“Having gone to the tournament and played in this atmosphere, how much does this fuel your fire to come back next year and make it a longer run?” a reporter asked Penn men’s basketball junior guard Jordan Dingle, 20 minutes after the team's season-ending loss to Yale in last year’s Ivy League Tournament.
Dingle visibly choked up for a moment, fresh off a heartbreaking finish to Penn’s biggest game of the season, and spoke briefly about how he believed his team belonged with the league’s elite. He closed out his press conference with a statement that should have all Quaker fans excited for Monday’s season-opener against Iona.
“I’ll tell you, I cannot wait for November to come.”
In an age when college players have been entering the transfer portal to seek bigger opportunities, some pundits wondered whether the Valley Stream, N.Y. native, who averaged nearly 21 points per game last year and is now considered by many to be the best player in the Ivy League, would stay put with Penn.
In Dingle’s mind, his decision was always clear.
“Something that I always try to do is to leave a legacy of winning,” he said. “I like to try to win where I’m at, and I haven’t won here yet. So transferring was never anything I could possibly seriously consider, because I haven’t won here yet. I’m fully invested in this program and what it is we’ve built here. I love our culture. I love our guys more than anything.”
Dingle is all basketball by blood. His father, Dana, was a starting forward on the 1996 UMass Final Four team. UMass’ Final Four opponent, Kentucky, included one of the elder Dingle’s cousins, Allen Edwards. Two of Dingle’s other cousins, Doug and Steven Edwards, were McDonald’s All-Americans and played at Florida State and Miami, respectively, with Doug even being selected with the 15th overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft.
Dingle still receives mentoring and guidance from family today. But despite his rich family history with hoops, playing basketball was never something Dana Dingle urged onto his son.
“[He tried some other sports,] but always loved basketball since he was a little kid,” the elder Dingle said. “As he started taking it more seriously and really wanted to play, and as he got older, that’s when I got more involved in his development.”
Dana Dingle had the perfect situation for his son to develop as a player: his Amateur Athletic Union Program, the New York Lightning, where he serves as a co-director. Dingle played with the Lightning from age nine to right before college, with the program that boasts NBA alumni such as Obi Toppin and Chris Duarte.
Because of his dad's connection with the team, at a young age, Dingle forged a close bond with Abdul Razak Shanun, who traveled from Ghana to the United States to play basketball with the Lightning and spent his summers with the Dingle household.
Though the two never shared the court, Shanun quickly became an older brother figure for Dingle.
"He was really hard-working. He was really grateful for every opportunity, and he never took anything for granted," Dingle said. "With him being foreign, not coming from the States, there was a lot of things that, me being five years younger, I taught him as well. He didn't know how to play video games and stuff like that."
Tragically, in 2014, Shanun lost his life in a boating accident. The loss weighed immensely on the communities Shanun was part of, including the New York Lightning and Dingle family.
"I always keep him in mind whenever I do anything, just to never take anything for granted," Dingle said. "He's one of the best people I've ever met."
Following Shanun's passing, Dingle played his high school and AAU ball, earning two first team All-State nods in his final two years at Blair Academy in New Jersey, and won a state title during his senior year.
"Jordan was a born scorer upon arrival [to Blair] and had a college-ready body, but over time, he began to understand how to run a team and get others more involved," Blair coach Joe Mantegna said. "We have had over 80 D1 players since I have been here and Jordan is simply one of the best scorers I have ever coached and he played on the most decorated team in school history as our best player."
Dingle’s high school success led to him earning multiple Division I offers. He sought a program with a good coach in a competitive league, a school where basketball mattered, and, most importantly, a team where he would have the opportunity to play right away.
He found all of those at Penn, where an extensive basketball legacy playing in the famed Big 5 stood as a historically successful program led by head coach Steve Donahue. Dingle was also swayed by the prospect of attending the Wharton School.
“Coach Donahue gave Jordan the message that they needed him, not just wanted him, but they needed him to be successful and get to the next level,” Dana Dingle said. “That was a major selling point for Jordan and instilled confidence in him; to be the guy to help them do it, not just a piece of the puzzle.”
Dingle sought to play against as much older competition as possible during his high school summers to prepare for the physicality of the college game. He took advantage of the New York Lightning’s alumni base to train with its professional and college players who returned home every summer.
Dingle’s hard work immediately began to show on the court in his first-ever collegiate game. On the road against Alabama, a team that boasted future NBA players Herb Jones and Kira Lewis Jr., Dingle earned the start and seized the moment, finishing with 24 points and six rebounds. With Penn trailing 80-79 with under 10 seconds left, Dingle drove to the hoop and hit a contested layup to give Penn the lead and 81-80 victory.
“We opened up at Alabama, and I remember thinking that he was as good as any of their guards,” Donahue said. “I’ve coached a lot of Ivy League teams against the SEC, and we’ve been successful at some times, but have not had a guy who could go out there and attack on the level of some of their players. It was pretty apparent that he was a gifted basketball player, and that was just the first game of his career.”
In Dingle's freshman campaign, while serving as a second option to Penn all-time leading scorer AJ Brodeur, Penn finished fourth in the Ivy League and were set to compete in its postseason tournament until it was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the cancellation, the graduating players on the team were confident in Dingle’s future leadership.
“When Jordan first got to Penn, I knew he was going to be a special player,” Brodeur said. “He had natural leadership qualities and a ton of talent, and potential upside. Even when he was a freshman, I could tell he was going to be the future leader of this team.”
Even in an unexpected break in competition, Dingle found value in the opportunity to slow down and regain his love for the game, by training on his own and listening to the advice of his idol, the late great Kobe Bryant.
“In the beginning [of the pandemic] there were no gyms open, so I was in the park every day with no games, just me and a basketball, shooting and running after every rebound,” Dingle said. “I listened to those Kobe Bryant stories where they talk about how addicted he is to basketball, and I fell in love with the game all over again.”
His renewed passion for the sport fueled one of the greatest offensive Penn campaigns in recent memory this past season, with an impressive stat line of 20.9 points (12th in the nation), 3.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game, all while shooting nearly 45% from the field.
He scored over 30 points six times, including in big wins against Yale and Harvard, becoming a unanimous first team All-Ivy selection.
Dingle then spent the summer back home, practicing late at night and early in the morning at his father’s gym — sometimes with former LSU and Denver Nuggets star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf — and watching film of great playmakers to learn their habits.
“[The young guys on the team] didn’t have that same level of confidence last year,” Dingle said. “So I had to do a lot of the scoring and take on a really large role that I think is going to be a little more distributed going forward. Now, in practice, I’ve barely been taking any shots. It’s just been finding guys and trying to make the game as easy as possible for them.”
“Jordan has obviously improved with his basketball and with his leadership, and I just think the next step is making others better, too, to continue to beat really good teams and challenge for a championship,” Donahue added.
Despite the depth on Penn's roster, aims for March success still lie on the shoulders of No. 3. The rest of the Quakers will look to him for leadership, and so far have seen him answer those calls.
“I think last year, his season helped him really realize that he has a lot of respect from us,” George Smith, a sophomore guard and one of the young players whom Dingle is close with, said. “With him being an introvert, he didn’t really share much, but this year, he knows that he’s our guy and that we need him throughout the season.”
No matter how the season plays out, though, Dingle seeks to appreciate the moment at hand. After losing an older brother figure eight years ago, he has learned to never take anything for granted.
Still, Dingle is a “sore loser” and won't be satisfied with anything less than an Ivy title this season.
“As long as we improve from last year, I would call this season a success. But at the same time just improving isn’t really enough. This team has a lot of really talented and confident guys, and we think we are really capable of winning the title and making a run in the NCAA Tournament. So saying anything short of that is a success would be selling this team short,” he said.
No matter the unpredictability of the season, and the long road ahead, one thing is for certain, though: He and the Quakers will work their hardest to ensure that the road ends on March 12, 2023, with him and his teammates holding up a banner in Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium that reads “Ivy League 2023 Champions” on it.