PHILADELPHIA — A.J. Brodeur didn’t want to lie. Asked whether this was the first time he’d been in The Palestra after 2 a.m., he admitted it was.
“As much as I’m sure a lot of people would like to hear that I’m in here until 3 a.m., I can confidently say this is the first time I’ve ever been here this late,” Brodeur told the few reporters committed (or stupid) enough to show up. “It’s still as amazing as it is during the day.… I never would say I’m in here until 3 a.m., but now I can say I got a shot off here at 2 o’clock in the morning. So now I get to carry that with me.”
The Palestra is eerie at 2 a.m. It’s a 91-year-old building. The pipes creak. So do the floors and bleachers. When it’s completely empty the sounds of bouncing basketballs echo off the walls even more than usual. The gym, which is loud even when there’s not much of a crowd, is actually quiet for once. But on Sunday morning it slowly started to show signs of life. A few reporters showed up, then some injured Penn players who hadn’t made the trip. A few fans showed up; Steve Donahue’s niece said she was awake, and in West Philly, and walked over. Security guards and Penn cops walked in, happy to have a break from their usual routine. Then Brodeur and the rest of the Penn basketball team came in.
They were at the Palestra because the Quakers mens’ basketball team won a share of its first Ivy League regular season title for the first time since 2007. For decades, Penn and Princeton dominated the Ivy League; between 1969 and 2007, the two schools won all but two of the league’s NCAA bids. In the decade-plus that followed, Penn hadn’t sniffed the title until this year.
Before last season, Penn and the other champion (Harvard) would have had to play a one-game playoff at a neutral site to determine which school got the Ivy’s NCAA bid. But the Ivy League added a tournament in 2016, and now Harvard, Penn, Yale, and Cornell will play a four-team tourney at the Palestra this weekend for that automatic bid.
There was a time when this kind of empty-arena net-cutting behavior would’ve been scoffed at by Penn fans; indeed, many Penn fans mocked the same situation when Yale cut down the nets in an empty gym after Penn, Princeton and the Elis all tied for the title in 2002. If you’ve never seen a college basketball message board full of Ivy League-educated fans, just know that things can get pretty rough. (And if you really want to get them riled up, ask them what they think about the fact the Ivy League has a tournament at all.)
But players, coaches, band members and even the Penn cops and security guards who stood there to watch the net-cutting said it seemed appropriate for Penn to cut down the nets for its first title after what might be the worst stretch in program history.
“The future’s going to be even brighter,” said Allen Bell, a 1981 Penn grad who showed up for the net-cutting and who has attended around 500 Penn basketball games. “We’ll be back in our rightful place.”
Penn coach Steve Donahue, whose Cornell teams broke the Penn/Princeton streak of titles starting in 2007, said the decision was made to cut down the nets in an empty gym on the bus ride back from Providence, where the Quakers beat Brown 99-93 Saturday night.
The trip home was eventful: The bus carrying the band and cheerleaders broke down on the way back from Rhode Island. The team bus stopped, picked up about half the band members and cheerleaders, and partied all the way back to Philadelphia.
“You only have about 25 guys on the bus,” Donahue said. “So it went from about half capacity to full capacity. I’m glad, though. I’ve been other places where the band, cheerleaders, and fans do not travel. And this group travels.…You got into some of these Ivy League buildings and you see some fans and then you see our partisan crowd and the band leads you out. I always thought, when I was here, that it was remarkable.”
The team cut down the nets, celebrated a bit more, then left the Palestra. There are still more games to be played this season.
“The excitement now is building for this tournament,” Donahue said. “We know what we have to do and we feel good about our group. But now I want that trip to the tournament.”