well. You make a move and he's usually right there. The only way I can score is to make a tough shot. You rarely get an easy one with Josh guarding you." Dunphy appreciates that textbook defense too. But with Owens, Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong returning and 6'10" freshman Adam Chubb entering the mix, Penn's coach can't exactly reward Sanger with a fistful of playing time. "I don't think his role will change from what it's been since he's been a freshman here," Dunphy says. "I don't think any of us will root any harder for anyone than we do Josh Sanger. He's a good man, but we are just talented up front." Everyone seems to root for Sanger. His warm smile and genuine modesty make it tough for anyone to wish him harm. "Josh is just a great human being," says Jon Tross, a senior forward. "There's no other way to describe him." Well, not entirely. Sanger's sister Terres -- a Penn sophomore who lives three floors below him in Harrison College House -- says that his pun-driven jokes are often directed at his friends. But it's all good-natured, part of a sense of humor that makes people smile but not laugh. "Once you get a chance to know him you realize how funny he is," Owens said. "He's got the dry Southern wit a little bit. His mind's always three steps ahead of you, so he's always going to have something to say in response." But Sanger's mind has been known to wander. He knows he watches too much television. And he's been known to spend some classroom time on non-academic endeavors. "I look over and he's drawing plays on his book," says women's basketball forward Diana Caramanico, who's in a sports law class with Sanger. Sanger admits most of the plays he diagrams aren't very good. "My friends look at them and say, 'Turnover. Steal,'" Sanger says. But drawing them is just another way to study the game. Sanger's favorite play is one he didn't draw up -- "14 lob for the post." A play with a whirlwind of screens and misdirections, it has worked several times in Penn's games, leading to wide-open dunks by Onyekwe. The Quakers have run the play in games for Sanger, but, fittingly, each time it has fallen apart before Sanger could sneak back into the Spotlight with a thundering dunk of his own. Sanger craves that spotlight. It's what made him choose basketball instead of football -- a sport in which he earned All-Conference honors as a receiver/tight end in high school. "When you step on the court, you get this feeling inside of you that everyone's there to watch you," a wide-eyed Sanger says. But while he wants that spotlight, Sanger accepts the comfort of The Fringe. He doesn't complain. He just toils away at practice and in his limited minutes in games. "It has been a little hard on me, but I keep my spirits up," he says. "When I get in there, I try to make the coach notice me." It's all he can do to escape The Fringe.Comments powered by Disqus
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