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These Penn basketball players have stories worth telling, even as their season is called off | Mike Jensen

Penn men's player Mark Jackson and women's player Kayla Padilla won't have a season. But their journeys will continue, and they're worth writing about.

Penn basketball player Mark Jackson while on a Mormon mission in France.
Penn basketball player Mark Jackson while on a Mormon mission in France.Read moreCourtesy of Mark Jackson

It seemed counterintuitive, starting our City 6 basketball player profiles with the Penn Quakers, since the Quakers weren’t ever going to start play as soon as their City 6 counterparts, weren’t even in school in person this semester. They’d be the last to play, if they played at all. The idea, however, had been to start with Penn before the Ivy League called the whole season off.

We didn’t make it. Got close. I’d already filed 1,362 words on Penn senior Mark Jackson, who by our research seems to have been the tallest Big 5 player in three decades, and one of the sharpest. I’d just received a photo from Penn women’s star Kayla Padilla, showing her with Kobe Bryant at a camp when she was in the fourth grade.

“I was born into a big basketball-loving family,” Padilla had said about how Kobe always had been part of her life while she grew up in Southern California.

Not writing these profiles wouldn’t change two very full lives. The Ivy League canceled their season Thursday night, changing their year and the trajectory of their basketball careers.

They’re still worth telling you about.

It’s not just that Jackson is 7-foot-2 barefoot — 7-foot-3 in his basketball shoes, he noted — but how he talks about being that height, how it’s something like being a celebrity, except people don’t know your name.

“It’s such a unique life experience,” Jackson said. “Not many people get to walk out their front door and get random people coming up and asking questions. I get to meet so many people. My whole life, that’s been a constant, going out of the house, people looking at me, staring at me.”

Hey, can we get a photo?

“There are so many pictures of me,” Jackson said. “It’s part of the experience.”

The self-awareness shown there, not just to have the experience, but also to synthesize it, analyze it, grow into it, embrace it. We talked for close to an hour several weeks ago about his two-year Mormon mission in France and his slow start in the sport, how he’d never had a growth spurt.

“I tell people, I literally came out of the womb very tall,” Jackson said. “I don’t think I ever grew more than three inches in a year.”

Jackson’s self-awareness followed him to the Palestra. If you’ve been to Penn basketball games the last few years, you’ve seen Jackson, in warm-ups, then usually on the bench. He’s had his share of injuries, and gotten into only eight games. By the time Jackson showed up at Penn, after his Mormon mission, a special big man had shown up at the Palestra. By the time Jackson’s game caught up more to his height, it still didn’t make sense to sit A.J. Brodeur down, since Brodeur turned out to be an all-time Quakers great.

Jackson said he would have loved to have been playing obviously — it’s hard for anyone to feel like they can play, he said, and then not play — except he got it, even agreed with it. If he’d gone in even as Brodeur’s backup, “we would have had to play very different with me at the five. … I really bought into the team aspect. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been about me.”

Padilla had a very different experience. She also bought right into the team concept, said her coach, Mike McLaughlin. Except the Quakers had a different role in mind. They needed her to score. Last season as a freshman, Padilla averaged 17.4 points, was named Ivy League rookie of the year.

Enough for us to write about her, but not why we chose to write about her. After last season got canceled just as both Penn teams were preparing to travel to Harvard for the Ivy postseason tournament, Padilla went home to Torrance, Calif.

Within a month, an idea she’d floated back at Penn sprung up as a website. The Sideline Post was inspired by The Players' Tribune, the popular site where athletes tell their stories in the first person, often with a little ghostwriting help. The Sideline Post is for college athletes. “No topic is out of bounds,” notes on its home page. The site’s founder and editor-in-chief, Kayla Padilla.

Right now, there is a staff of 13 college students, helping part-time. “Some help with writing, some with player outreach. My role is more giving guidance. … I sent out like a list of objectives on what to accomplish.” Each team has a weekly Zoom call, with a collective one for all the teams once a month.

Padilla tries to get a read on every story before it’s published. The first few months, the site got maybe 500 readers online. “Now, maybe close to 7,000 or 8,000,” Padilla said, adding there are no quantitative goals. “Just get as many eyes on it as possible.”

One early popular story was by former Penn men’s player Devon Goodman, who saw his senior season stopped last March by COVID-19, his career ending two points short of 1,000. "The truth is, I might never completely get over what happened, but it’s been easier to accept over time. All I can do is move on. I was always a fan of the late rapper Nipsey Hussle. One of my favorite quotes of his about success is, ‘We got turned down, we failed, had setbacks, had to start over a lot of times. But we kept going at it. In anybody’s case that’s always the distinguishing factor.’ "

“The biggest thing is giving the opportunity to anyone — whether they play D1, play D3, community college,” Padilla said of her platform. “I think the whole idea, my interest in The Players' Tribune, I was a big fan of Kobe. That’s like the platform where he announced his retirement.”

Padilla’s path will lead her back to the Palestra. Jackson simply can’t know. If he graduates in the spring, the Ivy League doesn’t allow graduate students to play, so he’s kept his options open. He could transfer and have a couple of seasons of eligibility. He could head for the working world.

“I’m really interested in the health care space,” Jackson had said. “There are so many things in play.”

Maybe it helped that even as he started his senior year of high school in Utah, college basketball wasn’t really a big part of his plan. He’d begun applying to high academic colleges, not looking to play.

“I developed very, very late,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t good.”

Like not good on the freshman team, he said, or on the junior varsity as a sophomore — finally getting some decent production on the JV as a junior, with a couple of minutes a game on varsity. He played on local AAU teams, but nothing special. Then senior year, it kind of came together. A high-level AAU coach saw him and offered a spot, usually not a thing since this was for after his senior year, but Jackson knew he was going on a mission, so it all kind of worked. Penn came on the scene late, but Jackson visited and saw the fit.

First, there were two years in France. (I can remember telling my boss that Penn has this 7-foot-3 player who is on a Mormon mission in France. I should really go talk to him. Still waiting for the reply on that email.)

“Anxiety and fear, but also exhilarating,” Jackson said of heading to a foreign land on his own. A mission is a little different than you might think. It’s not simply knocking on doors. Providing emotional and spiritual support to members of the church is a big part, Jackson said. Helping them with projects. “I can’t tell you the number of times we helped people move.”

In each city, they also searched out opportunities to help in the community. Translating for Nigerian refugees who spoke only English. Serving food at the equivalent of a food bank.

“No days off, 365 days a year,” Jackson said. “The first 12 weeks, you’re paired with somebody who is basically there to teach you the ropes.”

Basketball had to wait.

“France has very few basketball courts,” Jackson said. “In some cities, I literally didn’t have access to a court. I’d do push-ups in the apartment. Some had weights.”

He spent some weeks in Belgium, and did one stint in Paris, where there was a chance to play pickup basketball on Saturdays.

“Word got out,” Jackson said. “Scouts for a professional team came to watch me play. They were interested in signing a contract.”

Jackson had to explain what he was doing there, and what he was planning to do back in the United States. At Penn, he got noticed, as usual. He tells about the trip the Quakers took to Italy after his freshman year, how they were at the Vatican when another tour group, not an English-speaking group, suddenly forgot where they were and all crowded in for photos: “They were at the Vatican and I was the attraction.”

Just another day in his life, handled with some grace, even as his teammates wondered if Jackson should charge for the photo ops. Maybe he should write about it all for The Sideline Post, already knowing the editor-in-chief.