Philadelphia warms up to Penn State basketball
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FORT WASHINGTON, Pa. -- A high school basketball game in this gym a few miles north of Philadelphia has barely started when a 1975 graduate of Penn State leans over and, unprovoked, begins to vent. Why, he wonders, has Penn State struggled at basketball for so long?
"I've heard all kinds of reasons," the alum says.
There's the football-school reputation and the lack of funding and lack of commitment from an administration that scheduled Bon Jovi rehearsals and a career fair ahead of basketball practice, to name two of the biggest. Those issues loom large and easily can't be fixed. They are likely permanent obstacles.
But another exists on a more manageable, micro-level and is particularly relevant given the location of the aforementioned conversation: The Philadelphia problem. From 1990-2011, Penn State, the largest school in Pennsylvania, had six players from the Philadelphia area.
"If you're the major university in the state of Pennsylvania and you ignore your biggest city, it doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense to me," says Germantown Academy coach Jim Fenerty.
The good news for Penn State fans is that attempts at a solution are actually occurring in the very gym in which the 1975 graduate was sitting. It is Fenerty's Germantown Academy gym, and Julian Moore is blocking shots and scoring on polished, if slightly inconsistent, post moves. He is one of Penn State coach Patrick Chambers' 2013 recruits.
When he joins the Nittany Lions in the fall, he will have some company. Penn State will have three Philadelphia players: Moore teaming with this year's leading-scorer D.J. Newbill (a Southern Mississippi transfer) and Pitt transfer John Johnson.
Newbill graduated high school from Strawberry Mansion in 2010 and said, "in the city Penn State basketball is not really talked about." Johnson added that he was more inclined to pay attention to schools in the Big East Conference rather than Penn State. Of course, Penn State had something to do with its lack of cache in Philadelphia.
"I wasn't looking for schools," Newbill says. "I was talking to the schools that came to talk to me."
Penn State wasn't one of them. Though major-conference schools such as West Virginia and Marquette (before cutting Newbill loose) offered scholarships, Penn State stayed away.
"I just think either it was a combination of the fact that they didn't have connections or didn't have the confidence to look in there," says Steve Keller, a Philadelphia basketball guru who works for the National Recruiting Report.
From 2007-11, former coach Ed DeChellis had two Philadelphia players in his program. He said recruiting that area was a priority, but his work, as well as the work of assistants James Johnson and Dan Earl, never led to much progress because Penn State's lack of television presence in Philadelphia made Happy Valley nonexistent. He also said several Philadelphia players he would have recruited couldn't qualify academically at Penn State.
"That's hard to say publicly and I'm saying it now because I'm not in the situation," DeChellis says. "We would take it up the flagpole and they'd say it's going to be really hard and challenging with these kinds of scores."
Chambers was announced as Penn State's coach in June 2011. Shortly after, he called Fenerty and asked him which players he had who might be able to contribute on the Division I level.
"I'm sure he made that phone call to about 50 or 60 coaches in the Philadelphia area," Fenerty says.
Chambers, as most coaches are when it comes to recruiting, is vague when discussing the subject of Philadelphia. He talks about working hard and declines to go into specifics when pressed.
His presence has been noticed, though, on the phone and in person. In Philadelphia, the William Markward Club honors the best players from the city in a weekly event. Chambers, who coached as an assistant at Episcopal Academy and Villanova, has spoken there, and his assistant Brian Daley, another Philadelphia native, has attended multiple times. Penn State personnel hadn't gone to the Markward Club in years.
"To me that's a key," says former Episcopal Academy coach Dan Dougherty. "If he gets that and heads to one or two of them, the people are so grateful that Pat would come down on what is maybe an off day for him. He'll expend the effort, believe me."
Dougherty said that many of Penn State's built-in disadvantages are fading. Many years ago, he recalls, Philadelphia players didn't like to leave the city, choosing to play for a Big Five school where friends and family could watch. Then they wanted to play in the Big East. As the Big East crumbles, now the Big Ten is thriving as a basketball conference and has a television network most everyone can watch in the Philadelphia area. Dougherty sees this as an optimal time for Penn State to gain a foothold.
Chambers almost secured his first important coup. Brandon Austin, a consensus national top-100 player from Philadelphia, committed to Penn State in the fall of 2011. But last summer, he backed out, later committing to Providence.
Chambers did get Germantown's Moore. He's not as highly recruited but turned down Temple for Penn State. He regularly packs ice on his knees after games because, even at 6 feet 9, he's experiencing growing pains.
In Philadelphia, progress won't come free of struggle.
First Published February 12, 2013 12:00 am