Sunday, August 2, 2015

Stars from Penn's past reflect on the program's present and future

The annual alumni game brings together many eras of Quakers history for an afternoon of competition and sharing memories.

Stars from Penn’s past reflect on the program’s present and future

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A few hours before the Penn-Columbia game Saturday night, the Palestra played host to one of the most fun traditions Penn's basketball program puts together. The annual alumni game brings together many eras of Quakers history for an afternoon of competition and sharing memories.

This year's get-together, which was organized in large part by Stan Greene, had an especially big turnout. Not every former player (or coach) present took part in the game, but here's just a sampling of who showed up.

- From the 1960's through the mid-1970's, there were Greene, Ron Haigler, Bob Bigelow, Corky Calhoun and Henry Johnson.

- The 1979 Final Four team was represented by, among others, James "Booney" Salters, Tony Price, Bobby Willis, Ted Flick, Matt White, and coach Bob Weinhauer.

Weinhauer, it should be noted, coached one of the teams in the Alumni game, and spent the whole time barking out plays and working the refs. This despite the fact that he didn't know most of the names of the players on his team until a few moments before tipoff. He remains a great character all these years after his time in the spotlight.

- Players from the 1980's included Angelo Reynolds (whose first varsity season was '79) and Tyrone Pitts.

- As has been the case for the last few years, there were plenty of players from the 1990's: Micahel Jordan, Paul Romanczuk, Tim Krug and Paul Chambers, to name a few. Shawn Trice came by after Temple's win over Duquesne, and Jerome Allen played in the game before changing into his work suit for the evening.

- The 2000's were well-represented too, and not surprisingly a lot of them played in the game. Geoff Owens, Jeff Schiffner, Brian Grandieri and Mark Zoller all played, and Ugonna Onyekwe participated for the first time ever.

After the game, I talked with three former Penn greats - Weinhauer, Salters and Onyekwe - to get their opinions on the current state of the program, and where they think things are headed.

Bob Weinhauer

On the job that Jerome Allen has done so far as Penn's head coach:

I believe today is like a tribute to Jerome. The number of people who have come back - and not just the ones who played, but you look at all the other people in street clothes. Back from '79 and before. The Bob Bigelows, the Henry Johnsons, the Larry Lewises. That's a great tribute to Jerome.

Because they want to see this program come back, and I think Jerome is getting everything moving in the right direction.

On changes in the quality of Ivy League basketball over the time he has watched the league:

I think it's more competitive. I don't think there are teams that are up there like our '71 team and our '79 team, as far as overall talent, but within the league itself, it is much more competitive. You see a Cornell, you see a Harvard, you see a Princeton, you see a Columbia, you see a Penn. They are all very competitive.

Now there are a couple of teams I haven't seen. I haven't seen Yale. But I see their record is pretty good within the league. So that's important.

On Harvard's expansion of the boundaries of what an Ivy League basketball program can do in recruiting talent, and whether that will lead to the rest of the league stepping up as well:

That's a tough one. I don't know if they are expanding the boundaries, or if they just had a fortunate recruiting class or two that has moved in. Harvard, Yale and Princeton have always been known for being able to get in good talent.

So I don't think that's going to change. I just really think that they're in a streak now where they're getting good talent, just like we were back in the 70's and the 60's. And under Fran Dunphy. These things kind of run cyclically.

On whether Jeremy Lin's success in the NBA can change perceptions of the caliber of players in the Ivy League:

Jeremy Lin has definitely opened up everybody's eyes, but there have been good players from the Ivy League who have gotten shots. Jerome got a shot. Matt Maloney got a shot. Paul Little got a shot. Tony Price got a shot. They all had opportunities.

Zack Rosen, I believe, will get invited to camp. Whether he'll get drafted, because there are only two rounds now, I can't tell you. But he'll be invited to a camp because of what's happening in New York right now.

On whether, given the modernization of arenas and practice facilities across college basketball, the Palestra will remain an attraction for high school recruits:

It will right here in Philadelphia. It will mean something. And the Ivy League is not going to change. You're not going to see 18- or 20,000 seat arenas in the Ivy League. That's not what it's about here. It's about education and bringing in good student-athletes.

But the thing that really hurts the Ivy League overall is the fact that they don't have scholarships. If they had scholarships, then that would change the whole picture, because the Ivy League would compete with the Stanfords and the Vanderbilts and everybody else.


James "Booney" Salters

On watching the alumni game from courtside:

It almost made me feel like I could go out there and play with them. Almost - not quite. But it was great watching the young guys, and seeing what they're doing, and also chatting with the guys in the stands.

On Bob Weinhauer's character as a coach in the alumni game:

He wouldn't stop coaching, did you see him? He had his rotations down, he had guys subbing, he was watching to see when guys got tired. He made a job of it. I had to come over and help him later on.

On how Ivy League basketball has changed since his playing days:

It's hard to evaluate, because our situation was a little unique. They were able to get a group of guys for a long period of time that were full need. And the packages they were giving us as full-need students were better than scholarships, because we were true full-need students.

I think that now, with the way that communities have evolved economically, it's very hard to get that student to come here now.

If he had the talent that we had then - I was recruited by Stanford, St. John's, Syracuse. Most of those kids won't come now. Then, they would. So it's going to be very difficult. But I think with Jerome at the helm right now, our opportunity and chances have increased.

On what he sees in Zack Rosen:

Hope. [He laughed.]

If we can get a few more guys to complement him who are like the guys like he's putting around him, we have a shot.

On who would win a game between Salters in his heyday and Rosen:

He has no shot. No shot. And you know what they say: the older you get, the better you were.


Ugonna Onyekwe

On how it feels to be at the alumni game for the first time:

It feels great. It's nice to come here and see everyone and catch up, and run up and down the Palestra floor again.

On playing again with former teammates such as Michael Jordan and Jeff Schiffner:

It brought back a lot of memories. I've kept in touch with a fair number of these guys for a long time, but to get on the court and play with them again was nice.

On whether he still has it:

I've got a little bit of it left. Definitely not like it used to be, but you know, time waits for no man.

On watching Jerome Allen as coach, especially given his efforts to bring former players back into the fold:

He was around the program when I was playing, and he has certainly been instrumental in trying to reinvigorate the alumni presence, along with Stan Greene. It's something that was maybe kind of neglected for a few years there.

It's exciting to have someone like him as the head of the program, and he's obviously brought back a lot of excitement, spirit and fire. He's got the guys playing hard, and they're in a position where they still control their own destiny.

It's good to see so many guys from so many different eras back here and reconnecting, because I think that's something that certainly, when I was playing, I don't think we had that in the same way. It's good to be a part of that.

On watching Zack Rosen:

Zack's an incredible talent. I've worked out with him the past few summers, I've gotten to know him fairly well. He's a guy who works extremely hard, so everything that he is accomplishing is a fruit of that hard work. People probably don't see it, over the course of the summer and behind closed doors, but he puts in the work.

He's passionate and competitive, and I'm excited for him. He has a bright future ahead of him, whatever he decides to do.

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Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

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