Tuesday’s practice was to begin at 11 a.m. Penn Quakers men’s players were getting dressed when their head coach, Steve Donahue, walked in the locker room.
“He tells us to get in the team room,’’ AJ Brodeur said, and nobody thought anything of that other than, time for some film.
“All of a sudden, he has that tone of voice that makes it seem like something’s wrong,’’ Brodeur said.
Brodeur could barely take in what his coach said: The Ivy League tournament is canceled.
“I got chills,’’ Brodeur said. “I’m speechless.”
The players knew that with coronavirus precautions being taken on campuses and in the sports world, playing this weekend’s men’s and women’s Ivy League tournament at Harvard without fans was a distinct possibility.
“Never in a million years would I have thought this,’’ Brodeur said over the phone Tuesday afternoon, saying that players and coaches basically stayed in the team room for about 45 minutes, kind of in an altered state. Donahue or another coach would say a sentence or two, then there would be silence for a couple of minutes.
“No one knew what to do,’’ Brodeur said. “No one wanted to leave. No one wanted to get up.”
It felt like after a season-ending tournament loss, he said, mentioning the others in his career, losing to Princeton at the Palestra in the 2017 Ivy semifinals, to Kansas in the 2018 NCAA first round, to Harvard in the 2019 semifinals.
In a sentence, Brodeur’s career was over. The highest of highs to this, in three days. Penn had squeezed into the tournament, grabbing the fourth spot in a tiebreaker over Brown, after beating Brown, Cornell, and Columbia in the last three games. Brodeur had a fairy tale of a night Saturday, breaking Ernie Beck’s 67-year-old Penn career scoring record, with Beck in the building, doing it with the first triple double (points, rebounds, assists) in Penn history. He even added on the career blocks record for good measure.
The whole thing was memorable, including Donahue inviting Brodeur’s mom to sit down and take questions at the post-game press conference. Donahue pointed out that she had made it to every game -- “That’s a bigger accomplishment than starting every game.”
But the most special thing about all that, Brodeur said over the phone, he got all that out of the way. Friends and family had been on him about the scoring record, when was going to get it.
“I wanted that to be recognized by the time we got off the floor,’’ Brodeur said.
Meaning that by the time they got to the postseason, it should be about team goals only.
So many ups and downs this season, Brodeur said, but everybody in the room -- “from the coaches to the players to the managers” -- believed the Quakers were playing their best basketball.
“Full circle, from the Alabama game [a season-opening road win], elevated even past that moment," Brodeur said. "Everybody thought we were playing as good or better than anybody in the league.”
It’s fine to believe that. This weekend provided an opportunity to show it.
“We earned more than just an extra game,’’ Brodeur said. “We earned the opportunity to show the league, this is who we are.”
Because they all realized their time in that room suddenly represented the end of their time together as a group, coaches started speaking up about what the seniors, Donahue’s first recruiting class, had meant to Penn’s program.
“It did mean a lot hearing those words, knowing this is it,’’ Brodeur said. “Hearing them air out things they wanted to say, but wouldn’t have made sense to say them while we were still playing.”
Bittersweet doesn’t quite cut it in describing the emotions.
“Hearing the pain in the coaches’ voice,’’ Brodeur said. “It hurt all of us to hear them. These are great role models, and to hear them, it humanized them. They’re feeling the same way we are right now.”
Donahue made it clear in a separate interview that he didn’t understand how other Ivy sports could carry on while this tournament was being canceled. Penn women’s coach Mike McLaughlin was similarly incredulous. Penn women’s players started a petition to reverse the decision made by the Ivy League presidents, and it’s now circulating around the league.
“I signed it,’’ Brodeur said.
The seniors on the men’s team gathered together on the Palestra floor, reflected on the four-year ride, including beating Villanova and sweeping the Big 5 City Series last season, “playing in every Ivy tournament, up to this year.”
A great run, Brodeur said, to the end.
“Doesn’t feel right,’’ Brodeur said over the phone.
No chance that it ever will. An opportunity blocked, right at the buzzer.