The shot itself was nothing remarkable: a routine layup early in the first half of Penn’s 59-42 win over Marist in early December. How could fans at the Palestra have realized then, during this nondescript men’s basketball game against a lowly opponent, that it would mark both the beginning and end of the most unlikely journey in recent Quaker hoops history?
The made basket was Matt Hanessian’s first as a Division I college basketball player. It was also his last.
Only days later, Hanessian—a senior walk-on who attracted no NCAA interest as a high-school player—learned he would have to quit organized basketball because of a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in which the heart is weakened and enlarged and cannot pump blood efficiently.
“It sucked that it got cut short,” Hanessian says. “It sucked this couldn’t have happened three months later and then I could have played the season.
“But who knows,” he adds, softly. “Maybe this protected me from a bad event.”
The worst-case scenario, heart failure, was certainly a scary thought. But it was hard for him to envision, having never had any of the symptoms associated with the condition, like shortness of breath. But DCM runs in his family, so he got tested.
His first echocardiogram, last January, came back on the “bad side of normal,” but didn’t warrant much concern at the time. But about nine months later, flu symptoms sent the senior (who had since walked on to the hoops team) to Penn Student Health, where a doctor looked at his file and, according to Hanessian, said “there’s no way a varsity basketball player should be playing with these results.”
Hanessian says he saw two cardiologists at Penn. The first told him he couldn’t play varsity basketball anymore. The second told him he shouldn’t even play recreational basketball—“which would have been pretty devastating.” Over winter break he saw a third cardiologist, in Chicago, who cleared him for recreational play—“a big deal for me”—but confirmed that his career as a Penn Quaker would have to end.
As this process was unfolding, Penn’s coaches and trainers exercised caution, holding Hanessian out of practice in the days leading up to that December 9 game against Marist. Though thrilled that he was cleared to play that game—with its “storybook” scoring moment—he never expected it would be his last time wearing a Penn jersey.
“In my mind, there were no symptoms—there was no anything—so how can this possibly be bad? It was really shocking to me when I found out I wasn’t allowed to play anymore.”
The timing could not have been worse, given that Hanessian had actually found his way into the Quakers’ rotation—an impressive feat for any first-year player, let alone a walk-on who’d spent the previous two seasons on the junior varsity team.
After making his official debut with a garbage-time appearance against Rider on November 18, the six-foot-six forward saw his first significant playing time against city rival Temple on November 25, playing three minutes at a critical juncture but not recording any stats. With injuries in the Quakers’ frontcourt mounting, Hanessian then played in three straight games—wins over Navy, Binghamton, and Marist—grabbing four total rebounds, making some key defensive plays, and, of course, scoring two memorable points.
“The basket, people will remember,” Penn assistant coach Mike Lintulahti says. “But as coaches, we’re celebrating things besides scoring points. The Binghamton game, he came in and played a crucial role. If you look at the tape, I’m not sure we win that game without him.”
Lintulahti, who took over coaching responsibilities for the junior varsity team last April, knew that Hanessian had captained and led the squad in scoring for the last two years. But the JV team isn’t usually a feeder system for the varsity team.
But Hanessian was determined to try.
The funny thing about his “tryout” was that he wasn’t even sure he was on audition as he played pickup ball with members of the varsity team. But Penn head coach Jerome Allen W’09 was watching from his office, which overlooks Weightman Gym, and liked what he saw out of the aggressive forward.
In an odd twist, it wasn’t Allen’s first encounter with Hanessian. The two had met at Chicago Laboratory High School, where Allen heavily recruited one of Hanessian’s teammates. Hanessian even played against Allen in a three-on-three game at the end of a practice, and, encouraged by his performance, approached the Penn coach afterwards to ask if he might have a spot for him. Allen quickly said no, but Hanessian applied early decision to Penn anyway, which was his top choice for other reasons. And so it came to pass that Allen found himself talking to Hanessian after another pickup game, four years later. “Matt,” he said, “tell Coach Mike your shoe size and be in the weight room at 7 on Monday.”
The wondrous reality set in when Hanessian found his name on ESPN.com for the first time, running around the bar to show everyone his phone. The next dose of reality came at Temple. Playing in the 10,200-seat Liacouras Center was eye-opening—as was trying to box out bulky Temple forward Mark Williams and him “not moving.” Perhaps the most memorable part, though, was getting heckled. Wearing short socks and no undershirt, Hanessian was sporting a little bit of back hair poking out of his jersey. “Why don’t you cut off your back hair and knit it into some socks?” a creative Temple fan yelled. The walk-on had to laugh.
Of course, the best moment came when his first collegiate shot attempt dropped through the net against Marist. His second—and last—attempt was swatted away. He’s still kicking himself about it.
“I could have ended my career as a 100 percent shooter and led the NCAA in shooting percentage,” he laughs. “But I had to take that next shot and drop to 50.”
Now Hanessian has returned to the activities that he enjoyed before making the varsity, as the president of the a cappella group Penn Six, and his fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Looking back on his brief collegiate basketball career, he feels content.
“I got my basket. I got legitimate minutes,” he says. “Those are the things I wanted.”
But that’s not to say it’s entirely over yet. A couple of weeks into the semester, Lintulahti ran into Hanessian at Chipotle and asked where he had been. Hanessian replied that he felt weird coming around, to which the assistant coach responded: “We feel a little weird about you not being around.” So after watching one game from the student section, Hanessian was invited to sit on the bench with the team for the remainder of the season.
That’s where the coaches feel he belongs, even if he can no longer wear a jersey.
—Dave Zeitlin C’03