Penn State senior guard Jamari Wheeler sat in his chair looking at the screen and the dozen or so reporters on the other side of the video call.
And then he spoke.
“We miss [former Coach Patrick Chambers] a lot,” Wheeler said through his thick Florida drawl. “We wish he was here, still battling with us, helping us through this season. But unfortunately, some circumstances won’t allow him to be here with us. We’re still confused and don’t understand how that happened…Hopefully, he gets another chance to coach at a high-major and be a head coach again because he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for.”
It was Wheeler’s message that echoed throughout the hour or so of Penn State basketball’s media day session, one that was supposed to be about the upcoming season but turned into more of a public venting session with a smattering of basketball talk mixed in. Several players opened their interviews in support of Chambers — something likely green lit by the program itself — before taking questions.
Chambers resigned in October following a university resignation into allegations that have not been made public.
But like the defender he has become, Wheeler’s most tenacious defense yet swept in to aid his own emotions. Visibly annoyed, visibly frustrated, he still smiled that big grin so many players opposite of him have seen as he meets them at halfcourt. And in turn, Wheeler let it fly.
“I know there's a bunch of things about him being a racist. And for me, I've been here four years, a black athlete that plays for him, and that's all the way from Florida, and I didn't get questioned not one time, was coach racist, anything like that. So it's just confusing."
And in terms of answers?
“Nah. We haven't gotten any answers,” Wheeler said. “It was hard because earlier that day before [Chambers] announced it, we had a meeting with a couple of people on the staff at Penn State asking them because we knew something was kind of off during two weeks leading up to it. We just felt the vibe, so me and a couple of guys on the team just had a private meeting with a couple of staff members that are up above, and we [were] told that everything was good.”
Before Wheeler could continue, he was interrupted, stopped by a Penn State communications staffer.
And Wheeler - apologizing - moved on to the next question.
It seems prudent from the outset to concede that not all of the facts are known about Pat Chambers’ resignation or what may as well be considered as a firing. It is not disputed by those around him or Chambers himself that he used the phrase “noose around your neck” when talking to former guard Rasir Bolton in reference to easing the pressure.
It’s also not disputed that Chambers operates at a high intensity level, capable of losing his cool and that former players or staff members may have grown weary or disgruntled by those outbursts. What level of that is acceptable at the collegiate level is entirely subjective.
Equally true, while Penn State Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour says the resignation did not have any NCAA underpinnings, the veracity of that statement is entirely unknown, or if Penn State would be inclined to self-report any findings should they have arisen during any internal investigation.
In turn Wheeler finds himself in the same place as everyone else around him; blindsided by confusion and uncertainty, wrapped in both anger and frustration topped off by the unavoidable excitement and increasingly pressing issue of the upcoming season.
“Obviously, I was shocked and hurt by the decision that coach made, but as a team, we’re all committed to this season,” guard Izaiah Brockington said.
“It was shocking and very upsetting for everybody on our staff and in our program. [Chambers] was very loved, and is still very loved and appreciated,” guard Myles Dread added. “No, I am not at peace with it. I will not be at peace with it until everybody has answers into why, but that is all I have on the subject.”
“It bothers us,” guard Myreon Jones said of the allegation that Chambers is racist. “People have their own opinions so they're gonna do what they want, but they don't know the truth because they’re not on the inside.”
“It felt like being stabbed in the chest.” Jones added.
The frustration continued and while not every player was quoted here or as forceful in their defense of Chambers the overall theme remained.
As a result the Nittany Lions find themselves facing another obstacle ahead of the 2020 season. Still less than a year from the COVID-19 pandemic ending their season just days from their first NCAA Tournament berth in a decade, Penn State is now a month removed from losing the coach that seemingly none of them wanted to lose in the first place. All of this coupled with a lack of clarity as to why and a growing distrust of those who might provide them with answers.
The physical transition itself may be the easiest part of all. Assistant coach Jim Ferry serving in the interim head coaching role allows for continuity, the assistants around him all familiar faces as well. Nothing much has changed for this particular group of Nittany Lions, *except* for Chambers’ absence.
All told there is something fitting about where the program finds itself now. Frustrated and confused with an administration that has backed the basketball program but has never -save essential upgrades- given off the perception that basketball is a priority.
There are financial reasons this approach might be pragmatic in a world centered around football, but the program’s multi-decade long desire to be more important, and its ongoing frustration may have never been more evident than it was on Wednesday.
In its own way, Penn State basketball has always been something of an anti-establishment enterprise relative to the athletic department’s spending whims, quietly vocalizing its displeasure behind closed doors.
But as Jamari Wheeler quietly referenced the possibility of being lied to, and his teammates not so quietly articulated their anger and frustration, they voiced that sentiment towards the same Bryce Jordan Center that houses so many of those same administrators who made the call. This time public.
Regardless of whether or not Chambers should have been let go, it’s hard to blame his now former players for wanting the truth out of a place that so skillfully manages to avoid transparency seemingly as a matter of tradition.
"The focus has been on them," Ferry said of his players. "At first, the focus, from a staff standpoint, was just listening. We sat down as a group and we listened. And then from there, we've guided ourselves back to somewhat normalcy — if that's the word you want to use. We have great leadership in this group. We have great continuity in this group, both players and staff. And I think guys have done a really good job of listening first and then helping each other out."
Someone listened to them, now it’s time for someone to tell them the truth.
"We decided we wanted to play this season out for coach and for each other," Brockington said.