Nov. 24, 1997
A Man Of The People
by Jonathan Gust
For Villanova, it was just another game and just another shot. For Zeffy Penn, however, his foul line jumper on a cold January day in 1994 against Providence, was the start of something special. As shouts of Zeffy, Zeffy' were heard throughout the crowd, the chant caught on and Penn quickly became the Villanova fan favorite. Whether an individual is a sixth man or an All-America starter, fans of the game of basketball recognize hard work and determination, both of which define Penn.
"When the student section chanted my name, it was the greatest feeling I have ever had," said Penn. "To hear a whole building chanting my name, is a feeling I will never forget. I didn't know what to do or what to think. I was in awe."
From an early age, Penn knew what it was like to work hard and play hard. He began playing basketball as a child, when his father put up a court in the back alley. Beginning with neighborhood pickup games, Penn's basketball skills began improving and kept doing so as he started to play organized ball in camps such as the Five Star Basketball Camp.
After an outstanding high school career at Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, Pa., Penn attended Maine Central Institute for one season. It was at Maine where he averaged nearly 15 points and seven rebounds a game, when he got just the break he was looking for.
"I was in a tournament in Virginia called the Fork Union Tournament, when Coach Leonard(ex-Villanova Assistant John Leonard) saw me play and started to recruit me," said Penn. "I went on my recruiting visit to Villanova, I liked the campus and it was close to home, so I decided to come here."
Trying to adjust to a new system, Penn's first year on the Main Line was a rough one. As a freshman, he did not know a lot of the elements needed to succeed in college basketball. After one year in the Lappas system, however, Penn began to come into his own.
Transforming into the Wildcats' sixth man, Penn gave Villanova much needed minutes and production off the bench as a sophomore and junior. His minutes and scoring increased in three years, from 6.6 minutes a game and one point as a freshman, to 18 minutes and nearly five points as a junior. When the Wildcats needed a spark, Penn continually came off the bench to give the team just what they needed, prompting CBS-analyst Billy Packer to label him"the best sixth man in the country."
After his junior season, however, Villanova head coach Steve Lappas asked Penn whether he would want to redshirt the next year, coming back to play the following season. Taking the summer to ponder the question, Penn decided that redshirting would be good for him both on and off the basketball court.
"After thinking long and hard, I decided it would be better for me as a player and it would also better my education and help me become a better person," said Penn. "It was frustrating though, because I thought in a couple games, that maybe I could have helped out. At certain times in certain games, I wish I could have been out there to give the team a lift, and to bring the crowd to life."
Having to sit out last season, Penn took that time to shoot, lift weights and improve his basketball skills. Despite not factoring into the Wildcats game plans in 1996-97, he was often the first person in the gym and the last one to leave.
"As a basketball player, Michael Jordan has the ability to do anything he wants, but he had to work hard to become who he is today," said Penn. "You can't get anywhere without hard work."
Penn was welcomed back on Oct. 24, at Wildcat Roar, with the sorely missed Zeffy chants of old. Coming down the bleachers in a big blond wig and dancing to Sister Sledge and "We Are Family", Penn gave the fans a preview of the fun and emotion he plans to bring to the Wildcats in the upcoming season.
"Whether I start or come off the bench, I want to go out and help the team in any way possible," said Penn. "As a captain, I want to get this team to come together because to win as a team, you need both chemistry and emotion."
Crediting ex-Villanova star Kerry Kittles for his development as a player, it is now Penn's time to help teach the Wildcats youngsters what hard work is all about. As the team captain, it is his duty to lead the team on and off the court, but for Penn it is also his pleasure. As an education major, teaching is one of his strongest attributes. Graduating in May 1997, Penn is now student teaching history at the high school level.
"When I was in high school, I had a job teaching basketball to neighborhood kids," said Penn. "I enjoyed watching them and teaching them, because they had fun learning. That is what is great about teaching."
Whether or not he makes basketball a career, Penn will always be admired because he has what it takes not only to make a great player, but to make even greater person. Known by nearly everyone at Villanova, students and teachers alike, Penn could win the school presidency in a landslide if he so chose. People love him not because of his skills, but because of his personable and fun-loving character.
"I'm a person that talks to everyone. I think I got that from my mom," said Penn. "The student section is always behind me cheering me and supporting me, so why shouldn't I be behind them. I want to give back to them what they give to me.
"I love playing in front of big crowds. The atmosphere is something I cannot explain," said Penn. "You can't know the feeling unless you experience it. The fans are loud and everyone is watching you, as you are out there playing a game and a sport you love."
Some say that the Wildcats have much less pressure in 1997-98 because the expectations aren't there. Critics believe that because they are so young, they have a lot less to prove. With the loss of Jason Lawson, Alvin Williams, Chuck Kornegay and Tim Thomas, the Wildcats have only one senior and a freshman class of four. Penn, however, believes that he and the Villanova team have a great deal to prove.
"We have the chance to prove people wrong, if nothing else," said Penn. "As a sophomore, people picked us to tenth in the Big East and we went on to win the NIT Tournament. I believe we have the ability to prove people wrong once again."
In a time when basketball seems to mean a great deal about business and not about basketball, Penn epitomizes what really makes the sport great. He possesses a love for the game and a blue-collar work ethic that is ever so uncommon these days. Penn is a man of the people, respected by teammates, fans and opponents alike.