If a single ball is heard bouncing in the Palestra, chances are that senior guard Darnell Foreman is getting his early workout in. In fact, he’s probably already been there for an hour or two.
“We automatically know it’s him,” said junior guard Antonio Woods.
“I want to be the first person working on my game,” Foreman explained. “Not just against my teammates, but anybody in the country.”
As a freshman in 2014, Foreman was already an early riser, but veteran guard Tony Hicks pushed him to go the extra mile.
“I would always come to the gym at 8 o’clock and he’d be there at 7. So I was like ‘alright I’m going to come to the gym at 7:30’ and he’d already be in there,” Foreman recalled. “He got that from Zack Rosen and Zack Rosen got that from the previous guys. It just carried along.”
Despite sharing their drive, Foreman has an opportunity to separate himself from the likes of Hicks and Rosen. Unlike his predecessors, he can complete the quest to bring an Ivy League title back to Philadelphia.
Penn men’s basketball hasn’t hoisted a new banner since 2007. So, when Foreman made the commitment to play for the Quakers four years ago, his primary goal was to end the drought.
In 2014, it wasn’t clear if Penn would reclaim league dominance before the freshman graduated. But now, with only four regular season games left in his career, Foreman is closer than he has ever been to an improbable conference title.
“A realistic goal for me was getting Penn basketball — somehow, someway — where it needs to be back at the top of the league and being competitive again,” Foreman said.
At 19-7, and with only one Ivy loss, Penn has clinched a winning season for the first time in Foreman’s career. That has only increased the motivation for the senior to elevate his game.
“Realizing that that goal is close to being reached just adds more pressure to myself and it just concentrates me more,” he explained. “Because when you get close to your goal that’s not when you take your foot off the pedal. You got to push even more. You’ve got to be more focused on what you need to do.”
Those aren’t empty words coming from Foreman. He’s not just the Quakers’ leader. He’s their motor.
According to coach Steve Donahue, there may have been past players who worked as hard as Foreman, but no one has ever worked harder. That tenacity has kept Foreman in the rotation from the second he stepped foot on campus.
As with most Ivy League teams, Penn is deep at the guard positions, and every year they have added new highly touted recruits to the roster. As a result, Foreman was forced to earn his minutes every single season. He did so by being the first guy in the gym and never letting up.
“I always thought ‘hey, we may get someone better, someone here might outplay him’, and Darnell just didn’t let it happen, through his work ethic and through his determination,” Donahue said of his captain.
“You got a feeling that Darnell would’ve figured out a way to be on the floor 30 plus minutes no matter what. He’s just that type of kid and that type of leader.”
That championship drive is the reason Foreman is in the position he is in today, and it’s a huge part of why Penn is a few wins away from a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Every season, Foreman’s point, assist, and rebound totals have increased. But his biggest strength, the one that has enabled him to appear in every single Penn basketball game since 2014, is his lockdown defense.
“Oh he’s a great on ball defender,” Donahue exclaimed. “Thank god we have someone like Darnell that really, really competes.”
Foreman credits that attribute to focus, rather than skill.
“I think defense is more just effort,” Foreman bluntly stated.
Extra effort is not something that the Camden native has ever been accused of holding back.
“What are you willing to do to not let your guy score? What is the team willing to do to not let the opposing team score on them? That’s just effort,” he explained.
“Everybody could do it. But the question becomes ‘do they want to?’ Do they want to give multiple efforts for one possession? Do they want to constantly do it over the course of a game?”
Foreman wants it. That fact is obvious to the casual fan when they see him dive for a loose ball, but it’s even clearer to his teammates and coaches.
“He has the characteristics of a leader,” Woods said. “He’s always working. When he’s healthy, when he’s not healthy, he’s always putting some kind of work in the gym to want to get better.”
That drive caught Woods’ attention from the beginning of their careers together.
“When we first came in we definitely butted heads a lot,” Woods admitted. “Where I’m from, I didn’t have another running mate to push me the way he does. He’s still on me a lot, but I’ve learned to listen. He has the best interests for me and I have the best interests for him. We just want to see both of each other succeed.”
Together, the duo has matured on the court. They emerged as the stalwarts of the 2014 recruiting class, and amidst a coaching change and roster reshuffling, they have navigated the path to championship contention.
“We mesh very well. The challenge for us was just learning how to both play off the ball. For us coming in we were both ball dominant players,” Woods continued. We’re still working on it, so you should see more things to come.”
Regardless of who has the ball at any given moment one thing is clear.
“We’re following behind him,” Woods stated.
Coach Donahue shares that sentiment.
“In any walk of life it’s hard to figure out which people really have it,” Donahue explained. “But he plays for intrinsic value, nothing extrinsic about this. It’s not for the fanfare, the popularity or the followers.
“He enjoys getting out and working really hard with teammates to go after challenges and that’s what motivates him.”
There has been no shortage of obstacles for Foreman over his career.
In his freshman year, Penn finished dead last in the Ivy League. In his second season, the Quakers remained in the bottom half of the league.
Midway through his junior season, after an 0-6 start, it looked to outsiders as if a transformation might not be possible in the near future.
But throughout the struggles, Foreman’s vision never wavered, and he never lost sight of his goals.
“Obviously my first three years, even my first two years really, we weren’t there yet,” Foreman said. “But that goal was always there. I learned a lot more throughout those tough times. I learned how to go about things, basically how to lose.”
Foreman remained consistent through the losses by staying true to a few key principles.
“Accepting that you’re not always going to be at your best,” he stressed.
“There’s going to be downfalls in what you’re trying to do and what the team is trying to do. The question then becomes ‘how do you come out of that?’ Do you let that determine your future or do you find ways to figure it out, because it’s not always going to be perfect.”
Suddenly, after their slow start last season, something changed for the Quakers. They won six of their last eight games to propel themselves into the inaugural Ivy League Tournament.
Since then, Foreman and the Red and Blue have been on a tear. They have gone 25-10 over the last 12 months, swept arch-rival Princeton this season, currently sit tied with Harvard atop the league standings, and have already clinched a second straight conference tournament appearance.
Throughout it all, Foreman has remained focused on the now. As the team’s vocal leader, he hasn’t reminded the team of the losing they used to experience, or become too carried away with what the future may hold.
“I just try to tell them ‘there’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs. The biggest thing is how do you adjust through it all.’ I’m not going to harp on when we weren’t good because that has nothing to do with them and that’s not going to help the program move forward,” he explained.
“The best thing I can tell them is ‘know the reasons why we’re winning now. Find those aspects and keep doing it knowing that some days it’s just not going to work.’ But you’ve got to keep working at it.”
As the senior captain of a first place ball club, Foreman has the same calm, deliberate demeanor that he has always carried.
He knows better than anyone that nine Ivy wins won’t put a new banner in the rafters. Neither will another opening round loss in the Ivy Tournament. Until his goals are reached, Foreman won’t let up.
“Nothing’s changed,” Donahue said of Foreman’s focus. “We’re no closer yet. Until we do it, I think you’ll see the same Darnell every day.”
“I’m not going to have time to reflect on the past because you’ve still got your future. So I got to keep focusing on the now,” Foreman said.
“Right now is the present.”
For the first time in a long time, the present is good for Penn basketball. There’s hardly anyone recounting old glory days and even fewer looking a few seasons ahead.
After years of distraction and disappointment, Darnell Foreman finally has Penn basketball focused where his eyes have always been, the now.