Courtesy of MCT
The banners in the Schottenstein Center, tell you that the Ohio State men’s basketball team has reached the Final Four nine times, its last appearance coming in 2007.
Former point guard James “Scoonie” Penn and other members of the 1998–99 Final Four squad don’t have the luxury of being celebrated in the same ways.
After two boosters made improper payments to former OSU guard Slobodan “Boban” Savovic, the NCAA forced the program to vacate 113 wins from 1998–2002, when Savovic played.
Despite having the accomplishments, including the 1999 Final Four appearance, wiped from the record books, Penn remains a fixture in OSU basketball lore.
“I hope one day it gets reversed and we do get recognized, with our banner at the arena where it belongs,” Penn told The Lantern. “Why should we have gotten punished for something that we worked so hard to accomplish?”
Penn, who graduated from Salem High School in Salem, Mass., played his junior and senior seasons at OSU from 1998–00, after transferring from Boston College.
His coach at Boston College, Jim O’Brien, left the school for OSU after Penn’s sophomore year. Penn followed O’Brien to Columbus.
“I was comfortable at BC. I was a local kid, but the problem was, other kids decided not to come, and guys were leaving,” Penn said. “I wanted to win. It wasn’t going to be possible in that situation.”
Because of NCAA transfer rules, Penn had to sit out the 1997–98 season, but that didn’t stop him from fine-tuning his game.
“It made me hungry for the game,” he said. “I would practice with the team, and when practice was over, I’d go over to the Jesse Owens (Recreational Center) and play some more with guys that were in the gym.”
The next season, Penn’s practice paid off, and he won the Big Ten Player of the Year award. He averaged 16.9 points and 4.3 assists per game, and led the Buckeyes to a 27-9 record.
“Mike Bordner, longtime basketball trainer, told me (Scoonie) was one of the best leaders ever at OSU, any sport,” Buckeye basketball historian Lee Caryer said. “Point guards are like quarterbacks — they have to produce in terms of team success, and look good on the stat sheet as well. The intangible is they have to make their teammates better. Scoonie was 3-for-3.”
Led by its star guards, the 5-foot-10 Penn and Michael Redd, OSU entered the tournament as the fourth seed in the South Region.
After disposing of Murray State and Detroit, OSU upset the top seed in the region, Auburn, and then squeaked past St. John’s in the Elite Eight. It advanced to the Final Four in St. Petersburg, Fla., and lost to Connecticut, 64-58.
Penn said the adrenaline he felt during his NCAA Tournament appearances was “overwhelming,” yet still remembers it fondly.
“Intensity rises to the point where it’s hard to sleep; you’re constantly thinking about (the games),” he said. “To have those feelings and go through that is just without comparison. It was the best time of my life.”
After graduating, Penn was selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the 2000 NBA Draft. His contract was not guaranteed, however, and he chose to play in Italy for one season.
He came back to the U.S. before the 2001–02 NBA season and signed with the Hawks. He was released before the start of the season.
Penn went back overseas and has played there ever since, making stops in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Croatia.
“I started in Europe with aspirations of getting into the NBA,” he said. “I have no regrets, though. I’ve been blessed to continue to play ball professionally when I know a lot of people would love to be in my shoes.”
Although the NBA may not be in his future, the 34-year-old guard said he hopes to make it back to America — as a college basketball coach.
“I know I have a certain knack for this game, and a certain way of teaching people,” Penn said. “Someone told me, ‘Do it because you love to do it. At the college level, especially, it’s a lot to deal with, and you must have the love for it.'”
Ken Johnson, who played center at OSU from 1997–01, said his former teammate would make an “awesome” college coach.
“Kids will absolutely flock to him,” Johnson told The Lantern. “When I was at OSU, a lot of guys really looked up to him.”
In the meantime, Penn, who is married and has three kids, plays professionally in Veroli, Italy. Yet, he still longs for the days when he played at the corner of Lane Avenue and Olentangy River Road.
“I would love to go back to playing at Ohio State, eating at the Union, going to study hall,” he said. “It was good to be a young man, just playing for the love of the game and for the university.”