Before Penn basketball practice starts, it is every man for himself.
Each player begins warming up, doing what he needs to do in order to feel “ready” for the next two hours. Guards shoot jumpers, some forwards take layups and senior Greg Louis takes laps around the court, circling his teammates on the Palestra floor.
To signify each player’s presence is a uniform number on his back, a practice version of the real jersey he wears in games. Sophomore Matt Poplawski drains a jumper while wearing the No. 14 he’ll have on his back on gameday. Louis dons his No. 23 while working up a sweat.
That’s how it tends to work for the Red and Blue. You get one uniform number at the beginning of the year — one that you pick out — and you wear it throughout the season, during practice, during games, during everything.
But one senior decided to do things a little differently. Throughout his career at Penn, Cam Crocker was normally identified by the 15 on his back, the number he wore on gamedays. But interestingly enough, in 2015 he donned the No. 30 during practice, the digits belonging to teammate and fellow senior Patrick Lucas-Perry, whose career was ended by a knee injury.
In more ways than his uniform, Crocker was out there on the court for more than just himself.
Since Lucas-Perry arrived on Penn’s campus as a freshman in 2011, the No. 30 belonged to him. Recruited by former coach Jerome Allen, the 5-foot-11 guard left the state of Michigan to come to Penn, joining a freshman class that also included Crocker.
Crocker and Lucas-Perry immediately became close friends both on and off the court, and coaches saw them as inseparable at times.
Each player began to make his mark on the program during his sophomore year. A strong senior class graduated, leaving playing time available for the two guards’ taking. Both guys made an impact in very different ways.
Lucas-Perry dominated beyond the arc, earning a reputation as one of the Ivy League’s top three-point shooters. He surprised teams with his strong shooting off the bench early in the year, especially in a near-upset of Temple in December, shooting over 44 percent from deep throughout the season.
Crocker didn’t have the flashy shot of his friend and teammate, but his passing ability gave him the chance to stand out. The California native was third on the Red and Blue in assists per game and moved into the starting lineup by the end of the year. Needless to say, both players expected to make a bigger impact heading into their junior year.
But then the injuries started.
Each player suffered a severe knee injury only a few games into the season, leading to a lost junior year. While it took just an instant for both guards to miss their third campaign, it was a much longer road back to recovery.
In the meantime, Crocker and Lucas-Perry maintained a strong presence among the 2013-14 Quakers squad, still attending all games and some practices. While their teammates carried the load on the court, the duo became the Red and Blue’s biggest fans off it, celebrating and encouraging from just behind the bench.
“It was tough for both of us because you want to be out there with your team,” Crocker said about the duo’s lost junior season. “But we still had to find a way to support the team and support each other.”
Game after game, Crocker and Lucas-Perry threw up three goggles before listening intently to Allen’s in-game instructions to their teammates, silently preparing to carry the torch as leaders for their senior season.
And after a long offseason of arduous rehab, it seemed that both men had gotten past the worst of their injuries and would be able to lend a hand to a turnaround for the Quakers after a lackluster 2013-14 season.
But only one of them would make it into a game.
Before the season started, for the second time Lucas-Perry had a piece of cartilage fall off in his knee. Instead of going through another round of microfracture surgery, he underwent a two-part surgery known as an ACI implantation, which ended his basketball career.
And with that, No. 30 would no longer be worn on the court by Lucas-Perry, in neither games nor practices. For the remainder of his time at Penn, he would be limited to suits and ties while unable to play for the second straight season.
Thankfully, Crocker was there to pick up the slack.
“It’s tough,” Crocker said. “Patrick is one of my best friends, if not my best friend, here and just his situation and how he’s dealt with it with a positive attitude, always having a smile on his face, it really helps me.”
The senior honored his teammate and friend by donning his jersey in practice, providing a shining example of camaraderie and friendship for the young Penn squad to follow.
“I wear his jersey every day in practice, not just for him but also to remind myself and the rest of the guys how easily basketball can be taken away from us,” Crocker said toward the end of the season. “A lot of times we take it for granted, but he’s just been nothing but like a light. It’s really unfortunate what happened to him but that’s sort of where life comes in sometimes. The way he handled it has been phenomenal.”
“It’s really good to know that I have someone out there, a teammate who has my best interest and also really cares for me,” Lucas-Perry said. “It really touches my heart and means a lot to me.”
The move by Crocker didn’t go unnoticed by teammates, as it was one example of the captain’s leadership in his final season. After players returned from summer vacation for practice, Crocker began to pave the way for a much-needed culture change
Penn had just suffered through an 8-20 season, one in which several players left the program, moves that created significant turnover and a young core just beginning to tap into its potential. With the coaching staff looking for people in the senior class to lead, both Crocker and Lucas-Perry were obvious choices to become captains.
So once Lucas-Perry’s injury worsened, Crocker’s choice to wear No. 30 and take on a bigger role as a captain didn’t shock Allen and his staff.
“I wasn’t surprised by the gesture,” Allen said before his final Ivy weekend doubleheader in early March. “It just shows you how in-tune he is to the moment, how much he appreciates this opportunity. He and Patrick share a special bond just in terms they came in together as freshmen.
“They saw the ups and downs and us trying to build the right culture and I think he was wounded when Patrick’s career had to be cut short, so it is a great way to honor his friend, his teammate, his brother by carrying him every day in practice.”
Crocker played the role of liaison between the staff and the players, helping keep the team positive despite a long losing streak in the middle of conference play. The senior didn’t play as significant a role during his final season as he did during his sophomore year, taking a backseat to the development of a strong freshman class.
But it was a sign of his maturity as a player that he kept going, putting an 11-month rehab behind him to still contribute to the Quakers.
“His commitment to getting back on the court in any capacity he could, the level of health and strength he’s been able to regain in his knee, to me is the ultimate testament to his commitment to this program, to the game,” assistant coach Mike Lintulahti said before the end of the season. “I think it has ... validated his leadership in a lot of ways because he put in a lot of work and a lot of personal sacrifice.”
“Over these four years, I’ve learned to be more selfless,” Crocker said. “When you come in, you think you’ve got it all figured out and this is what I’m going to do and how it’s going to happen, but sometimes you’ve got to go through some things and learn from experiences.”
While Crocker did his thing on and off the court, Lucas-Perry once again found ways to contribute, playing the role of mentor and leader from afar.
“I hold him accountable,” Allen said. “[I told] him, ‘Just because you’re on crutches doesn’t mean I won’t be looking for you. I expect you to be here and I’m going to critique whether your tie is straight, your shirt is dirty.’”
Lucas-Perry still cheered on his teammates as only he could while showing off his personality in the process. In a reference to the 1996 classic film “Space Jam,” Lucas-Perry still had his water bottle under his chair at games with a label that read “Secret Stuff” a la Michael Jordan. Even with no minutes played, there was still some of PLP’s flair found at the Palestra throughout the season.
In the end, Penn’s season wasn’t as successful as any player would have hoped, with team finishing 9-19. The senior class exited with a 46-74 record while going out with Allen, who left following the season.
Despite the record, each of the two senior captains left his mark on the program, providing an example for the players that will come after them.
“When Penn wins again — and we will win again — it will be because they helped lay the foundations for the culture,” Allen said.
While Penn may be indebted to the two players for changing the culture in the locker room, they appreciate the opportunities that the basketball program afforded them.
“Although we haven’t had the best years [on the court], we’ve had a great experience,” Lucas-Perry said. “We’ve forged great relationships with alumni and past teammates that I don’t think we could ever have [had] in any other place.
“I’m very grateful to have Cam and coach Allen in my life.”Comments powered by Disqus
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