No thermometer was on display Wednesday morning at the Palestra, but safe to say the conditions would have been perfect for a wrestler looking to drop a pound or two to make weight.
“The smell is the same,’’ Sixers co-managing partner Josh Harris, University of Pennsylvania Class of ’86, joked of the memories flooding back when he visited the Quakers’ wrestling room.
A mat was on display at the Palestra because Harris and his alma mater were announcing his $1 million gift to Penn wrestling.
On the scale of no big deal to very big deal, a million-dollar gift is …?
“More than a very big deal,’’ said Penn wrestling coach Roger Reina, who returned to his alma mater last year after coaching Penn from 1986-2005, when the team had its greatest success. “In addition to the strategic elements to support the program, it’s also an inspiration to our student-athletes; it’s an inspiration to our staff, to our alumni and recruits.”
Maybe Harris as a 118-pound wrestler (“40 pounds ago”) couldn’t have envisioned becoming involved with owning NBA and NHL teams and other sports ventures. At that point, he didn’t know he’d be in a position so that when Reina, an ex-teammate, came to him and said a gift of that size would allow him to focus on recruiting more than fundraising, Harris could say, “Done.”
The gift was due to be announced some weeks back, but you might have heard how the Sixers got a little busy with their own front-office machinations. The money wasn’t going anywhere.
One common thread with the Sixers, Harris said, is that putting money into a college program won’t cause overnight success. (No talk of processes or trusting them.)
“It’s really about team building and creating a culture that attracts the athletes,’’ Harris said.
Harris took up the sport at age 10 while growing up in Chevy Chase, Md., and he remembers being a good high school wrestler, making it to third in the Maryland state freestyle championships. At Penn, he was just a little below .500, he said. A trip to Lehigh meant wrestling Bobby Weaver, who won an Olympic gold medal a year later.
Sticking with wrestling would have meant a fuller commitment than Harris thought he could give while committing to being a top student. Harris does believe the sport changed his academic commitment at an early age. “It really helped me in life.”
Reina said, “To me, anyone who straps on the shoes and trains in our sport — anyone who takes the Palestra floor here, it’s forever in your blood, it’s forever part of who you are.’’
The Palestra was originally the Greek term for a wrestling venue, which didn’t mean Harris didn’t take a Sixers question or two.
“We’re working every day,’’ Harris said. “The trade window is open. If we can find a player — and there’s ones being written about — that can help our program to another level, we’re going to do that.”
He talked about a trade needing to work for both sides.
“My day job, my Wall Street training, is helpful here, because if you have to give up too much, it’s not going to make sense for you,’’ Harris said. “So, we’re working through that right now and always looking.”
He said that without the name Kawhi Leonard coming up. Mainly, this was about a big day for a college sports program.
“He guaranteed me we’d be back in the top 10 soon,’’ Harris said of Reina’s vision for Penn. But the Sixers owner added that, in his experience, sometimes it’s better not to make big, bold, specific predictions.
Better, Harris said, “to set a general direction.”