SPORTS DIGEST by Bill Byham

Bill Byham, Sports announcer, writer and famous for "That's 30"

Bill Byham, Sports announcer, writer and famous for "That's 30"

HOW ABOUT PENN STATE BASKETBALL? – I have never forgotten Jim Keller taking me to a Penn State booster meeting in Williamsport when Fran Fisher was coming to talk Nittany Lion football (and take home with him any checks some of those in attendance might write)It was an eye opening night for me. My college life was all wrapped up around D-3 ball. I had never been a part of a D-1 gathering where so many die hard Blue and White fans gathered to hear the message from up top. I guessed the message included a call for funding aid and that became evident near the end of the evening.

But Fisher, who at that time a radio voice of Penn State football, opened the session to anyone who had questions or comments about anyone of the other sport programs offered at the university.

“Why is it, Fran, that Penn State can’t put a representative basketball team on the court?”

The question was asked long before Penn State played Big Ten ball. It was asked before the Lady Lions played into the national limelight. It was asked before name coaches ever considered Penn State as a place to build a winner’s reputation. I know, for a fact, that Chuck Daly, two time NBA champion coach at Detroit and a Gold winning coach at the Olympic Games, put his name in for the Penn State job soon after he had decided to move up from high school to college coaching.

It was asked when major college basketball was beginning to recruit “center city” players, young men who played the game in Baker League ball on corner courts in the cities. They played all year round and welcomed the hot summer nights when several groups would come together on a bare spot in the neighborhood and shoot hoops at any kind of rim that could be attached to the walls.

The rules were quite simple. Team A and Team B opened the evening’s play. That game might have been one that the winner was the first team to score 20 points counting by one. When it was over, the winning team stayed while the loser went to the end of what could be a long line.

Fran Fisher answered the question by saying, ” The kids we need for playing and winning at the high level tell me they could not be comfortable coming out here (State College) to get an education and play basketball. More than one recruit has said there is not enough concrete to walk on out here. The center city kids are being recruited but are not choosing Penn State.”

For years Penn State men’s basketball was there but was to be taken for granted. It was just one of the more than 30 intercollegiate sports that football paid for during the course of the year. Coaches came and coaches went, players came and players went. Same with fans but only seldom was there a crush for game tickets.

There were players like Jesse Arnell and Clinton Carver(or was he Carver Clinton) but never enough help for those outstanding players to win much of anything. They did win the 1991 A 10 Tournament but last week Penn State won its first ever national championship with a gut check 69-63 win over Baylor (24-15) to capture the 2009 National Invitational Tournament. State closed their historic season at 27-11.

The tournament capped the longest ever State men’s season with a run of 10 wins in their final 13 games. They were on the NCAA list for a spot in the larger national D-1 tourney but did not get a selection. When chosen to the N.I.T. there were not many who got excited even when they defeated George Mason and Rhode Island. Game three was on the road at Florida, the program that put two NCAA national championships in their book on back-to-back years in this decade. The Nittany Lions, living up to coach Ed DeChellis’ definition of his team, “We have tough kids. We will compete. That’s been our trademark all season. “, went into Tallahassee and came out with the upset win before taking on and defeating Notre Dame to move into the finale versus Baylor.

I can’t tell you how many, if any, of the 14 man roster came to Penn State from a “center city” program. Instead, the roster can maybe be defined as “ho-made” since six players are from Pennsylvania schools with five of those listed as freshmen.

DeChillis will lose four seniors headed up by tourney MVP, Jamelle Cornley (Columbus, Ohio/Brookhaven), Stanley Pringle (Virginia Beach, Va./ Landstown/ Pasco -Hernando CC), Will Lenier (Coplay, Pa/ Whitehall) and Danny Morrison (Cleveland, Ohio/ Pendleton School, Fla.)

I started following this ball club when they won their first six games while playing teams like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Later in their season, in Big Ten play, it appeared they had hit the usual Penn State funk in losing to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Purdue. That turned out to be their longest losing streak of the season. In between they won some and lost some but they were making a late season run to put their name on the NCAA bubble list. That did not happen but I am thinking, while the NCAA brings more prestige, DeCellis and Company have come back to State College very happy over what developed in their 2008-09 season and N.I.T. experience.

By the way. 36 fan buses out of State College plus the “walk ups, certainly proved this team had its support.

THAT’S 30-

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