They had been called robots, zombies and, yes, plastic men long before Duane Thomas made the term fashionable. Their reputation was one of mechanical people—poker-faced, smarty-pants Ivy League kids to whom winning came easy, emotion meant a slight change of expression and their sport just another extracurricular activity for the yearbook.
Last season, after clinching their conference title, they turned the traditional, spontaneous net-cutting ceremony into an act of condescension by first climbing a ladder to clip the cords of one basket and then departing to let the custodian cut down the other. The Quakers of Penn, so the story went, were first in the Ivy League and last in the hearts of Philadelphia.
All that has changed. Already this year Corky Calhoun has shot a fist into the air against Navy. Phil Hankinson was caught actually grinning during a revenge victory over Villanova. And last week all of the Quakers were positively flamboyant as they ran up and down the Palestra floor in a resounding 82-59 triumph over Princeton.
There was a reason for the men of Penn suddenly turning into the human beings everyone suspected they were all along: the Princeton game was a must for them, an up-against-the-wall thing of the sort they had not experienced lately. They had gone along, compiling those 25-2 and 28-1 records and winning those 30 straight Ivy League games as if everything was a foregone conclusion. Then, about three weeks ago, they came up short on score as well as emotion when Princeton defeated them 69-56. The loss knocked the team into fourth place and made—well, Pennsylvania men of them.
"We talked about this one and thought about it all week," said Calhoun. "It's a strange feeling—knowing we have to win."
Calhoun, the 6'7" senior guard who is probably the best defensive player in college, has been criticized for his lack of fire, his unselfishness and his alleged inability to, as they say, "stick it from outside." The Princeton debacle, in which the Tigers' marvelous backcourt man Brian Taylor guarded Calhoun while scoring 17 points himself, demonstrated Calhoun's deficiencies. He took only four shots, made one, and generally seemed on leave from the offense.
A few days later first-year Coach Chuck Daly told Calhoun in front of the team, "For us to win the big games, you have to play—and play great." Calhoun decided to play greatly.
Penn's problems in the first Princeton game were not all of Calhoun's doing. The quick Tiger press had forced the Quakers into floor errors while two lightly regarded players, John Berger and Reg Bird, produced 30 points. For the rematch Daly considered a 3-2 zone defense to hinder the Tigers' back-door movement; offensively, he wanted Calhoun to "take the ball inside to their super—Taylor."
Princeton Coach Pete Carril had his own special troubles. His team had been in a bad way ever since the Penn victory. The Tigers were coming off losses to Fordham and Davidson and the team was fiat, playing poor defense and not shooting well. But, said Carril, he had a plan: take Taylor off Calhoun and keep him out of foul danger.
As the shooting started in the Palestra, which is still sitting there in West Philly as college basketball's contribution to urban blight, the Penn cheerleaders rolled out a portentous banner and paraded it around the court. "Good luck, Princeton," it started in a sportsmanlike manner, "in the NIT." Ivy winners, of course, go to the NCAA.
The Tigers never did understand what hit them in the first 9½ minutes of the game. On offense Calhoun took the ball inside the first three times down the floor and scored. He made 10 points as Penn swept to an 18-4 lead and 14 points as the score reached 24-7. At the other end, far from playing zone, Calhoun was again mano a mano with Taylor. All he did then was force the Princeton star into two traveling violations, a jump ball (which Calhoun won) and five poor shots. Also, he knocked the ball away from Taylor on a fast break and intercepted two of his passes.
Though Calhoun received defensive help at times, his wondrous early individual performance continued the rest of the way. From a 30-13 disadvantage, Taylor momentarily brought the Tigers back to 36-27 by scoring Princeton's last 14 points of the first half. But Hankinson and Bob Morse took over after halftime and put the Tigers out of the game for good by leading another Penn spurt of 15-6. Calhoun finished with 24 points. For the Tigers, Taylor had 23, but Bird and Berger together got just one basket.
"We were really psyched," said Daly after the game, "but I don't ever want to play Brian Taylor again." Well, he may have to. Penn and Princeton are now tied for the Ivy lead and a playoff seems inevitable if the two escape unscathed from Harvard and Dartmouth this weekend.
The Quaker players are unworried. In a playoff their biggest concern might be finding a custodian with a ladder and some scissors.