This week, 16 teams will battle for a slot in the Final Four. Scoonie Penn of the Big Ten Network knows what they're going through. Fourteen years ago, Penn led Ohio State to the school's first Final Four since 1968. He experienced the pressure of the situation firsthand when he stepped to the line for a pair of free throws with Ohio State up one point with under 30 seconds to play. Penn spoke with RedEye about that game and updates us on his life after basketball.
Talk about that Elite Eight game in 1999.
A lot of times at the end of close games, Coach [Jim] O'Brien wanted me to have the ball. He wanted me on the line to either seal the game or keep us in the game. Most of the time I'm not nervous, but that was a little different, because it's for a trip to the Final Four. If I remember correctly, I think I might have missed one. All I could think about, especially in the last few minutes of the game, was that the time could not go fast enough. You want the time to run out so you can have your trip to the Final Four, but it seemed like an eternity. Especially the last couple minutes of that game, so many things happened. Mike Redd going to the line, he misses, gives them an opportunity to maybe tie the game or win the game.
[St. John's guard] Erick Barkley tried to take it on me, and I didn't foul him, although he and I became really good friends even after that game—he says I fouled him, but I didn't. He had the turnover and we win the game. It was just unbelievable. I get chills every time I think about it to this day. You don't get that opportunity much to actually make it to the Final Four. It's something I'll never forget.
What was campus like on Monday?
Oh man, it was wild. Never mind Monday—even before that. We get back to campus that night. We fly an express jet from Tennessee back to Columbus, and we arrive at the airport, and there are fans everywhere. Then we drive back to where we play, and the place was filled with people, all outside greeting us in the middle of the night. I don't even think I slept that night because there was just so much adrenaline pumping. Ohio State hadn't been to the Final Four since the '60s. So the fans, the people that have been a part of the Buckeyes for a very long time, they were expressing their joy. I can't describe how unbelievable they were.
We were in school that week, but it was a blur, to be honest with you. It was all about preparation for the Final Four. The biggest thing Coach was on was "Don't get caught up in the hype. There's still more work to do." I couldn't tell you what classes I had, or whether I went or I didn't go. [Laughs.]
It was all that fast. I think we played Sunday, I wanna say. We got back late. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and then I think we left for the Final Four on Thursday. Something like that. We weren't there long. Even the whole tournament itself is fast. Every week, it's just one game to the next, one week to the next. It just flies by. From the time you're in the conference tournament all the way to the Final Four, all those weeks just coincide.
After one more season at Ohio State, Penn was drafted by Atlanta in the second round of the 2000 NBA Draft. He went on to a professional career lasting over 10 seasons and taking him around the world, with stops in Italy, Serbia, Croatia, Greece, Turkey and Ukraine. He retired in 2011.
It was tough adjusting to life without basketball. I think I could have played more years, easily. I stopped due to family reasons. Elderly father-in-law, so we helped take care of him. I didn't want to leave my wife here with the kids and him, so I had to make the decision that I felt was best for my family. And it was very hard. It still is hard sometimes. It was difficult to get out of bed some days, and to get motivated to do anything, because I wasn't playing ball.
I kept thinking about "What did I miss about playing ball the most?" And you miss the games, but I really missed the whole atmosphere of practice. Of preparing for games. You're used to being in the gym and working on your game and keeping the game plan together, and when that's not there it's tough to deal with. It made me realize how easy it may be for former athletes to find themselves in trouble with the law or dealing with alcohol or drugs or whatever the case may be, because you've done this your whole adult life and now it's not there. You've got to find something to fill that void.
I majored in sociology, but I knew I wanted to stay in basketball some way. And I thought about coaching, and I still do think about it, but I want to coach at the college level and it's really time consuming. I have a 7-, 10-, and 11-year-old now, and I don't want to miss a lot of time with them.