Saturday, March 20, 1999

OSU fortunes depend on Penn

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — One player has changed everything. This is how it happens sometimes in basketball. One player comes in and teaches everyone else how to win, to compete, to forget.

        Scoonie Penn is out there running around, 5-foot-10 with a linebacker's body, every night an oasis of complete self-assurance, willing Ohio State to a region final. Nobody has caught him yet.

        It's second nature to him. Penn has spent his whole life making up for lost time. He was a breech baby. When his mother Allegra gave birth to him, Penn emerged with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He didn't breathe for five minutes.

        He was the oldest son of four children. Because there was no Mr. Penn at home, Scoonie was the unofficial man of the house. Allegra worked on the line at a General Electric plant. Scoonie watched his younger brother and sister. When Allegra worked overtime, Scoonie watched some more.

        “I missed out on some things,” he says now.

        He became a basketball star and signed to play his college ball at Boston College, close to his hometown of Salem, Mass. Scoonie was an instant hero, leading BC to a 19-11 record his freshman year. The previous season, the Eagles were 9-19.

        His second season, BC went 22-9. Things were perfect until his coach resigned. Jim O'Brien had a problem with BC's admissions policies. He took the job at Ohio State. Penn was at the starting line all over again. It only got worse when he decided to follow O'Brien to Ohio State: Penn had to sit out last year.

        All of it has made him older

        and wiser than his years. You can hear it in his speech: “(Leaving Boston College) made me grow up real quick. I had to be an adult and make a decision that's going to affect me my whole life,” he says.

        You can see it on the court. Against Auburn Thursday night, the Buckeyes cracked whenever Penn wasn't on the floor. If you watched that game, you saw Penn dominate the last 10 minutes, totally and without question.

        Auburn was bigger and more physical. In the three minutes Penn spent on the bench with four fouls, the Tigers came from three behind to take a six-point lead. Penn returned with 10 minutes left and everything changed.

        He plays like a man who knows what he's doing. In the craziness against Auburn, Penn had no turnovers.

        He plays like he's much older. You feel safe when Penn has the ball. If you follow the Buckeyes, you understand. Most players use college to grow up. Penn plays like he grew up a long time ago.

        “My mom treated me like an adult at a young age, probably because she had to,” Penn says. “She allowed me to grow up, make my mistakes and learn from them. I have never had a moment or a situation where I wasn't confident in myself.”

        He has a stitched-up gash on his chin from an errant elbow in the Detroit game last week. He took another elbow in the throat Thursday. As a high school football cornerback, Penn was “a little bit daring,” he says.“I wouldn't care who it was. A tight end or whoever. I'd put my head into them.”

        When someone asks Penn for a “favorite Scoonie moment” on the court, he says “diving for a loose ball.”

        There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance that few college players can walk. They're just not old enough to know the difference. Penn knows.

        “I don't really care what people say about me on the court. But if my teammates look back and say, that kid Scoonie was a great kid to play with, that would mean a lot to me,” he says.

        Maybe that's why the Buckeyes look so composed with him on the court, and so lost without him. Kids can sense who's real and who's not. They're perceptive that way.

        These kids playing ball now shouldn't have to grow up so fast, but they all do. Erick Barkley is Penn's opposite number for St. John's. He plays this weekend knowing his father remains in a coma. A car in suburban Philadelphia jumped a curb and struck Alonzo Barkley some four weeks ago. His son declines to discuss it.

        Scoonie Penn knows what it's like to age quickly. It hasn't always been pleasant. But it has had its rewards.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.