Game 054: at Pennsylvania 70, Princeton 62 (OT)Tuesday, February 8, 2005
The Palestra - Philadelphia, PA
It begins simply enough: a messenger delivers a long white tube from floor level, he bounds up the short and wide stairs. The folks in the upper left corner know exactly what to do with it - they grab the edge of the paper, slowly unroll the tube above the back end of the student section, handing the fat end along down the back row. No matter what is going on elsewhere in the hall, there is a brief bated-breath hush as the letters appear. "What's it say?" people whisper to each other. "Can you read it? What's it say?"
The words are finally revealed in a lengthwise fashion, a harsh and pointed message for the opposing school or its basketball team. Virtually nothing is out of bounds, whether it be admissions issues, infamous alums, or a player's perceived sexual preference. The banner is passed over the top of the crowd, descending to the first row, where it is held briefly for display and then ceremonially torn to shreds. When ancient and bitterly-hated rival Princeton
comes to town, it's the annual pinnacle of the great old Palestra tradition known as the "rollout."
"Rollouts are a tradition that we have inherited from the apex of Pennsylvania
basketball that was the 1970's," said Jonathan Lubin, the leader of the Red & Blue Crew - better known around campus as "The General." As the trusted caretaker of the legend, he comes up with most of the messages himself. But he's quick to point out that he always accepts suggestions from alumni or students, some of which are good enough to make the cut.
This season, rollouts have become a more difficult undertaking than in years past. "For the past few years, a generous alum donated his printing services to assist with the banners," Lubin said. "But, upon his retirement, it became necessary this year to go back to basics, so to speak. So it's back to the old-fashioned painted rollout."
Creating handmade rollouts is quite the exacting science, but then again this is
the Ivy League. "I have found that it is of the utmost importance to go with the latex-based paints," Lubin explained. "They are the fastest drying and contain enough water in their base to make letter production quick and easy."
Quick and easy is crucial in the rollout game, because timeliness leads directly to maximum effectiveness. When you're aiming for your opponent's jugular, there is no weaker sword to wield than a boring banner.
"The best rollouts are the ones that are situationally based and perfectly timed," he told me on Monday. "Any of the ones that come up tomorrow will serve as a perfect example of what I mean."
And as a standing-room-only Palestra looked on, the Quakers and Tigers tipped off the front end of their yearly home-and-home blood feud. Penn came into the game undefeated in conference at 4-0, and preseason Ivy favorites Princeton sat in last place at 1-3. As if the Red & Blue Crew needed any additional material to stoke the rivalry, the wide disparity in records added plenty of fuel to the fire. "WANTED: NEW WORTHY RIVAL," read the first rollout.
The next salvo: "PRINCETON'S BIGGEST LOSS: AMY GUTTMAN," referring to the former Princeton University provost who jumped ship last summer to become Penn's president. The fiery blonde rose from her chairback and waved at the student section in kindly acknowledgement, and received a loud ovation. "A-my! Gutt-man!"
, the Quaker faithful chanted.
Those who wear orange and black are outsiders in this house, and the tight contingent stuffed into the far northwest corner of the gym didn't involve themselves in any banner back-and-forth. On the court, however, their basketball team silently responded to the ribbing with effortless paint penetration and the usual tough-as-nails Tiger defense. Spurred on by their senior Judson Wallace ("JUDSON IS UGLY"), the visitors raced out to a commanding lead. The Quaker fans were stunned, and the rollout barrage was silenced.
But then in the second half, with a slump-shouldered Wallace on the bench battling foul trouble, Penn began slicing away at their looming deficit. The spread had reached 53-35 with seven minutes remaining, and the comeback was improbable and mostly indescribable. It was if Hoop God
did not deign to view a blowout in this timeless series, and demanded that it not occur. The Tigers found themselves with empty possession after empty possession - Penn crept back with three-point production from their frontcourt, as well as plenty of and-ones. When they missed their shots, big Jan Fikiel was usually right there, standing where Judson Wallace's ghost stood.
The Penn students leapt to life, and the cavalcade of banners was joyously recommenced. "IS THAT YOUR ACCEPTANCE RATE OR YOUR WINNING PERCENTAGE?"
The white-shirted Penn players finally drew even with half-a-minute to go on two free throws. And when they repeatedly stifled the Tigers' attempts at a last-second win, the Palestra was transfigured into a noisy, merry blob of pure energy.
The overtime was anticlimactic, to be sure. The home team was lifted to victory on the wings of the electrically-charged Red & Blue Crew; spent and defeated Princeton, their hero long since fouled out, never had a chance. The rollouts, which had been stifled for such a long stretch, seemed to come flying down from nearly everywhere - from the south stands as well as from the west. "GO BEAT CORNELL", one said. "4 OUT OF 5 IVY LEAGUE SCHOOLS ENJOYED BEATING PRINCETON," another.
As time trickled away in the overtime session, Lubin stood at the corner of the court in his business suit and Bjorn Borg tricolor headband; raised high in his outstretched fists were two rolled and unspent weapons. The General poised at the edge of play, jumping and screaming, preparing to lead his charges in another timeless tradition: court-storming. The Quakers had done their job by virtually eliminating their arch-rivals from postseason consideration, and he had as well - by rallying his supporting troops behind them.
It would be Lubin's last homecourt defense against the hated Tigers - graduation will force The General into retirement at the end of the season. "Seeing as how this is my last year," he said. "I feel responsible to make this season's student section as intimidating and fierce as is possible."Photo Gallery