Penn State Basketball: Newbill, Johnson Hopeful to Open Pipeline To Philadelphia
If you stand on one of the two outdoor courts at the Hank Gathers Recreation Center in northwest Philadelphia, you might be able to convince yourself you aren’t in the middle of one of the nation’s founding cities. A baseball diamond, a large field and bushes surrounding the property and beyond give the impression of a much more rural setting.
That’s until you hear the sound of the East-bound Amtrak train as it zips through a path in the trees, headed to a station just more than a mile away. All four tracks taking passengers to and from west Philly, the whirring of the trains flying by is a quick reminder of where you are.
The courts at Hank Gathers may not have the clout of New York’s Rucker Park, but like every city, reputation can be won and lost on a court where you call your own fouls, if you dare. It’s just one of the few places that Penn State guards DJ Newbill and John Johnson laced it up and played the game.
“We had a few battles back in high school,” Newbill said of Pittsburgh transfer guard and Philadelphia native Johnson, a smile slowly cracking on his face. “He never beat me, but some nice battles back in high school.”
“DJ and I used to go at it a lot,” Johnson said. “Even when I was in high school, all of the showcases in high school, that was the prime time game. They’d put us against each other because that was a matchup everybody wanted to see.”
Both Johnson and Newbill mark a gradual change in Penn State’s approach toward recruiting and the best basketball city in the state. Coach Patrick Chambers hasn’t made it a secret that he wants in on the Philadelphia pie, with personal and professional ties on almost every major court in the city.
“I want a part of this,” Chambers said following a loss to La Salle at the Palestra earlier in the year. “I want to stake out our piece of this. That’s why we played this game here and will do so in the future.”
But the hill won’t be an easy one to climb.
“I never really thought about Penn State basketball,” Newbill said after a long pause. “In the city, Penn State basketball isn't really talked about.”
However long the climb, change has still taken place over Chambers’ first two years at the helm. Newbill and Johnson will both co-star along Tim Frazier next fall. Freshman Brandon Taylor, an alum of the Team Philly AAU squad, also hails from the area, and incoming freshman Julian Moore calls the City of Brotherly Love his home as well.
Only time will tell if Penn State has a true ability to grow and impact the region, but both Johnson and Newbill see their presence on the roster as a possible changing of the guard.
“Most of the guys in Philly, we know each other because in the summer time there’s a few main gyms that we all go to and workout and play against each other,” Newbill said. “John looked at Penn State because I was here, and other guys could do the same down the road.”
“When you have two household names from the Philadelphia area come here, it sets the stage for other guys to come here as well,” Johnson said.