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Perspective: A golden touch on the Palestra

(03/04/03 10:00am)

There are sounds. Funny sounds. The purr of the vent. The banging of steam pipes. The constant thumping and hammering and buzzing of God knows what. If you listen closely, Dan Harrell says, you can hear them. If you look into the stands for just a split second, you can see them. Sometimes, you can even feel them. There are ghosts, he says. Ghosts at the Palestra. It's 5 a.m. and Harrell, the Palestra's caretaker, is all by himself inside Penn's storied gymnasium. Today, there aren't any ghosts -- at least not yet. "You can just feel it," Harrell says. "You get goose bumps walking back and forth on the floor, like there's something there. Sometimes you hear balls bouncing and people laughing when there's nobody in the building. "You see things, you hear things. People don't admit it, but they do." Go ahead, laugh. As is his habit, Harrell is merely saying what other people are afraid to. • If you take care of Penn, Harrell likes to preach, it'll take care of you. That's why he's surprised more people don't do what he did. He's surprised more people don't wake up at 4 a.m., work all day and then take night classes -- for 10 years. He's suprised most people don't balance going to school and raising a family while working four jobs -- Palestra caretaker, Penn sprint football assistant coach, West Catholic High School football coach and CYO football coach for programs around Southwest Philadelphia. He's surprised more people don't type a 70-page senior thesis with two fingers on a computer in the back of the basketball locker room. He's surprised more people don't walk in Penn's commencement ceremony with a mop painted red and blue -- a self-deprecating stunt that he knew would get laughs. Graduating from Penn in 2000 turned a run-of-the-mill, country music-loving, football-breathing janitor into a national superstar. "He set the whole United States alive when he did it," says Penn sprint football coach Bill Wagner. "He was an inspiration to anyone who ever wanted to set their goals high." Why, then, don't more Penn employees do the same? Well, Harrell is not like many others. His first writing teacher found that out the hard way when Harrell wrote his very first college essay about his favorite place -- the john. Harrell went on to become an American Civilization major (which no longer exists) and wrote his thesis on Philadelphia street games, doing most of his research from his own vivid childhood memories. He grew up in Southwest Philadelphia and went to West Catholic High School before enrolling in St. Joseph's University -- for a day. "I sat through Algebra, and I had no idea what the professor was talking about," Harrell says. "I wasn't ready for that." Times change, though, and so do people. After his union, Teamsters Local 155, landed him a job at Penn in 1989, Harrell decided it was time to make something more, something better, of his life. Now, there's a plaque dedicated to him within the Palestra's hallowed halls. "Dan Harrell," it reads. "An Authentic Penn Hero." Harrell brushes right by it when he makes his usual rounds. No sense stopping to look when there's so much more ahead. • Jackie Harrell knows the exact day her father stopped drinking -- Feb. 11, 1989. "We don't talk about it though," she says quietly, finishing off her mother's home-cooked meal of meatloaf, corn and potatoes. "He doesn't celebrate it like some people." After getting laid off from his job at GE in the early '80s, a company he had worked for most of his life, Harrell turned to alcohol for support. Every day, he would wake up, head over to George's American Cafe, have some beers, bet on some races and go home to his wife and six daughters. "I had no job, no identity and I was drinking too much," Harrell says. "If you're raised in Southwest Philly, you're gonna drink. Go play ball, go drink beer, that's how it was. But as you're falling down, you're thinking about how to get back up." Harrell went to a couple of AA meetings, but he said that always made him want to drink. He cut himself off because he didn't like the "real asshole" he had become. For the past 14 years, he has kept the same friends and gone to the same places and done the same crazy, spur-of-the-moment stunts like he always has. The only difference: no drinks. "It was just like an operation," says Regina, Dan's wife of 37 years. "The drinking was cut out, but everything else about him stayed the same." • Dan Harrell is not from Southwest Philly; he is Southwest Philly. To fully understand Harrell, you must try to envision his life when he was 10, 11, 12 years old -- those were the best years of his life. On a recent February afternoon now, Harrell is driving around the old neighborhood, laughing and calling his old buddies and remembering story after story. There he goes, past the corner Sunoco station, where he got his first job as a clown when he was 10 years old. He quit after two days of the job in the pouring rain; a wet clown suit is no fun. He keeps driving, past the row house he grew up in, nestled between Mrs. Burke's and Mrs. Foster's old homes. Past where he and his buddies built their own baseball diamond. Past Old St. Barnabas Church, where he went to school from the fourth through eighth grades. Everything is so vivid now. The old gas station the kids used to vandalize; the 10-cent movie theater he lived in on Saturdays; the Irish section of town, the Italian section of town and the street the Polish lived on; the hoagie shop Regina's mother owned and the beer store his father worked at; the Big House bar (now a Vietnamese church) and the corner shop that served the world's greatest milkshake. Then, he gets to the house on 67th Street, the one he raised his family in, the one he just moved from last June. Suddenly, nostalgia is replaced with remorse. "The neighborhood's going through a real transition," Harrell says, pointing to his former house, which now has holes in the windows. "I used to be able to walk down this street and name every person in every house. I feel like crying coming down here." A man can only reminisce so long. Harrell drives through Cobbs Creek Park toward his new duplex in Prospect Park. He has just one more stop before he goes home -- his daughter Colleen's house. Colleen, Harrell's second child, has five daughters of her own, and Harrell has a nickname for all of them (except Tara, the oldest). Gianna is called Murphy, Lindsay is Ollie (because she looks like his father), Alaina is Danny and Gabrielle is Rosie. Upstairs, on the wall, there's a cartoon figure alongside three words: Pop-Pop was here. "They think he's the greatest Pop-Pop in the world," Regina says. "They save lemon pies for him." Before leaving, Harrell pulls three packs of Sweet Tarts out of his pocket and gives it to the three oldest girls. He always brings them junk food. • The Palestra is his. Before, during and after every basketball game, Harrell mops the floor in a Penn Athletics T-shirt tucked into blue shorts, high white socks and gold shoes. "Right now," Harrell says, two hours before the Penn-Princeton clash last month, "I'm the most important man in the building." The gold shoes started simply enough. Harrell needed to paint his shoes for the Mummers Parade on New Year's Day 2002, and all he had were his work shoes. So after the parade, he came to work with his funny-looking, freshly painted gold shoes. It stuck. Now it's his signature, like Jordan's tongue-waggle or Iverson's cornrows. "I'm going to call Reebok," Harrell says, half-jokingly. "They got the Michael Jordan; now they'll get the Dan Harrell." Harrell takes the Palestra very seriously. If you're doing any damage to his gym floor, you better be ready for a fight, verbal or physical. Doesn't matter who you are. John Calipari got a taste of Harrell's venom one day in the early '90s. The current Memphis and former Massachusetts head coach brought his UMass team to Harrell's floor back when the Atlantic 10 tournament was held at the Palestra. Calipari kept walking out to the three-point line and scuffing the floor during the game. Harrell told the referee to tell Calipari to stay off the floor, to which the Minuteman coach demanded that Harrell be thrown out of the building. Harrell's teeth clenched when he heard that. "You'll be outta here before I'll be outta here," he hollered. Calipari shut up. Former NBA superstar Julius Erving took some shots on the Palestra floor once wearing loafers. Wrong move. While everyone else was staring in awe at Dr. J., Harrell walked over and asked politely, "Excuse me, Doctor, all due respect, but you can't shoot on the floor with those shoes." Erving looked at him, flipped his loafers in the air, one at a time, and caught them, one in each hand. How about Yoshi Nakamura, one of the best wrestlers in Penn history? Think he stood a chance? When he was a freshman, Nakamura ran sprints on the floor after it had been cleaned. Harrell had no idea who this hotshot kid was, but he was ready to find out. "There's some debate on who dropped the F-bomb first," Harrell says, laughing. "We were jaw-to-jaw, and it was a 'fuck you' match.'" Nakamura then went over to Frank McNasby, the man in charge of setting up the baskets before every game, and said, "He can't talk to me like that, can he?" "He doesn't give a shit who you are," McNasby responded. "It's his floor." Harrell and Nakamura went on to become the best of friends. • What now for Harrell? What now for this abrasive-yet-affable janitor who everyone wants to shake hands with? What now for the man who snuck into the 1980 Super Bowl disguised as a wounded war veteran? What now for the man who worked his ass off to put six kids through school, while getting a degree of his own? It's been three years since Harrell captured national attention; now he's settled back into his familiar role of relative obscurity. "A lot of people are surprised I'm still a janitor," Harrell says. "I'm getting itchy to move on. I like my job, but it's physical. I'm starting to hurt a little bit. I'm in the last quarter. I want to do what I want to do in the last quarter. And I want to teach." What, then, is putting his dream on hold? Right now, Harrell is enjoying the benefits of Penn. The University, which paid for all of his classes, is also paying most of his youngest daughter Erin's college tuition. Erin is a sophomore at Newman College. Chances are, Harrell says, he'll stay at Penn two more years before going to a graduate school for education. He wants to be a social studies teacher or an athletic administrator or a guidance counselor. Anything that will keep him around kids. "He talks about teaching all the time," Regina says. "He's smart and has a lot more to offer. Why not use it? I think he'd make a good teacher, especially with the rapport that he has with the kids." "But his heart is at the Palestra," Jackie cuts in. "That's where he wants to be." It's a difficult spot. Penn and the Palestra have done so much for him. Could he ever leave? "If there's any way I can combine both," Harrell says, "I'm going to do it." Judging by everything he's already done, he'll probably find a way. Photo by Caroline New

Clawing through the Ivies

(02/21/03 10:00am)

For four years, senior guard David Klatsky has remained in the shadows, obscured by the stars of the Penn men's basketball team. Then, last weekend. Then, The Shot. With the Quakers leading by a bucket with less than a minute remaining against a resilient Brown squad Saturday, Klatsky heaved up a prayer with a man in his face and the shot clock ticking away. The ball went in, and the game was over. "That was definitely the best shot of my career," Klatsky said yesterday, minutes before joining his teammates on the bus headed for Boston. The Quakers take on Harvard tonight before traveling to Hanover, N.H., to play Dartmouth tomorrow. "I let it go and in my head I was thinking, 'Wow, that has a shot at going in.' And then it went in and the crowd went nuts," Klatsky said. Can Penn's sixth man pull another rabbit out of his hat this weekend? "Hopefully, we won't need that," Klatsky laughed. Judging by recent history, the Quakers very well might. Harvard's Laviettes Pavilion has not treated the Quakers well of late, as Penn has lost its last two games there. Last season, Harvard edged Penn, 78-75, in overtime behind 28 points from Patrick Harvey. Two seasons ago, then-senior Dan Clemente poured in 29 points to lead the Crimson to a 77-62 victory over the Quakers, a game that ended Penn's well-recognized 25-game conference winning streak. Clemente has since graduated and Harvey has since been ruled academically ineligible and forced to leave the university. Is there another Harvard player who can place the team on his back and carry them to victory?

It takes two

(02/14/03 10:00am)

If you want to see a real Valentines Day story tonight, tilt your head and squint your eyes and take a look just below the north Palestra rafters. On a creaky concourse, smack between flashing and beeping television and radio gadgets and the young people that operate them, a white-haired married couple sit beside a General Indicator Corporation typewriter that could very well be as old as they are. Dotty types a list of sponsors with two fingers, one at a time, onto the Palestra's message board, which is on the bottom of the scoreboard. Bob, although he reluctantly retired last year from being the Palestra's official scorekeeper, sits by her side. They've been married for the last 50 years. They've been at the Palestra even longer. Tonight, that's where they'll be, too, even if it is Valentines Day. "We're not doing anything special," Bob said, turning to his wife. "Unless you've planned something special. Did you, dear?" "I won't tell," Dotty responded with a chuckle. Don't be fooled, they're not unromantic. It's just that they've been through this holiday for the last 65 years -- how much chocolate, candy hearts and red roses can two people take? They first met in Mrs. White's first grade class at John Bartram Elementary School. Sparks flew, and they kept flying all the way through high school (they both attended John Bartram High, where they dated on and off.) After high school, they became more serious. Bob went to Penn and Dotty worked at the Western Exterminating Company on 39th and Baltimore. Every day, Bob would leave his Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house and meet Dotty outside her office at 5 p.m. Then, they'd take the No. 11 trolley back to their homes in southwest Philadelphia. The two never even dated anyone else after high school, Bob says, beaming with pride. Actually... "Well, yeah I did," Dotty said, hiding her head. Bob looked at her. "That I didn't know about." Still, Bob always knew he'd marry his high school -- uh, first-grade -- sweetheart. "I never proposed," he says, "I took it for granted." Their first home together was a third-floor apartment on 36th and Locust, which was in a perfect location -- directly across from the original Smokey Joe's. "We'd stop in for a hamburger and a beverage," Bob said with a mischievous grin. "We were at age at that time," Dotty chirped in. Bob also always knew that he'd never leave the Palestra. Who'd want to? While he was a student, he kept stats for Penn's Sports Information Department. After graduating from the University in 1953, Bob, an English major, became the Palestra's official scorekeeper, the man in charge of keeping track of fouls, timeouts and, of course, the score. He was good at it, too. "The one thing about Bob is that he's extremely accurate," legendary Palestra announcer John McAdams said. "He knows what he's doing and understands the rules of the game." Dotty would sit a few rows behind him sometimes during the games, but never worked there. She had their four kids to take care of. Then, the operation in 1984. "Mom used to have to stay home until Dad had an artery blowout," said their son, Bruce, who took his father's job as scorekeeper this year. "The artery has three layers. Two collapsed and circulated the blood away from the heart." Bob had to be flown to Texas for an operation, one of the few times he's ever left Philadelphia. He turned out fine, but lost peripheral vision in both eyes. After that Dotty had to drive her husband to all the games. Three years after that, someone asked her if she could type. The rest is history. "Not too many married couples end up at the same place -- at least without killing each other," McAdams said. "They both have Penn's interest at heart. They're all for the U. of P." The two also work at Franklin Field -- Bob is the press box announcer for Penn football games, Dotty works the message board for football and Penn Relays. But there's just something about college basketball's most historic gym that they love. That's why Bob sits right beside his wife, even now when he no longer works there. That's why there's no other place they'd rather be on Valentines Day. The two things they have always had in their life: each other and the Palestra. "The [marriage] ceremony didn't take place here," Bob said, looking down at fans streaming into the gym, "but we've made up for it through the years."

M. Hoops to 'battle' Hawks

(01/17/03 10:00am)

As the Penn men's basketball team prepares to take on Monmouth tomorrow, the lingering question remains: Which Quakers' team will show up to play? The one that suffocated in the mile-high air two weeks ago, shooting 32 percent from the field and losing by 23 points to Colorado? Or the one that dropped a 99-spot on USC and gave Trojans coach Henry Bibby nightmares last week? Penn point guard Andrew Toole would like to think he knows the answer. "I hope the team that played Colorado never comes out again for the rest of the season," Toole said. "Hopefully, we'll shoot as well as we did at USC and get the same good looks." That's doubtful, considering the Quakers shot a season-high 72 percent from the field against the Trojans, including an astounding 87.5 percent clip in the first half. Penn also made 75 percent of its three-point attempts. "I wouldn't count on shooting 80 percent in the first half against too many teams," Penn coach Fran Dunphy said. "If you can win by not shooting it well, but playing defense very well, taking care of the basketball and making good decisions, you should be right there in every game." The Quakers hope to get back to those basics against Monmouth, a team that is coming off a four-game winning streak. The Hawks (5-6) are currently in first place in the Northeastern Conference with a 3-0 mark. One of the Hawks' six defeats came on an 80-foot buzzer beating bank shot courtesy of Princeton's Ed Persia. The Dec. 4th 60-57 loss to Princeton was Monmouth's only prior date with any Ivy team this season. Monmouth will present a sturdy challenge for the Quakers, if only because it employs a unique matchup zone, one which Penn has not yet seen this season. "We have to attack that well and intelligently," Dunphy said. The Quakers will also see a semi-familiar face when they take on the Hawks tomorrow. Kevin Owens, Monmouth's starting center, is the younger brother of former Quakers' star Geoff, who played for Penn from 1997 to 2001. The younger Owens, a 6-foot-10 senior, is averaging 12. 5 points and 8.7 rebounds for the Hawks. Like his older brother, Kevin has a propensity for blocking shots. The Hawks' senior is currently fourth on Monmouth's career blocked shots chart. Geoff is the Quakers' all-time leader in that category. Like the former Penn center, Owens will look to establish himself as a dominating presence in the paint against Penn tomorrow. And he might find himself battling against junior Adam Chubb and sophomore Jan Fikiel to start the game. Dunphy has not yet made a decision on whether he will continue to bring seniors Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong off the bench, but says he is leaning toward it. The two four-year starters found themselves out of the starting lineup after subpar performances and mental lapses against Providence and Colorado over Winter Break. "I hope they're upset. I hope they're frustrated," Dunphy said. "If I didn't start the game and I had started all these years, I'd be frustrated and upset by it. But, you know what, they don't have a lot of control over it. They'll still get their minutes." After a tumultuous start to their season, the Quakers certainly know now that they cannot take any more games for granted. "We can beat just about any team in this country and we can also lose to any team in this country," Dunphy said. "So we better be ready to go every time out." But after a stunning performance in southern California, the Quakers are feeling confident that they can continue their surge. "It was an unbelievable game," Toole said of the victory over USC. "There's not much you can say about it, other than we played about as good as we can play. "Guys are excited for the rest of the year."