Penn State (PSU) Altoona Basketball
“This is not Burger King! You cannot have it your way!!”
(My full basketball story from it’s beginnings thru college — is covered in my first book “Buy A Game”)
I had actually been recruited- for the first time in my life!- to Penn State Altoona before my sophomore year. At Altoona I would play for two coaches and on two helplessly bad teams that, paradoxically, had plenty of workable talent available.
When I first came into the gym on campus to play pickup, I could see that there were several other good players around, and the preseason pickup crowds were pretty thick. We’d play for 3-4 hours at a time, and the “replacements-” my tag for the bball players on campus that were not on the basketball team nor wanted to be- that year were of the best quality, by far, of any of my three years at Altoona.
My skills put me on the proverbial map in Altoona just as they had in Abington. Once again, however, my lazy practice habits hurt my ability to produce in (or get into) games. Our coach lost his job after my first season in Altoona, a season that saw us start the season with an 18- game losing streak. Macklin probably didn’t deserved to be fired- he had been working part time and the position was to become full time the next season- but fell victim to office politics within the athletic front office. The next coach- retired NBA player Armon Gilliam, was a lot worse coach than Macklin (blame a clueless Athletic Director for that); he was dismissed after three years on the job.
Gilliam and Macklin had some sort of unspoken beef after Gilliam’s hiring; one of Gilliam’s power moves was to cut all but three returning players form the previous season’s squad (of which I was one). With no transfers coming in, we were left with a bunch of not-ready freshman and no size to speak of (I was our starting power forward. If our center subbed out, I became the center). I lasted 8 games into Gilliam’s regime- he tired of me not playing like a post player on top of not trusting many of the turnover-prone freshman he put on the floor. (There was a point early in the season when Gilliam claimed I led the team in turnovers. But look at the season box score– 75 total games started would equate to 15 games played, and our team somehow played 150 more total minutes than our opponents. I think we could win a couple of games playing five-on-zero.)
Though I could’ve come back to the team the next fall, I decided not to and instead played intramurals my senior year and won a championship (and averaged 30+ppg & double-digit rebounds, FYI). Even while being relegated to mere spectator during college basketball season, I knew I was gonna be playing pro ball soon- college be damned.
The group of players I met and played with in my time in Altoona represented the Golden Era of basketball at the school, a Golden Era that still is the standard-bearer up there if I may say so myself. Of course I wouldn’t make this claim without some points to back it up:
- We Made Open Gym A Fuckin’ Nightly Event. When I came to Altoona and walked into “open gym” (times the gym was open to whomever wanted to pay full-court pickup games), open gym was run and dominated by players that weren’t even on the basketball team. There were a lot of them, they played every day, and they cared more about dominating the open gym than the bball team guys did. The bball team guys seemed to be content with just being known as The Basketball Team, not concerned with stepping down a level to face the open gym players.
Well, we changed all of that. After my sophomore season ended, I was always in open gym playing, and of course I was better than the non-bball-team people in there. But that was our only gym, and those were the only games, so that’s where I was. And when Gilliam came in and cleaned house in the basketball program, a new breed of players came to Altoona: a bunch of players that played pickup with whomever was in the gym, because there was no alternative, like I did. Open gym became a proving ground and a place to earn respect (and maybe even a shot at a spot on the basketball team) because the best players on campus were in there, ready to face you if you had the heart to come out and play. You didn’t need status, you didn’t need to know anyone, hell, for your first run or two, you didn’t even have to be good (but once exposed you were relegated to the “D-League” — the second full court in the gym for players with no hope whatsoever) to get a chance. Players with no intention of playing came and lined the court. Girls came in to watch. If you came and played (or watched) in there, you were guaranteed a) to be trash-talked to, b) have someone try to embarrass you in front of your friends/girl, c) face a possibility of a physical or verbal altercation. Our era in Altoona made it that way. I’ve heard that pickup ball on campus has since regressed to very weak levels — expected, since our era of players was the most competitive amongst ourselves (I can recall at least 3 physical confrontations between team members in open gym my senior year alone) and with the outsiders that came in (there were a couple more, uh, incidents with non-team players, too). And, truth be told, we had the kind of talent that made open gym the place to be, even if you only watched.
- Our Era Introduced Taking Our Show On The Road, Kicking Ass All Over Central Pennsylvania. Anywhere there was a quality run to be had within one hour driving from Altoona, we showed up with five. Before and after the season, we made weekly trips to other campuses around Altoona (St. Francis, State College, Mount Aloysius) and parks and played with the best those places had to offer. We played dozens of pickup 5×5 against the varsity teams at the aforementioned schools (even the top-ranked women’s team in State College — they were running men out of the gym before our turn came up), and had them come to us a couple times, but it was more fun going to them as we could eliminate the daily riffraff that came with pickup in our gym — non-team members insisting on calling ‘winners’ being the most egregious nuisance.
- I’ll keep these last two points short. This one is, There Have Only Been Two Players To Come Out Of Penn State Altoona And Play Even One Game In The Pros — both were in our era that did what I’ve mentioned above.
- The Best Player To Ever Play At Penn State Altoona Is From Our Era. And I’ll put cash behind my claim in a one-on-one versus any player — current or former — that disagrees.
Music of the Moment:
I’ll go with the Best Of Both Worlds, end of my sophomore year. Good times.
My senior year there; all the long nights of partying & bullshit wit Wes, B, Tone, and the rest. Too many memories to write on a website.
I enjoyed all of my time at PSU Altoona, even the time I was off the hoop team. All of it was/ is part pf the journey, and well worth it.