AJ Brodeur gripped the ball in his hands, feeling the roar of the crowd behind him during Penn's season opener.
Sweat dripped down his face despite the chilly November air awaiting him outside the packed arena.
With a quick crossover and kick out, Brodeur connected with fellow Quaker Jordan Dingle for an easy three-pointer. The Alabama Crimson Tide quickly battled back with a jumper of their own. They rallied back and forth throughout the intense 40-minute game.
After trading buckets possession after possession, the contest came down to the final seconds. A midrange jumper put Penn up by one — six seconds left, 81-80, in favor of the Red and Blue.
An exhilarating play after a timeout by Alabama set now-NBA guard Kira Lewis Jr. up for two free throws, the game in his hands. With a pair of missed free throws and a sigh of relief, the Quakers pulled away with a victory.
Shaded from the bright fluorescent lights by the multitude of championship banners, Penn alumnus Stan Greene was just one Quaker enveloped in the stands by the Crimson Tide. His presence was nearly erased by the 12,000 rowdy Alabama fans, which far exceeded the familiarity of his usual environment of the Palestra.
Having starred on Penn’s men's basketball team in the '70s, Greene has been bonded to the program for life. He’s always around the team, whether it’s as a member of the Penn Basketball Sports Board or simply as a fan admiring a thriller at the Palestra.
Fast forward to today. There was no exhilarating season opener for Greene to attend. No go-ahead field goal and no team-wide celebration.
But that’s to be expected — there isn’t even a season.
This year, Ivy League basketball would continue to remain sidelined while every other Division I school is pushing through the COVID-19 pandemic to play games as scheduled. For Penn fans and athletes alike, the whole situation is, simply put, frustrating.
While Greene is able to weigh his love of Penn basketball with the greater health and safety of Penn’s student-athletes, there’s no doubt he misses the games. He’s not alone, either.
Penn basketball fans from all walks of life are still searching for something to fill the void — the ways they’ve attempted to get their basketball fix, however, depend on who you ask.
For many, following Ivy League basketball involves more than turning on the occasional game on TV. In talking with players, former players, and alumni alike, it became clear that passion for Penn basketball ran deep — and that replacing it would be much more complicated than originally anticipated.
“I’m still a basketball guy,” Greene said. “I focus more on a couple of teams in the Big 5 … one is Saint Joe’s. I follow them because of their coach, Billy Lange. He was an assistant with the Sixers [and] an assistant to Jay Wright with Villanova … so I just wanna see him do well.”
Staying local when it came to finding teams to root for was a common theme among those interviewed. The Big 5 is unique in college basketball and has become the most notable informal competitive association of teams in the country. The regional association creates a common interest in Philadelphia basketball that Penn fans have been able to fall back on with the Quakers season sidelined due to COVID-19.
“I’m a huge Big 5 fan,” former Penn men's basketball captain Bruce Lefkowitz, 1987 College graduate, said. “So there’s a camaraderie. I think even if you go back 30 years or so, we all knew each other, we all rooted for each other, [and] we all took great pride in the Philadelphia Big 5.”
However, the shift to watching Big 5 basketball is not unique to former players and current alumni. Current members of the Penn community have also decided that it’s better to cheer on their geographic rivals than it is to go without cheering for anyone at all.
“I made a quick pivot to the other Big 5 teams,” Nakia Rimmer, Penn math professor said. “I’m a big fan of Philadelphia basketball. [I’m] just keeping in Philly and watching the Philly teams and seeing how they’re doing. They’re all my home teams now, so I can root for them.”
While cheering for the Big 5 is one of the more popular ways to stay involved with the sport during Penn’s hiatus from playing, it is hardly the only way fans are consuming college basketball.
The Penn basketball network is far-reaching, and it stretches across not only the country, but also the globe. Penn has seen many of its more successful players graduate to playing professionally overseas, which has given fans a non-college basketball way to feel involved with the Quakers.
“There's been a lot of us that have been [in Europe] continuing our journey,” Luxembourg’s Basket Esch guard Miles Jackson-Cartwright said. “AJ [Brodeur], Darien Nelson-Henry, Tony Hicks, and Darnell Foreman [have been] over here for a long time playing, so being able to watch them on the professional level has allowed me to stay connected to the program.”
Despite finding Penn connections to cheer for this season, fans have still been unable to truly replicate their traditional college basketball experience. While cheering for players abroad can be fun, for most, it does not compare to cheering on the Red and Blue at the Palestra.
“I'm just really disappointed that, you know, I just can't watch Penn basketball,” Jackson-Cartwright said.
Though it may not be as fulfilling for the fans to cheer on other teams and players, it demonstrates a passion for the sport that all Penn basketball fans share. With it, there is also a hidden network of connections between Penn and the rest of the basketball world.
During a normal season, these connections would fly under the radar as pieces of Penn’s basketball history. Now, without a season to enjoy, these former Penn figures have been brought to the attention of a fan base craving basketball to follow.
“I always [enjoyed] following my roommate from college, Eddie Stefanski,” John Engles, a former player and 1976 College graduate, said. “He was, and still is, very much involved in the NBA. He was the general manager of the Nets, then he became general manager of the 76ers, and then he was up in Toronto, and I believe he’s still working for the Pistons.”
It has clearly been popular for fans to follow Penn-affiliated figures who are now coaching or playing in the collegiate or professional ranks. However, there has also been a growing popularity in following connections from the amateur level.
“I am very active in coaching youth basketball in some of the high levels in my area. So I noticed some of the guys that are playing in college,” 1991 College graduate and former Penn men's basketball player Paul McMahon said. “Someone that I followed closely was a teammate with my oldest son [in youth basketball], who now plays at VMI. So, I religiously follow VMI.”
This trend has been especially popular for current members of the Penn basketball program. Without the rigors of playing Ivy Weekends or practicing throughout the week, Penn athletes have found themselves watching more basketball than they normally would.
“I’ve definitely had more free time this offseason considering I’m not actually in the gym playing basketball with Penn and the team,” sophomore forward Max Martz said. “I mainly have been keeping up with old teammates that I played with in high school or AAU circuit. I’ve been watching Notre Dame a little bit — one of my good friends from high school is there.”
After interviewing Penn men's basketball fans from all walks of life, it was evident that all of them shared a collective passion not only for their beloved program, but also for the sport of basketball. This unbridled devotion to the sport fostered a creativity in finding ways to stay involved with the sport during the Ivy League’s competitive hiatus.
From simply shifting focus to the schools that share Penn’s history as a part of the Big 5 to following members of the Quakers' global basketball network, fans have found a myriad of ways to stay in touch with the game.
While the Quaker faithful have been able to make the best of the circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they still couldn’t help but feel frustrated at the thought of missing out on the season.
“Obviously I support the decision because I want to keep everybody safe, but I do think the league had a great opportunity to get creative with their season,” Jackson-Cartwright said.
The passion of some fans and alumni even led them to spend time drawing up their own ideas of ways to safely continue play in the pandemic.
“I think what they should have done is kept it intraleague,” Engles said. “[They] just have a 14 game schedule amongst the Ivy League. Determine the winner and have a representative for the NCAA … it would have been the Ivy League bubble. I’m disappointed.”
Other fans simply felt frustrated and questioned the Ivy League’s commitment to competition after every other conference decided to continue play.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that the Ivy League made the decision that they did,” Lefkowitz said. “I think that it was a bit sanctimonious. If every other conference in the country could try, there’s no reason why the Ivy League couldn’t try as well.”
Regardless of what fans had to say about the Ivy League’s decision, the conference remained firm in its decision-making throughout what would have been the 2020-21 season. Consequently, these fans were forced to channel their frustration into a new outlet — using the aforementioned methods to continue consuming college basketball.
Like many other things, Penn basketball was put on pause by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the passion for the program and the sport as a whole remained undiminished.
The creativity and devotion of these fans to the sport of college basketball even with their favorite team sidelined implores us to imagine just how passionate they will be when Penn resumes play next season.
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