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Penn State Basketball: 'Return To Rec' As Much About History As It Is Future

by on December 12, 2013 4:00 PM

Old gyms are like old battleships. They have a personality.

They have memories shared with those fortunate enough to have been a part of their long history. They have hallways you never use, restrooms you always avoid, weak spots on the ground where you just wouldn't step. A distinct creaking sound as you walk across it.

To everyone else it's just a ship. But to those who were there in its heyday it's something more than that, something a little bit alive.

In the eyes of Penn State basketball, Rec Hall is that decommissioned ship getting water pumped back into the lock and setting a course for a quick ride around the ocean of modern day college hoops. As the Nittany Lions face Princeton on Saturday, a fittingly throwback team themselves, a standing room only crowd will hop into their time machines and travel back to what may have been the greatest era in the program's history.

The building itself was designed by Charles Z. Klauder, the man behind the Palestra, a Mecca of sorts for college basketball fans in Philadelphia.

The basketball floor has since been replaced with volleyball lines and markings painted on to the floor, requiring a custom court to be installed early Friday morning. The LED scoreboards and sound system will give the feel of a modern gym, but there is little doubt that during the game the deafening sounds and close quarters will harken back to the days when college basketball wasn't yet the commercial powerhouse it is today.

And those were quite the days.

To many, Penn State basketball's history is largely an unknown. There is no inherent knowledge of great players of the past like most Penn State football fans have. Long time season ticket holders know their history, but students rush in and out over 4 or 5 years without any real idea who Joe Crispin was or why nobody got within swatting distance of Calvin Booth.

Even Talor Battle arguably Penn State's greatest single player and only years removed from college himself, is something of a deep cut on the Penn State basketball album to many new fans.

The same --perhaps unfortunately-- is true for Rec Hall.

Current freshman were born the year before the last basketball game was played in Rec Hall in 1996. Students now play pick-up games on the same court that Penn State played on when it won the A10 tournament in 1991, beating George Washington 81-75. The fact that PSU ever competed in the A10 conference may be a surprise to some -- or that Michigan's "Fab Five" rolled into Happy Valley and left with a lasting memory of the building. 

"This is a great basketball environment," said Michigan's Chris Webber after the game in 1993. "When you come to an environment like this, maybe even more so than at a Crisler Arena (at Michigan) or an Indiana Assembly Hall, it sort of takes your mind off everything, and it makes you just want to have fun.

"This is like a high school gym and I don't say that derogatorily. Everyone is on top of you here and that takes a lot of pressure away when you have fans coming at you like that. They don't know how lucky they are to have an environment like this; I hope they don't take it for granted, and I hope their new gym doesn't take away the flavor that this gym has."

"There were a couple guys getting on us during warmups. I wish I knew their names. If those guys are seniors, I'll send them tickets so they can watch us play next year and heckle us some more," Webber laughed. "This is a great place to play."

Fittingly, even after decades of history, Penn State's time in Rec Hall is basically undocumented on the internet aside from game stories buried deep in newspaper archives. There are a small handful of videos floating around and even fewer photos. The longest and most successful run in the program's history is mostly a mythology, a word-of-mouth retelling of games and players who are largely unknown by the general population. 

Saturday's game may not be as dramatic as a double-overtime loss to No. 1 Indiana, (the only game current Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers has seen in Rec Hall) a game that will forever be seen as the most memorable and perhaps most controversial contest in program history. But fans and students will get a chance to catch a glimpse of -- and realize -- what once was.

A growing number of former players are expected to be in attendance. Chambers hopes those former player form the nucleus of a fraternity of sorts -- where former players stay connected and give back to current players. Where football has dozens of former players roaming the sideline each season, Chambers is slowly working to create that same kind of fellowship among current and former players.

Chambers himself has done what he can to connect with former coaches, even putting a large montage photo outside his office featuring each of Penn State's head coaches and their time spent at Penn State. It may not be the richest and most celebrated history in college basketball, but it still exists.

For this immediate season, Chambers will get to showcase his best team to date. It's a mixture of youth and experience that has so far lived up to its billing. Led by a guard duo of Tim Frazier and DJ Newbill, the pair has become truly one of the best backcourts in the nation. It's hard to say how well Penn State will perform in Big Ten play this year, but it's likely the Nittany Lions will surprise far more people than they disappoint thanks in large part to those two.

Since the first day he stepped on campus, Chambers has fought a personal war to change the culture around the program. A Rec Hall game is perhaps his largest achievement to date in that regard after years of roadblocks under other coaches and administrators. Years of "We can't" turning into months of "How can we?"

The floor was moved into place Friday morning. And it's as symbolic as it is practical. Chambers cannot go back to what once was. But by literally building on top of history and engaging fans and players with it, he's one small step closer towards winning the war.

Because Penn State basketball has a history. And it has a future. And Chambers wants everyone to be a part of both.

"We want to bring back the echos," Chambers said on Thursday. "I think we're going to get everything we want out of this. A tough opponent and a great crowd. It's our 118th season, one-hundred-and-eighteenth season. It's important to recognize that."

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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