I wouldn’t say I believe in the basketball gods, but it was hard not to feel a divine presence in the Palestra Saturday afternoon.
With just over one minute to go and Penn men’s basketball tied with Harvard 71-71, sophomore guard Jordan Dingle, who had already notched his record-setting fourth 30-point game of the season, was trapped. With the Crimson’s Noah Kirkwood and Mason Forbes closing in, Dingle had no other option but to throw up a prayer. The ball banked off the top right corner of the backboard, then bounced up on the front of the rim, and finally rattled through the hoop. The only way to describe the shot was miraculous.
If the shot was a gift from the heavens, what was its purpose? What are we supposed to take away from Penn’s 82-74 win? The answer, I believe, is to show us that Penn can be a basketball school.
Of course, some people will say that we've always been a basketball school. From the magical 1979 Final Four run to the days of Jerome Allen and Fran Dunphy in the ‘90s, the Quakers have played no shortage of nationally relevant basketball. This success has historically translated to tremendous student interest in the team. My parents have told me stories about waiting in long lines outside the Palestra to secure free student tickets for the Penn-Princeton game, but those days seem like ancient history now.
Much has been made of the gradual decline in attendance at basketball games over the last two decades. But the long and short of it is that Penn students have found other things to do. Going out to a party, staying in, or even studying have become more appealing options than a basketball game. But why?
The quality of play certainly hasn’t helped. Since Fran Dunphy left for Temple in 2006, the Red and Blue spent a decade near the bottom of the Ivy League without an NCAA tournament appearance. Yet, when Steve Donahue brought competitive basketball back to Penn, attendance didn’t get much better. Sure, there were some electric moments (the upset win over Villanova being the best) but whenever Ivy play came around, the empty seats returned.
The schedule hasn’t helped either. Some like to blame the decline of Penn’s basketball culture on the often questionable scheduling decisions made by the league and program, which give students less opportunities to go to games. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the University to temporarily close games to spectators, there were only five home games scheduled while students were on campus this season; the season before that, the number was just seven. In my four years at Penn, not a single Penn-Princeton game will have been played with the majority of students on campus due to scheduling during breaks and COVID-19. Without a number of home games to get to know the team and players, it becomes much harder for students to get invested in the team and restore the university's basketball culture.
In the end, all of this creates a self-defeating cycle. Poor play drove students away from the games, and once high quality play returned, the team didn’t have enough exposure to insert itself back into the school's social scene. At the end of the day, it's not that basketball games have some fundamental problem; it's that students go out with their friends on the weekends, and when their friends stopped going to basketball games, so did they. Just like that, Penn stopped being a basketball school.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t be one again.
In large part because it was the first Ivy League home game in nearly two years, more student tickets were sold to last Saturday’s game than any Ivy contest in recent memory. As the game wore on, it became clear the crowd would become a decisive factor, willing Penn to a number of key defensive stops. The best feeling for a sports fan is believing that you somehow played a role in helping your team win, and everyone in the Palestra last Saturday went home feeling that way.
I have to imagine there are more people out there like me. People who see their friends at big-time basketball schools rocking the arena, screaming and chanting the whole game; watching them help their teams win and wishing that that could be a part of their college experience, too. A lot of people think that is impossible. “It's because they’re them and we’re Penn,” skeptics say, but for the last five minutes on Saturday, we could have been anywhere in the country.
That’s the thing about it; this notion of being a “basketball school” is mostly just an illusion. People don’t want to come to games because they feel like it's not the same experience as going to a game at a “basketball school,” but if people just decided to start going to basketball games again, the student section could always be as electric as it was on Saturday. Making it so game day at the Palestra is a must-attend event. All we need is a concerted effort from student groups across Penn’s campus to take two hours out of their week to help lead a student section. The only reason we aren’t a basketball school is because we’ve decided for some reason we can’t be, yet we have all the ingredients.
Penn has the right coach, Steve Donahue, who has led the Red and Blue to the Ivy League tournament in each of its first five iterations. We have one of the most historic arenas in the country that can seat over 8,000 fans. We have the team, Ivy League contenders this season with only one rotation player set to graduate.
Add a school culture that cares about basketball and an energized game day environment, and who wouldn’t want to play for Penn! All of a sudden, some of Harvard’s elite recruits might consider the Quakers instead, and the program will continue to get stronger.
This is all a dream that I certainly won’t see during my time at Penn, and perhaps none of us will. Culture change doesn’t happen overnight. But the one thing I know is that it's possible, it just requires students deciding they want to make it happen. Can one jump shot change the trajectory of an entire program? Probably not, but every journey starts with a single step, and by letting Jordan Dingle’s bank shot fall — sending a packed student section home in a frenzy — the basketball gods showed us what was possible.
Jacob Wessels is a College senior from Wayne, Pennsylvania studying economics. He can be reached at email@example.com.