The Palestra reverberated on Monday night with the sounds of college basketball, as Penn trounced St. Joseph's, 86-66. But while the court was noisy, the stands were nearly empty and eerily silent. For the Penn men's junior varsity basketball team, a team with a 9-4 record, playing in a vacant gymnasium is nothing new. The team, which plays all its games at home -- after all, everyone wants to play at the Palestra -- rarely has more than 30 fans in the arena. But to the 15 JV players -- including the four seniors who make up the core of the team -- fan support doesn't matter. They have their own reasons for taking to the court everyday. * For leading scorer Ryan Smiley, junior varsity was supposed to be a steppingstone to playing time on Penn's varsity. In high school, Smiley captained a 36-1 Harvard-Westlake squad to a No. 4 national ranking. The 6'3" guard was recruited by a number of schools, but for the Los Angeles native, Penn had one thing to offer that no other school could match -- his twin sister Stacy had been accepted early. Smiley, given a tryout with the Quakers his freshman year, was cut and sent down to the JV team. Much to his dismay, the scenario repeated itself the following year. "Sophomore year I was very disappointed that I wasn't on the team," Smiley said. "I thought it was going to be my year and it just didn't work out, and then from there on out I just decided that JV was good for me." What was good for Smiley turned out to be a boon for the team, as well. "Ryan is just probably one of the most competitive people I've ever met and an unbelievable player," said first-year JV coach John Krikorian, a former Penn JV player himself. "He's an awesome offensive player, to take nothing away from his defense. He just knows how to score. * Like Smiley, Philadelphia native Brendan Fox came to Penn with varsity hopes that ended in JV realities. After playing at Father Judge High School for his father, Bill Fox, a well-known area coach, the 6'3", 168-pound guard was lightly recruited to play for the Quakers. Fox spent his freshman season playing JV. Then, in his sophomore year, he suffered a blown-out knee, an injury that effectively ended his chances of moving up to varsity. Now the JV starting point guard, Fox is the team's coach on the floor. And, in his final season, the Finance and Management major has stepped up as the squad's silent leader. "[Brendan's] the biggest reason we play as well as we do," Krikorian said. "He has an uncanny knack for finding his teammates. He's just really an unselfish player, and it all starts with him." Fox, like Smiley, has familial ties to Penn. But while Smiley's sister Stacy can often be found in the stands at JV games, Brendan's younger brother Brian is a lot closer -- they're backcourt mates. "Playing with my brother is a part of why I play," the elder Fox said. "The fact that I could go down there, and me and my brother start together. We play almost the whole game together. That's part of why I stuck with [junior varsity]." For the rest of the team, the brothers' seeming inseparability -- they live together as well as play together -- has become a source of amusement and endless good-natured teasing. "They love each other so much. I see them all the time and I ask them to give each other a hug because they just seem to want to," Smiley said, laughing. "I'm pretty sure that they hold hands when people aren't looking." * If Smiley and Fox are the cream of the senior crop, Pete Finelli is the squad's heart. Cut both his freshman and sophomore year, the six-foot guard considered "throwing my basketball shoes in the river." But instead, the Huntington, N.Y., native decided to forego a semester abroad and train in the hopes of making the team in his junior year. For Finelli, the third time was the charm. "When I found out the news, my friends threw me a giant party," Finelli recalled. "It was great, it was a big deal to me." And though Finelli may not have the natural talent of some of the other players, he makes up for it with pure hustle and desire, always the first to come to practice and the last to leave. "Pete's a role model to me," Krikorian said. "He doesn't get a whole lot of playing time right now, but he just accepts it, works harder and he's always positive, encouraging his teammates. "You don't find many people better than Pete Finelli." * Finelli's desire is clear -- as his three tryouts attest. Fellow Whartonite Eitan Melamed took it one step further. After getting cut a second time sophomore year, he kept going to every practice. When the JV team was besieged by injuries later that season, Melamed recognized his opportunity. "I heard that somebody got hurt, so I showed up at practice dressed," Melamed recounted. "I said to coach, 'Just let me practice....' He said we had to work it out. "I put a lot of pressure on him -- but he finally gave in." Now a regular part of the JV lineup, Melamed's persistence comes as no surprise to his teammates. They see him day in and day out, always running drills, always in the weight room and always looking for a little extra one-on-one workout. "Eitan works just as hard as the next person, wants it more than the next person, and he's playing now," Smiley said. "[He's] come a long way, so to see that out of people, it's an awesome thing." That same persistence and devotion is apparent in all that Melamed does. The Finance major, who has a 4.0 GPA, has chosen to submatriculate -- "Eitan probably runs small companies at this point," Krikorian joked -- which means he'll be back at Penn and the Palestra next year, working toward an MBA and playing basketball. * Four seniors. In the twilight of their careers, they receive one reward -- a night to suit up for the varsity team. For Fox and Smiley, who suited up for the St. Joe's and Princeton games, respectively, that night passed, with neither entering the game. Finelli and Melamed get their shot this weekend, as Finelli will dress against Dartmouth and Melamed against Harvard. But save for that one game, that one night when family and friends pack the Palestra to honor a previously unheralded Penn basketball player, the athletes go unnoticed. They don't play for the accolades, though. They play for themselves, their teammates and, most importantly, their love of the game. Former Penn basketball star and current JV assistant coach Michael Jordan sums it up best: "You've got to respect the fact that they play."Comments powered by Disqus
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