Philly Connection Important for Penn State Basketball

Story posted December 5, 2012 in CommRadio, Sports by Eric DeBerardinis

193 miles separate the Bryce Jordan Center and The Palestra in terms of distance. Light years separate their relevancy. The latter is referred to as the “Cathedral of College Basketball”, while the other is known more for its efforts hosting philanthropical and musical gatherings. Penn State head coach, Pat Chambers, is attempting to fuse some of the history and talent that exists inside the famous arena to the center of Pennsylvania.

Many critics argue that Happy Valley exists within its own bubble, weary of outside infiltration. While the general merits of that statement can be debated, it certainly held true regarding basketball. Previous regimes did not prioritize Philadelphia as a recruiting land mine, despite its quality of players and short trek down the PA turnpike. For years, a basketball mecca was essentially ignored.

Chambers is different.

He knows Philadelphia and the skills it has to offer. He grew up there and has maintained ties to the city his entire life. The Palestra played a large role in Chamber’s childhood.

“When you grow up, and your Dad and older brother bring you to games,” said Chambers. “You wanna play there; you wanna be a part of that history.”

Chambers was born and raised in the suburb of Newtown Square, played high school ball at Episcopal Academy and attended the city’s namesake school, Philadelphia University. In college he played point guard under the tutelage of legendary and Hall-of-Fame coach Herb Magee. The current Nittany Lions’ head coach was an assistant under Jay Wright at Villanova for five years, which included a Final Four appearance. When Chambers was a head coach at Boston University he still heavily targeted his home-base. In one recruiting class, Chambers nabbed six Philadelphia-area players.

So, simply, Chambers gets it.

The self-proclaimed “Big 5 junkie” hopes Penn State can stuff its non-conference schedule with a few Philadelphia-based teams each year. This past Saturday the Nittany Lions hosted the Penn Quakers (who call The Palestra home), and will travel to the city to face LaSalle on Wednesday.

“We want to get there as much as we can,” said Chambers of Penn State playing in the city. “We have to do it intelligently.”

Philadelphia is a vital war-zone for recruiting. Players tend to attend city schools or get plucked by out-of-state national powerhouses. Chambers wants to acquire more of the “Philly Swagger” that he constantly references.

Chambers has already established a distinct Philadelphia flavor for his current Nittany Lions team. Visibility and presence matter.

“I don’t think a lot of players get to see Penn State a lot; the talent we have on this team, how hard we play,” said Nittany Lion guard and Philadelphia native, D.J. Newbill. “If guys just see it, I think it would be better for our recruitment.”

Players are beginning to take notice. In less than two years, Chambers has begun to slightly blur the line between 127 University Drive in State College and 235 South 33rd Street in Philadelphia.

Freshman, Brandon Taylor, played AAU basketball with Team Philly. Donovan Jack played just an hour away in Reading. Assistant coach, Eugene Burroughs, attended high school with Chambers at Episcopal while other assistant, Brian Daly, was Philadelphia’s 1988 Player of the Year at Monsignor Bonner.

Chambers picked up Newbill as a transfer from Southern Mississippi but at the core remains a Philadelphia product. The same holds true for Penn State’s most recent addition. Earlier in the week, the Nittany Lions announced John Johnson, a Pittsburgh transfer, who played high school basketball in Philadelphia, had joined the team. Next year’s class features Julian Moore, a three-star recruit from the nearby Germantown Academy.

Newbill, who attended high school at Strawberry Mansion, just a short ride from The Palestra, can be attributed as Chamber’s first Philadelphia recruit. The Nittany Lions return trip to his hometown figures to be a special one for the redshirt junior. He plans to have at least 10 family members at Wednesday’s game versus LaSalle.

He lists Philly natives like Mardy Collins, Dionte Christmas and Jameer Nelson as a few of his favorite Big 5 players to watch. With a laugh, Chambers named his brother Paul, a former point guard for Penn, as the best player he has seen play at The Palestra (In fairness, he actually has a picture hanging in the arena’s corridors). Paul’s younger brother then mentioned Lionel Simmons as another great.

The available level of talent is apparent. Nearly every NBA roster boasts a player from the greater Philadelphia region. Toughness defines the city’s players to go along with obvious skill. 

The Nittany Lions (4-3) are developing a gritty style of play that resembles their city counterparts. Wednesday’s result is significant, but on a larger scale it provides the opportunity to make a statement.

“Win or lose, we have to compete,” said Chambers.

Chambers wants younger players to take notice, allowing him to better construct a sales pitch down the road. Despite the distractions of friends and family that returning home could present, the coach understands the situation.

“It’s a business trip,” said Chambers aptly.

Eric DeBerardinis is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, e-mail ejd5136