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December 14, 2013

Column: A moment to look to the past, and future

This is going to be fun.

Friday throughout the day, as photographs started to trickle across various social media platforms, the anticipation for a game that has been decades in the making finally struck me:

Head coach Patrick Chambers and his Nittany Lions would play a basketball game in the friendly confines of Rec Hall on Saturday afternoon.

A building that hosted seminal moments of my own experience as a Penn State student - from weekly hoops pick-up games on Wednesday nights with close friends on the main floor, to the 2005 "Rally in the Valley" in which my childhood idol, Joe Paterno, announced emphatically that his Nittany Lions were going to beat a Top 5-ranked Ohio State team the next day - my own memories of the building have little to do with Penn State men's basketball.

That's part of the charm, though. Seemingly everyone associated with the university from every generation has them.

The building itself was unique in its unbelievable access to not only students, but also townspeople, graduates, and really, anyone looking for a pick-up game of hoops or volleyball.

Of course, seminal moments being both good and bad, reflecting on what the building is today and what it's likely to be in the future is unavoidable.

At the recommendation of former FBI Director Louis Freeh, the university has started restricting access to its athletic facilities, including Rec Hall. In this age, in a community that has suffered collective heartbreak at the hands of a monster, the change is an understandable - if unwelcome - one.

None of this means that I haven't been looking forward to this day for quite some time, though.

Seduced by the palpable history of Rec Hall for years, yet with no basketball-watching experience of my own to judge it against, the question for me has always been about why at least one game, preseason or otherwise, isn't played each season on the opposite side of campus from the Bryce Jordan Center.

In covering the program for nearly a decade, though, all of the logistical nightmares about playing a game at Rec Hall - not least of all, as Chambers mentioned Thursday, the fact that the main gym floor is fitted for volleyball - had wiped away any glimmer of hope for that very possibility.

In fact, if anything, that this is even happening today speaks to changes within the Penn State men's basketball program that are especially worthy of note today.

Specifically, the 'can-do' determination of Chambers and even that of current athletic director Dave Joyner.

Noting the interest from fans and alumni for a game at Rec Hall upon being hired in June 2011, Chambers and his staff committed to finding a way to make this happen.

"We just started putting our heads together. Can we do this? How can we do it? Logistically, it was very tough at first, so after a couple years of going through those road blocks and figuring out how we could do it and getting approvals, it finally worked out," Chambers said. "But, we're very solution driven. I'd like to think we are anyway. One road can lead to a different idea, another road can lead to a different idea and one obstacle can take you to another road. I think that's where we went.

"We kept going down different avenues, different roads, different solutions, and then we finally figured it out and then it worked out for all the coaches that are in Rec Hall. The timing worked out and here we are. I can't believe it, actually. I can't believe it. All the hard work that my staff has done to get us to this point and we're finally here. Pretty amazing."

Penn State hasn't had such an inspired leader to helm its men's basketball program - or the people around him to make it work - in quite some time.

While this hardly rectifies the clearly overbuilt and character-devoid BJC (and is an event that might not happen again next year considering the truly nightmarish logistical hassles that deflect attention from the staff's primary responsibility - winning basketball games), clearly, the leader is in place and momentum is building for a program that aspires to fill the building across campus.

In that spirit, Penn State hoops fans returning to Rec on Saturday afternoon have plenty of reasons to both reflect on the past while looking forward to a bright future under Chambers.



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