After many years away, Ibrahim Jaaber returns to Penn

One of the iconic moments of Ibrahim Jaaber's Penn career: sitting on the rim of the Palestra's west basket after cutting down the net to celebrate winning the Ivy League in his senior season.

If you were among the 8,030 fans at Wednesday's Big 5 doubleheader, you might have noticed that during the Penn-St. Joe's game, public address announcer Rich Kahn made a point of saying "Welcome back to the Palestra" when introducing Ibrahim Jaaber as one of the stars of the 2000s.

It wasn't just a pleasantry extended to a player whose exploits Kahn heralded during his first seasons at the microphone on 33rd Street. Jaaber, who still holds the Ivy League career steals record with 303, genuinely hadn't visited the Palestra - or the Penn campus as a whole - in quite some time.

But after a distinguished playing career in Europe, Jaaber is moving into a new phase of life. He's married, and is raising three kids near his home town of Elizabeth, N.J. He's a published author, poet, and motivational speaker at events in his community and around the world.

The time seemed right to return to his alma mater. And when he did, he received a standing ovation from a fan base that still hasn't forgotten what he meant to the Penn program.

During the intermission between Wednesday's games, he stood at the edge of Penn's still-new practice court. Around him, various members of the media chatted with dignitaries scattered across the room. Most were there to talk to Lionel Simmons or Lynn Greer or Ernie Beck. I headed in a different direction.

That practice court wasn't even a dream when Jaaber led the Quakers to three straight Ivy League titles from 2005 to 2007. He was the Ancient Eight's Player of the Year as a junior and senior, and in the latter campaign also won Big 5 Player of the Year.

"I'm jut trying to process everything still - a lot has changed," he told me, and he wasn't talking only about renovations at the Palestra. "I'm really amazed, just driving through the campus, to see how much Penn itself has blossomed."

Yet for all the new classrooms, apartments and restaurants that have been built in University City since Jaaber graduated, some prominent neighborhood features haven't changed. Among them: the number of men's basketball championship banners in the Palestra's rafters.

Penn still hasn't won an Ivy League title since Jaaber's senior season. He remains the last Quakers captain to sit atop the rim of the Palestra's west basket after being the final player to cut down the net.

"I stole that from Andy Toole," Jaaber said with a laugh, referring to the point guard on Penn's 2002 and 2003 title-winners who's now the head coach at Robert Morris. "I saw him and I said, 'I've got to do that. I've got to match that.'"

Even though it's been nine years since that triumph, Jaaber's memories of it are still fresh:

After a long journey through the Ivy League - maturity, relationships, being the underdog as a freshman and a sophomore, losing our freshman year [when Princeton won the league after Penn started the season as the strong favorite] - to have a successful career behind you, three Ivy League championships - and some of those years [questions were asked]: Are they going to win? Do they have the leadership [after] graduating seniors such as Tim Begley and Jeff Schiffner, all those guys who left behind us, can they do it?

So to sit on that rim was not just for myself, it was for my team. To say that we did it. And under coach [Fran] Dunphy, you know, you don't celebrate a lot. But you celebrate when it's over, when you actually win. That was one of those moments where we savored. We seized the moment.

After graduating, Jaaber joined the Detroit Pistons' practice squad, but didn't make it to the NBA. So he decided to ply his trade in Europe, first in Greece, then Italy, then Lithuania. For a time, he was part of Bulgaria's national team after they approached him with the offer of a Bulgarian passport.

In 2010, he latched on with the Los Angeles Lakers' summer league team, then returned to Europe for the rest of his playing career. Just to have a chance to give the NBA another shot meant a lot to him:

It was an amazing time in my life - the whole basketball experience coming to a culmination. Playing basketball since [I was] four years old; not getting even any scholarship offers originally out of high school; going to prep school; then finally arriving at Penn and being 150 pounds as a freshman, and being pushed around.

To be able to try out for the Lakers and the Rockets and the Pistons, and so many different teams, was a great feeling because I know the work that I put in. I know how I had to fight with myself to get to the level that I got to, and it was just an awesome experience overall.

All the while, he was guided by his faith as a Muslim. The rest of us might not have seen public manifestations of that faith, but it was there, and it was a key factor in his decision to stop playing. His last team in Lithuania was sponsored by a beer company, and he wasn't fond of the scantily-clad cheerleaders and profanities in the arena house music.

Jaaber's departure from Lithuania was the subject of a Grantland feature at the time. It was a notable headline to people who didn't know him, but to those who did, the move was just one of many principled decisions in Jaaber's life.

"Some things, they decide themselves," he told me. "Maturing as an adult, starting a family, and just growing as a Muslim. The environment, still to this day, is a challenging environment for me to be in."

Jaaber hasn't quite given up on his playing career yet. When he stepped away, he told me, he "needed something else" in his life. Right now, he said, he's "semi-retired." If the right opportunity comes along to take one more shot at getting on the court, he might take it.

"I still love the game - I still play a little bit here and there," he said. "I'm 31 years old, I've still got the skills, still got the speed, and the ability to play the game at the highest level."

Whether or not he goes back to playing, Jaaber will likely keep up his whirlwind travel schedule. He's a spoken word artist, and in recent months he has been on stage at events in Malaysia, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Those of you who followed Jaaber's college career closely might remember that his passion for poetry was developed at Penn. In fact, the spark was lit by Quakers teammate Steve Danley.

Jaaber, Danley and Mark Zoller - the star triumvirate of Penn's 2007 senior class - reunited on Wednesday night. Danley and Zoller are Palestra regulars, and Danley and Jaaber have stayed in touch over time. But Jaaber conceded he had not kept up with Zoller "as much as we could have."

Returning to the Palestra offered a chance to fix that.

"To come to Penn was actually a big decision for me, because of some decisions I made in the past to separate myself from the game - not basketball, but the arena," Jaaber told me. "For an occasion like this, I felt it necessary and important, and almost obligatory, that I contact them and just let them know what was going to be going on.

In addition to meeting with his old friends, Jaaber gave a pre-game pep talk to the current Penn team before its game against the Hawks.

"I really hope that they are a part of turning the program around," he said. "To see that match what Penn has invested in terms of facilities and taking the brand to another level. I hope that the players and the coaching staff will eventually be able to come back to that level, that standard, that Penn has had in terms of winning."

You might think that the kind of motivational message Jaaber would give to an Ivy League basketball team is different from the kind he'd give to other communities where he speaks. But when I asked him if he uses his own experiences as a model for what his audiences can achieve, he gave an answer that could apply to just about anyone.

"I don't think it's about 'I did it, so can you,'" he said. "It's more about what allowed me to do it - bringing the best out of what motivated me, and trying to give that to them from my experience. Not because I did it, but because we should never set our measurements and our standards of ourselves based on what other people have done. We should be self-motivated."

The current generation of Penn basketball players likely has plenty of self-motivation to end the program's Ivy league title drought.

Nonetheless, it was impossible for Jaaber's return to the Palestra to not serve as a reminder of the standard he set - and of what it will be like when someone else finally gets to sit on that famous rim.


By coincidence, Jaaber's last season of his Penn career was the first season of this blog's existence. And by further coincidence, Jaaber's return to the Palestra comes at the same time that the curtain is coming down on this little corner of the internet.

Well, sort of.

This week, all of Philly.com's college sports blogs are merging into one unified blog called College Sports Now. You've seen us do this recently with our Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and 76ers blogs. It's time to do the same here.

I'll be contributing to College Sports Now along with the many voices at the Inquirer and Daily News you already know well: Joe Juliano, Marc Narducci, Mike Jensen, Dick Jerardi and Mike Kern. The Soft Pretzel Logic era is coming to a close - except for my Twitter handle, which isn't changing.

It's no secret that because of my work covering soccer (and my various other duties at Philly.com), I no longer cover college sports as much as I used to. At times, I regret that; at others, I know we have plenty of writers providing the content readers want.

To be honest, I launched this blog nine years ago because our company was in a budget crunch, and had to scale back its college sports coverage as a result. I was able to fill in a gap, and do some things that the rest of the company wasn't able to do, even if it wanted to.

I also was able to use the blog as a way of experimenting with new digital tools and platforms that our company had acquired. I've continued to do that in various ways at Philly.com ever since.

We're in another budget crunch now - if we ever got out of the original, I suppose - and you all have seen the results in recent times. Rest assured, though, that isn't the reason for the blog consolidation. It's happening because we're sending readers to a handful of different places when it simply makes more sense to send you to one.

If you want to write an official obituary, here it is: born January 4, 2007, died January 25, 2016.

The lifespan encompassed 10 seasons.

And yes, it's another coincidence that the college basketball blog which has inspired me most along the way also lived for 10 seasons.

Now it's time to go. Thanks to all of you for stopping by here over the years. See you soon on the new site.