The Vosskuil Family

On A Wing And A Prayer

In 2001, the Penn State basketball program embarked on an amazing journey to New Orleans. It began with a harrowing ride on a jet. (Reprinted from the December 2005 edition of Fight On State The Magazine.)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michigan’s unlikely run to a Big Ten Tournament championship and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament following a harrowing experience involving air travel called to mind a similar — though not nearly as dangerous — scenario that unfolded for Penn State back in 2001.

The Nittany Lions were traveling to New Orleans for first-round NCAA Tournament action that year when things got a little dicey as they were about to land. Penn State went on to land safely, then advance to the Sweet 16 in 2001, and has not won an NCAA Tournament game since.

We recapped the wild ride in the December 2005 edition of Fight On State The Magazine, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. But given what the Wolverines are doing this year, we thought you might like to revisit the story. So here goes…

The Southern sky erupted in a flash of spectacular light, and milliseconds later a cacophonous “boom” ripped through the 50-seat Delta jet en route from Memphis to New Orleans’ Moisant Field. The heavy rain pelting the aircraft was bad enough, but flying through the lightning and thunder at night was terrifying.

Then the bottom fell out. At least it felt that way, when the jet, due to turbulence, suddenly dropped “a good 200 feet,” according to one passenger. Next, the pilot came on the intercom. Nearly five years later, certain folks on the flight insist he said the jet had only enough fuel to make one pass at the landing strip. And that’s when the panic set in. http://www.scout.com/college/football/recruiting/story/1764335-big-ten-a...

“At first, we thought it was a joke,” forward Gyasi Cline-Heard said. “So we started yelling, ‘We’re all gonna die!’ When we realized it wasn’t a joke …  I know I was freakin’ out. Now he’s gonna run out of gas and we’re right over the city.”

“People were screaming,” added then-assistant coach Chuck Swenson. “Everybody, including myself — I mean the adults, and not just the kids — were legitimately scared.”

“It was very nerve-wracking,” guard Kenny Krimmel said. “But it was entertaining, too, because you had some people laughing at the reaction of others. We had Marcus Banta screaming like a little girl. Somebody was videotaping it.” 

“It was very nerve-wracking. But it was entertaining, too, because you had some people laughing at the reaction of others. We had Marcus Banta screaming like a little girl. Somebody was videotaping it.” 

It was a scene straight out of the movie “Airplane,” and there could not have been a more appropriate start to what would go on to become the craziest — and most memorable — weekend in the history of the Penn State basketball program. The team charter, which was ferrying the Nittany Lions from State College to New Orleans (via Memphis) for opening-round NCAA tournament games in 2001 — landed without incident.

A few days earlier, star senior guard Joe Crispin described his team as “a bunch of goofballs,” and although he said it in an affectionate way, he certainly was not kidding. Coach Jerry Dunn and his family brought enough luggage to set up residence in New Orleans for a month. As the goofballs sat in the bus on the airport tarmac waiting for the bags to be loaded, they had no idea what kind of indelible mark they would leave on the Crescent City.

And vice versa.

CLOSE CALL

Other people on the team charter suggest the past four-plus years have altered the memories of those who paint the flight to Moisant as harrowing. To start, they explain, the jet was never in danger of “running out of gas.” The pilot simply said due to the weather conditions, they would make one pass at the landing strip. If they had to pull up for some reason, they would then have to leave immediately to have enough fuel in reserve to get back to Memphis.

So the suggestion of serious trouble is dubious at best. The reactions, however, have not been embellished. At one point, Banta, a 6-foot-10 sophomore who was anything but worldly, shouted, “I don’t want to die with you people!” Sitting nearby, team physician Dr. Margot Putukian calmly said, “It’s OK Marcus, we really don’t want to die with you, either.”

The Nittany Lions’ performance late in the regular season was much more perilous to their chances of landing safely in the NCAA tournament. 

A year earlier, they won their first two games at the Big Ten Tournament to climb over .500 for the season and earn an NIT bid. Penn State won three NIT games at home before advancing to a semifinal against Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden. The Irish, coached by former North Carolina player Matt Doherty, whipped the Lions 73-52. After a rousing 74-72 win over North Carolina State in the consolation game two days later, Crispin, standing on a Manhattan sidewalk, vowed the team would advance to the NCAA Tournament the following year, which would be the senior seasons for himself, Cline-Heard and versatile swingman Titus Ivory. http://www.scout.com/college/penn-state/story/1764228-psu-s-givens-gonzo...

And sure enough, the Lions came out like gangbusters in 2000-01, winning nine of their first 10, including a stunning victory at No. 21 Kentucky (while holding Tayshaun Prince to three points on 1-of-10 shooting) and a home defeat of No. 23 Temple. An easy win over what would later become a strong Pitt team was also in that stretch.

Penn State opened Big Ten play at No. 1 Michigan State, a team so deep and balanced that its star freshmen — Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph — played only 21 and 17 minutes, respectively. The Lions shocked the crowd of 14,759 by racing out to a 48-37 lead. But the Spartans showed their mettle in the second half, zipping past PSU for a 98-73 win. The collapse set an ominous tone for the Lions’ Big Ten campaign.

They played .500 ball for most of the year, winning two here, losing two there. A win, a loss, a win, a loss — never getting anything rolling. The last four games of the regular season were at Northwestern, vs. Michigan State, at Iowa and vs. Ohio State. Penn State played two of its worst games of the season in that stretch, falling to the Wildcats (62-61) and Buckeyes (93-87), the latter after holding a 20-point lead in the second half. It also dropped the game to Michigan State, but beat Iowa on a pair of clutch free throws by rookie forward Jamaal Tate.

Still, the Ohio State loss meant the Lions would carry a 7-9 conference mark into the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. Despite a strong RPI, they would clearly need at least one win to secure an NCAA tournament bid. Two victories would make it a sure thing. Dunn, meanwhile, was squarely on the hot seat. The previous year’s team had underachieved to any standards but Penn State’s, where the NIT appearance was viewed as an accomplishment, and this squad was on the brink of blowing its NCAA hopes.

“We set ourselves behind the eight ball because we lost games we shouldn’t have — Ohio State and Northwestern,” Crispin said. “I mean, you win those games and it’s an easy knock, even if you don’t win at Big Tens. But I wouldn’t have written it any other way, because it was a blast.”

“We set ourselves behind the eight ball because we lost games we shouldn’t have — Ohio State and Northwestern. I mean, you win those games and it’s an easy knock, even if you don’t win at Big Tens. But I wouldn’t have written it any other way, because it was a blast.”

Indeed, then the magic started. Penn State drew Michigan in the first round of Big Tens, and the Lions struggled to contain LaVell Blanchard and Bernard Robinson. Trailing by five at the half, Dunn’s club got a shot of energy from the rookie Tate, who made four 3-pointers. Still, the score was tied 80-80 when, with the game clock running down, Brandon Watkins, a backup guard known for his speed, launched what he thought would be a buzzer-beating winner. The shot wasn’t close, but Cline-Heard gathered in the miss and scored the final two of his game-high 24 points to give State the 82-80 victory.

Jerry Palm, an analyst who follows the NCAA selection process, was at the game, and said had Penn State lost to the Wolverines, it would have been out of the dance. But he guessed the win locked down a bid. Just to make certain, the Lions defeated then-No. 2 Michigan State in the second round, 65-63, with Crispin’s off-balance fall-away providing the winning margin.

Exhausted from the emotion of the two games, State was bounced by Iowa (94-74) the next day. A day after that — Selection Sunday — the Lions learned they would be going to New Orleans as the No. 7 seed in the South Regional. Sub-regional locations that year included Uniondale, N.Y.; Boise, Idaho; and Dayton, Ohio, so the players considered themselves blessed. So did their families.

“Not to pick on Boise or anything, but we thought New Orleans was great,” said Crispin’s mom, Sue. “We thought, we can drive down there and enjoy and not get caught out in Timbuktu.”

THE FUN BEGINS

Penn State was set to face No. 10 seed Providence in the first round at the massive Superdome, and thanks to John Linehan, a fierce defender at guard, the Friars became a fashionable pick to win and move on to a probable second-round encounter with No. 2 seed North Carolina.

“People filling out brackets and even TV analysts had just written us off, saying that Providence was gonna give North Carolina matchup problems,” Cline-Heard said. “We came into the game upset because we were the higher seed. We wanted to show why we were the higher seed.”

The thinking was that Linehan could shut down Crispin, but Penn State had other plans.

“Linehan was a one-man wrecking crew,” said Swenson, is now an aide at Michigan. “I never knew how good he was. But to this day, every Big East coach I talk to says for his size, he was the most disruptive force they’ve ever played against.”

“Linehan was a one-man wrecking crew. I never knew how good he was. But to this day, every Big East coach I talk to says for his size, he was the most disruptive force they’ve ever played against.”

With practically zero body fat and seemingly endless wind, Linehan latched on to the opposing team’s best guard and never let up. Providence’s game plan was to have him choke off Crispin, and, with that, the Lion offense. Christian Appleman, another Penn State assistant at the time, did game prep for the Friars and knew what was coming. So rather than have Crispin serve as the focal point of the offense, he became a decoy. The point guard did not even bring the ball up the floor for much of the game — that duty went to the versatile Ivory.

“Now Joe didn’t want to do that, because he’s bullheaded and said, ‘I’ll take him.’ That’s what made Joe good,” Swenson explained. “But sometimes your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.”

“I gave my cordials in the media, but in the back of my mind I was wondering how good can this guy be?” Crispin recalled. “Then I got in the game, and I was like, whoa, this cat is the best defender I ever played against.”

In the end, Crispin played along, and ran around like crazy (often without the ball) all game. Early in the second half, his kid brother, shooting guard Jon Crispin, scored seven consecutive points in a 9-2 run that gave PSU a 46-37 lead. By that juncture, Linehan was gassed from chasing Joe Crispin all day. He eventually took himself out of the game. The Lions cruised to a 69-59 win in a game in which Joe Crispin took only 11 shots.

Penn State had won its first NCAA Tournament game since 1991. And, while this victory included the amazing spectacle of Banta, the backup big man, struggling to keep his oversized shorts from slipping off completely in his 11 minutes of play — the fun was just beginning.

“Marcus came in and balled up for a few minutes, and his pants were falling down,” Crispin said. “His pants are falling down in the middle of the game, he can’t get them strapped up, and he’s shooting hook shots. It was unbelievable, and you’re just wondering, what in the world is going on here?”

IRISH EYES SMILING

The game against Providence was played March 16, a Friday. Tournament action in the sub-regional took a break Saturday, which just so happened to be St. Patrick’s Day. And that just so happened to rank among the biggest party days of the year in New Orleans, not quite up to the revelry unleashed during Mardi Gras, but close.

Early that rainy evening, the assistant coaches holed up in their rooms at the Marriott on Canal Street near the French Quarter, putting the finishing touches on the game plan for Carolina, which pounded Princeton in round one. Swenson, a former Duke assistant, took the lead this time.

Several members of the PSU support staff, meanwhile went to the trendy NOLA — owned by FoodTV star Emeril Lagasse, for dinner. At the same time, Dunn took the team to a soul food restaurant near the Mississippi River, a hole in the wall that, according to several folks, left something to be desired. http://www.scout.com/college/penn-state/story/1763748-dwight-galt-wraps-...

The team then loaded onto a bus and headed back toward the Marriott. The bus rolled to a stop near Decatur Street at about 8 p.m., though, and it quickly became apparent this would be no short delay. A St. Patrick’s Day parade was in progress and traffic was gridlocked.

A frequent visitor to New Orleans, Penn State academic advisor Sandy Meyer asked Dunn if he minded if she simply walked back to the hotel. Yes, it was raining, but the weather was warm and this was, after all, New Orleans. Dunn was concerned for her safety, but she insisted she would be fine, and he gave her the go-ahead. Half a block away from the bus, she turned to see the players filing out behind her.

“There’s Jon Crispin and a couple other kids,” Meyer said. “They said, ‘Wait up,’ and asked if I knew where I was going. I said yeah, that I wanted to watch a little of the parade. They said, OK, we’ll go with you. The next thing I know, it’s all of them.”

The players were all decked out in the dark blue “Penn State” sweat suits they often wore while traveling, and, with the athletes ranging in size from six to seven feet tall, it was apparent they were members of the same basketball team. They were quickly prompted not only to watch the parade, but to join it, and many of the Nittany Lions did just that.

“The dude on the mic said, ‘and this is the Penn State basketball team,’ ” Joe Crispin said. 

Meyer, a stickler for grades but a laid-back person in general, wondered what she had gotten herself and the players into. While throwing strings of beads is a big part of any parade in New Orleans, the St. Patty’s day spectacle had another tradition — throwing vegetables, including whole cabbages and carrots.

“Me being the mother hen I am, I’m saying, be careful,” Meyer remembered. “All I could think of was, oh good, tomorrow night, Joe Crispin can’t play because he was hit in the head with a cabbage after the academic advisor took them to a parade.”

“Me being the mother hen I am, I’m saying, be careful. All I could think of was, oh good, tomorrow night, Joe Crispin can’t play because he was hit in the head with a cabbage after the academic advisor took them to a parade.”

The older Crispin, however, risked little danger of being hit with anything. Extremely serious about basketball and very religious, he told Meyer he thought the whole scene was “stupid.” So while many members of the team wound up riding fire trucks and floats, collecting beads, cabbages and … ahem … even women’s undergarments (another New Orleans tradition), Joe Crispin quietly walked with Meyer.

At one point, she caught a few strings of beads, placed them around his neck and issued the following order: “Don’t take these off. At least pretend like you are having a good time.”

An hour or so later, the players marched back into the Marriott, their families waiting for them in the lobby. Meyer went over to Sue Crispin to tell her about the fun with the parade.

“She said, ‘I’ll bet Joe didn’t [have fun],’ ” Meyer recalled. “I said, he did. And then Joe came walking in with beads around his neck. She said, ‘I don’t believe this.’

“It was raining out, 9:30 the night before the biggest game of our lives, and we were just having a good ol’ time,” Crispin recalled. “Of course, North Carolina was back in the hotel the whole time. So I thought it was kind of a fitting picture to how the whole thing went.”

It was also a fitting picture to how the whole season went for the Lions. There was a dynamic within this team that made it special, one in which the players were apt to go after one another during games (even the brothers Crispin) but, when it mattered most, allowed them to rally around each other. Following the late-season loss to Ohio State, Joe Crispin and Cline-Heard had a blowout. A day later, Crispin tried to call Cline-Heard and got a busy signal. As fate would have it, his teammate was trying to call him at the same time. They eventually talked and worked things out, setting the stage for the run to New Orleans.

“Sometimes we’d come to blows, but it wasn’t like you’d carry that back to the apartment with you and everybody stays mad,” Joe Crispin said. “Maybe history is playing tricks on me, but I really thought we had good chemistry and good relationships.”

The night before facing the mighty Tar Heels, at least, everyone was happy.

“They were all so loose,” Meyer said. “They finally relaxed.”

Some of them really relaxed, regrouping at the hotel and walking the short distance to a jam-packed Bourbon Street. The decadence of the crazy boulevard on the crazy day was palpable from blocks away. Nearly half a decade later, Swenson says every player but one seldom-used big man made the team’s 11 p.m. curfew. The players tell a different story.

“I broke it a little bit,” Cline-Heard admitted. “It was funny, because I ended up being spotted by a scout for the Atlanta Hawks, and my dad [Garfield Heard] was coaching there then. [The scout] kind of gave me this look. So I went back to the hotel. But it was funny. I was young.”

And, among Penn State players, he was most certainly not alone on the night.

CAROLINA BLUE

Aside from a late stroll to the French Quarter to check for curfew breakers (he caught seldom-used center Stephan Bekale) and clear his head, Swenson’s Saturday night was not nearly as eventful. A longtime assistant to Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski, he had drawn the prep assignment for Carolina.

The Tar Heels, under first-year coach Matt Doherty — yes, the same Matt Doherty from Notre Dame — climbed to No. 1 at one point in the regular season, with a star-laden lineup including center Brendan Haywood, guards Joe Forte and Ronald Curry, and forwards Jason Capel and Julius Peppers. 

Haywood (7-foot, 270 pounds) and Forte would both be taken in the first round of the NBA Draft three months later. Peppers (6-6, 280) was the second pick in the NFL Draft a year later, and Curry eventually emerged as a standout receiver for the Oakland Raiders.

It was an imposing lineup, to be sure. But the veteran Nittany Lions, who had seen their share of talent in the Big Ten, were not overly impressed. In fact, several PSU players said the most intimidating moment in New Orleans was when they first walked into the huge Superdome. Once that was out of their system, everything was fine.

Unlike Penn State, Carolina was having serious chemistry issues in its first year under a new coach. After winning 18 consecutive games in the middle of the season, the Tar Heels lost four of their last eight. And for all their athletic ability, they had some clear flaws. Curry could not go left, which made him easy to defend by simply having someone force him that way. Haywood was terrific near the bucket, but struggled when getting the ball eight feet and out. Defensively, he would not guard opponents who drifted out of the paint.

The key player was Forte, who during the long winning streak was often referred to as a potential national player of the year. But he had an issue, too.

“We noticed he liked to work the baseline, and his bigs, like Haywood, would get into position,” Swenson said. “So we forced him to the middle, and at least they couldn’t post feed from there. We felt if Haywood got the ball deep, because he was a pro, we’re dead.”

True enough, Haywood got the ball deep on three early possessions, and easily scored over PSU’s 6-8 center Tyler Smith. The Carolina center was 3 of 3 from the floor and his team held an 11-4 lead at the first media timeout.

Walking toward the bench for the break, Joe Crispin looked at a small group of Penn State beat writers on press row and said, “We got ‘em.”

“They played a kind of semi-casual game, an ACC, open-court style,” Crispin said recently. “I had no doubt about it because it wasn’t like the Big Ten style, which really I didn’t think we were good at.”

He was right. The early hole proved little problem for the Nittany Lions. With the 6-7 Cline-Heard and Smith inside, Penn State was beaten soundly on the boards, but made up for it with speed and heady play. It had an amazing eight steals in the first half — thanks to strong defensive efforts from Jon Crispin and Ivory — which fueled the running game. Joe Crispin and Ivory got easy looks in transition. Cline-Heard had a pair of dunks. Squarely in their element, the Lions trailed by a point, 40-39, at the break.

“We were running back to the locker room, hooting and hollering and jumping,” said Krimmel, an end-of-the-bench guard. “And one of the Carolina guys said. ‘I don’t know what you’re excited about, you’re going to get your asses kicked in the second half.’ ”

“We were running back to the locker room, hooting and hollering and jumping. And one of the Carolina guys said. ‘I don’t know what you’re excited about, you’re going to get your asses kicked in the second half.’ ”

Another Ivory steal early in the second half led to a Cline-Heard layup that tied the score 43-43. Then Ivory followed his own miss to give the Lions their first lead of the game, 45-43. Even though they fell behind 68-64 with five minutes to go, they dictated tempo the rest of the way. And everyone in the Superdome not wearing Carolina blue rallied behind Penn State.

“I thought if we could just hang in there, that’s all we had to do,” Swenson said. “I knew our guys, the way Joe was and everybody, that they’d start getting cocky and confident and really believe they could win.”

Smith’s wide-open baseline jumper — remember the scouting report on Haywood? — gave PSU a 73-70 lead at 2:02. The possession, which included three offensive rebounds by the Lions, lasted more than a minute. After the inbound pass to Peppers, Watkins stripped the massive football standout and came away with the steal. Ivory then hit a long 2-pointer to make it 75-70 with a minute and a half remaining. Carolina never recovered.

“You saw their heads going down,” Cline-Heard said. “They knew they weren’t going to bounce back.”

And they didn’t, losing 82-74 despite a monster game from Peppers (21 points, 10 rebounds) and a double-double from Haywood (13 points, 13 rebounds). The Tar Heels had been outfoxed, which was evident early in the game when Doherty appeared to be stunned when the PSU players were yelling out the actual names of Carolina’s offensive plays (remember Swenson’s Duke connections?). Penn State’s 18 steals were the second-most in the history of the NCAA Tournament, and the three seniors combined for 61 points (the rest of the team had 21), 19 rebounds and 10 thefts.

The players swarmed each other and hugged Dunn on the floor just after the buzzer sounded. And the small contingent of PSU fans — mostly family, including forward Ndu Egekeze’s younger brothers, who good-naturedly heckled the Tar Heels all game — embraced one another. The school’s pep band staged an impromptu pep rally near the rear exit of the Superdome.

The memory sticks with Krimmel to this day.

“Carolina had to walk right through us to get to their bus,” he said. “That was us beating a powerhouse basketball team. You see that on TV growing up, and now you’ve lived it. You see Jim Nantz and Billy Packer and that stuff, and you are in it.

“You see different stories each year, and we were one of the stories,” he added. “I’ll never forget that experience. I’ll tell the stories as long as I live.”

The Crispin Family

LASTING MEMORIES

Penn State moved into the Sweet 16, which meant a rematch with Temple in Atlanta. Michigan State was also in that portion of the bracket, meaning the Lions could potentially make it to the Final Four by beating two programs it had already defeated.

But it was not to be. It was a completely different atmosphere in Atlanta, as the school’s football fans for once rallied behind the hoop program, and seemingly every suit in the athletic administration made the trip. There was no magic against the Owls, who locked down the Crispin brothers, dominated the boards and held onto the ball. Penn State lost 84-72 and it was not that close. The program has endured four straight losing seasons and a coaching change since.

Still, most of the Nittany Lions from that era count the 2001 NCAA Tournament, particularly the wild ride in New Orleans, among the highlights of their athletic careers. So while the team has literally spread out around the world, the entire Penn State basketball family reacted with a sense of extreme sadness when Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Crescent City in late August and early September, leaving so many of the places from PSU’s past underwater or ravaged by the elements.

“You hear these reports of what was going on in the Superdome,” Joe Crispin said. “The Superdome itself is a great place where I experienced great joy and happiness when we won those games. … Yet in that same building, there was that sort of chaos that I’ll maybe never see in my life. … I don’t even know what to do with that thought.”

 “The atmosphere and excitement of being in New Orleans and the NCAA tournament were great,” Swenson added. “It is sad to think back, and realize a lot of those places we visited and things we saw might never exist again.”

Even more heartbreaking is the thought of all the people who were impacted by the disaster. Back in 2001, many of those same folks, in a hail of beads and cabbages and Superdome applause, embraced a rag-tag basketball program from central Pennsylvania that flew into town on a wing and prayer. 

“The situation is just crazy,” Cline-Heard said. “Because even when the water is gone, the city’s never gonna be the same. It is just crazy how quickly something like that can be destroyed. It puts a lot of things in perspective.”


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