Champions

By David Porter | Steve Danley may have thought he’d been exposed to every form of invective during his annual trips with the Penn basketball team to such inhospitable outposts as Princeton’s Jadwin Gym or Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater, where the time-honored “Safety School” chants are about the only epithets that can be safely printed in a family publication. Yet it seems being a sports scribe can place one’s self-esteem in far greater peril.

Danley discovered as much when he took on the role of guest blogger for The New York Times during the Quakers’ brief stay in the NCAA Tournament. The 6 feet, 8 inches tall senior and Rhodes Scholar finalist suddenly found himself alternately lionized and ridiculed by an invisible army of critics who either found his take on Ivy League basketball refreshing and candid or trite and pretentious. The latter charge wasn’t aided by the Times’ lighthearted (if ill-advised) assertion that “the writing quality and IQ” of the blog, called “The Bracket,” was “about to take a precipitous leap” with Danley’s contribution.

Danley, too, may have hurt his own cause when he wrote in an entry on March 10 that “on a team of smart kids, I’m supposedly the smarter kid,” referring in part to his Rhodes Scholar candidacy. It wasn’t meant as a boast; rather, it was a throwaway line meant to illustrate how Danley frequently is sought for interviews by media outlets that recycle the same tired clichés about the Ivy players being “true” student-athletes who have “basketball smarts” even if they don’t possess the physical attributes of their counterparts at the schools that function as minor leagues for the National Basketball Association.

The comments on the Times’ website ran the full gamut, from “great reading” to “the most pretentious discourse on college basketball that I have read in years.” It soon degenerated, as do most Internet forums, into a group therapy session featuring personal attacks that strayed far afield from the original topic. Penn students are “egotistical, self-important little snobs,” one poster wrote, which produced the rejoinder that people who call Penn students egotistical, self-important little snobs are just jealous. And so on.

“It got pretty funny,” Danley said. “I stopped reading after a while. I had no idea what I was getting into. Looking back, I didn’t think about my audience beyond the university. I figured that people who were familiar with us would understand.”

The “witty byplay and multi-syllabic trash talking” (as the Times described it) that Danley’s posts engendered offered a silly sidelight to the conclusion of what by any measure was an extraordinary season for the Quakers in coach Glen Miller’s first year. Penn won its third straight Ivy League title and won 13 of 14 league games, stumbling only at Yale at the beginning of February. A turning point came when the Quakers were humiliated 102-64 by North Carolina in early January, after which Danley and fellow seniors Mark Zoller and Ibrahim Jaaber led a surge that produced 16 wins in 18 games and carried Jaaber to his second consecutive Ivy Player of the Year award. With a 68-52 loss to Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA Tournament—in a game Penn led by a basket midway through the second half—Danley, Zoller, and Jaaber, along with senior Adam Franklin, concluded their careers with a 79-37 overall record, 48-8 in the Ivy League.

Danley, meanwhile, will stay in Philadelphia for the next year to do nonprofit work as part of a fellowship. It’s a good bet he’ll keep on writing in some format—he once wrote a 50,000-word novel as part of a bet with his sister, he said. His recent foray into sports blogging has left him uncowed.

“For me, it’s mostly about experimenting, trying different things,” Danley said. “If I was going to do it again, I’d do it a little differently. But at the same time, I was proud of the piece. I think it showed the team as it really was, even though it was probably taken a little more seriously than it should have been.”

 

A year ago, after Matt Valenti won his first NCAA wrestling championship, Penn coach Zeke Jones was already getting into his star pupil’s head and plotting a repeat performance. When asked how tough it would be for Valenti to defend his title, Jones turned the question around and offered that it would be less a title defense—after all, he pointed out, no one was going to step in and take away Valenti’s first one—than a quest for a new title. Eleven grueling months later, Valenti put his name in the Penn record books by winning again, proving that sometimes the best coaching advice focuses on the area north of the neckline.

“That was something I tried to live by throughout the whole year, to try and keep some pressure off myself and focus on the task at hand,” Valenti said in reference to Jones’ mantra. “There was definitely some pressure on me, and definitely a bull’s-eye on my back after last year.”

Valenti’s 4-2 win over Oklahoma’s Coleman Scott in the 133-pound final at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan made him only the second Penn wrestler in program history to win two national championships, after Dick DiBatista Ed’43 GEd’46 in 1941 and 1942. It is a feat even Brandon Slay W’98, who went on to win a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics, was not able to pull off.

Valenti defeated, in order, Oregon State’s Bobby Pfennigs, Andrae Hernandez of Indiana, Mack Reiter of Minnesota, Cal Poly’s Darrell Vasquez, and Scott. Surprisingly, it was the opening match against Pfennigs, which he won 6-2, that caused him the most anxiety.

“The first match is always the toughest,” he said. “I told the coaches that throughout the tournament I had zero nerves, zero concerns except for that first match. I was shaking like a leaf going out on the mat. I just needed to get that match out of the way.”

Against Scott, whom he had defeated 6-4 in an all-star meet in November, Valenti got an early, two-point reversal to tie the match, controlled Scott for the entire second period, went ahead in the third, and held off a late takedown attempt that would have tied the score. Stylistically, it was similar to Valenti’s win a year earlier over Purdue’s Chris Fleeger, when he controlled, or “rode,” Fleeger for the entire second period and scored the decisive points in the third period. When the final buzzer sounded against Scott, Valenti dashed over to the section of the stands that held his family and friends from Penn holding two fingers in the air.

“It was incredible, a great feeling,” he said. “Also a little bittersweet because it was my last match.”

Unlike Slay, Valenti said he is done with competitive wrestling, though it is likely he will keep his hand in the sport by coaching while he pursues an advanced degree, probably an MBA. He bears the scars from a sport that is more physically demanding than almost any other, like the surgically repaired shoulder that he acknowledged he probably re-injured during this past season. One gets the sense that Valenti also won’t miss the assorted nicks, bumps, and bruises either, or the grinding workouts and fanatical obsession with keeping the pounds off.

“The big factor is that my heart isn’t really into competing any more,” he said. “To compete at the Olympic level would require spending my entire life and all my time on wrestling. For me, it’s time to move on to bigger and better things.”

David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.


GAZETTEER : News & Sports

 

“Enjoying the Moment,
as Only Seniors Could”

Despite the controversy sparked by his March 10 post to The New York Times’ NCAA tournament blog [see main story], Steve Danley returned to “The Bracket” two days later with a bittersweet meditation on how “freshman who carry bags turn into seniors who carry teams” that included this memory of “selection Sunday.”

As we gathered for Penn’s selection show party, senior guard Ibrahim Jaaber had just one request. He wasn’t concerned about our seed or our opponent. He wasn’t concerned about travel locations or the day we played. He just wanted our seed to be announced late in the show: “The last couple years it was just over, there was no anticipation.”

As the match ups flew by, World Café Live (where we held our selection party) grew rowdier. We breathed easy when we weren’t matched up with a hot team like Georgetown. We hollered for our fellow Big 5 squad, Villanova, and cringed for our neighbors Drexel as at-large spots kept being filled. But it wasn’t until the very end of the show, the second-to-last match up in fact, showed “Texas A&M vs. University of Pennsylvania” that the place finally erupted. For a few minutes, we resembled the Red and Blue Crew jumping around at the Palestra more than a championship basketball team.

Even as the cameras were trained on our reaction, I was thinking about one thing. Four years earlier, at our first collegiate practice, our former coach Fran Dunphy had told us that there was no feeling as good as being in that room waiting on selection Sunday. Four years later, even though he wasn’t there with us, we were proving him prophetic. And while the whole team was going crazy, three of my teammates seemed to be taking in each breath with a little more appreciation. Jaaber, Mark Zoller, Adam Franklin, and I were enjoying the moment as only seniors could.


©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 04/28/07