The night before the Penn Men’s Basketball season-opening game against UMBC, Miles Cartwright is feeling nervous.
More than usual?
“More than ever,” he says.
The next evening, the Quakers trail UMBC by as many as 22 points in the first half. At halftime, they’re down 14. As the Quakers wait for their coaches to enter the locker room, many are yelling at one another. But their junior captain remains calm, last night’s jitters long gone. “I was trying to stay even–keeled,” Cartwright recalls. “Just kept saying, ‘We’re gonna be okay, we’re gonna win the game.’”
At first glance, Miles Cartwright appears more Usain Bolt than Michael Jordan. He is a skinny 6’3, with a 175–pound frame (one Princeton fan repeatedly referred to him as “chicken–legs”), a wispy chin goatee and a few pimply vestiges of puberty left on his forehead. Too small to play shooting guard at a Pac–12 school closer to his Van Nuys, CA, hometown, Cartwright enrolled at Penn, where he anticipated substantial playing time and four Ivy League championships.
Those expectations were lofty, but they weren’t unreasonable; after all, Penn is one of the winningest programs in NCAA basketball history. The Quakers won seven of nine Ivy League titles between 1999 and 2007. But two seasons into his college career, Cartwright remains ring-less. As Penn’s top returning scorer, passer and three-point shooter—as well as the new team captain—it is Cartwright’s responsibility to end Penn’s longest championship drought since the 1980s.
While one former teammate describes the communications major as “supremely gifted,” Cartwright doesn’t stand out immediately: other Quakers look sturdier, more muscular. But it’s difficult to watch anyone else once practice begins. Maybe it’s his energy: he’s first in line for every drill, he’s constantly clapping and chirping words of encouragement and he consistently outruns his teammates during sprints. Or perhaps it’s his swagger: the white drawstring dangling from his rolled–up navy blue shorts, his right wrist flicked downward and held in place much longer than necessary after every high–arcing jump shot.
The coaches don’t worry about Cartwright’s low defensive stance or his parabolic jump shot. They do worry, though, about their new captain’s body language; he is just as capable of diminishing a teammate’s confidence with a scowl as he is of propping him up with an arm around the shoulder. During one pre–season practice, Assistant Coach Scott Pera observes Cartwright’s sagging shoulders as a pass slips through his teammate’s hands.
“Body language, Miles! The only way you can help is to say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get it next time.’ Not to f***ing hang your head and pout.”
Coach Pera is always on the lookout for these tics, for the darker side of Cartwright’s emotional, demonstrative nature. “Your best player has to be your leader,” Pera says. With no seniors on the squad, Cartwright must become that leader.
Two seasons of playing time haven’t eased Cartwright’s transition. “Even though I’ve got the most game experience, it’s all new to me,” he explains. Ideally, Miles would have apprenticed last year under the senior captains and been more prepared to switch roles. But the four seniors weren’t looking to the future; they just wanted to win their first conference title. “Last year, the seniors were dominating the scene,” says Zack Rosen—a three–year captain, three–time All–Ivy selection, 2012 Ivy League Player of the Year and one of Penn’s all–time leaders in scoring, assists, steals and games played—in a recent phone interview. “It’s tough to grow up when Daddy is doing everything.”
Daddy’s gone. And while Cartwright insists that he’s “not Zack, on or off the court,” the youngsters who turned to Rosen for guidance last season now look to Cartwright. “That young man is the cornerstone of the transformation,” Rosen explains. “And if he’s not, then they’re not gonna be successful.”
Penn practices at the Palestra. Dubbed “The Cathedral of Basketball,” the Palestra predates the NBA by 19 years and has hosted more games than any other college arena. There are 25 navy blue and red “Ivy League Champions” banners hanging from the rafters. At 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon, it’s dimly lit as the players emerge from the locker room. High above the court, a set of fluorescent bulbs emits a dull white light. Only the floor is illuminated; the empty stands lurk in the shadows, as if the players are trespassing on private property.
When Miles hits the floor, the arena no longer seems haunted; it feels like cheerleading practice. When Cartwright goes through a conditioning drill, he claps. When he watches teammates go through conditioning drills, he claps. At the end of one particularly grueling practice, Head Coach Jerome Allen sends freshman forward Darien Nelson–Henry to the free-throw line. If he sinks both shots, practice ends. If not, the entire squad will run, and another player will be called upon to shoot. As he steps to the line, Miles shouts out: “Go D! You’ve got it!”
“D” could use some encouragement after a day filled with missed layups and whistles blown to instruct him on improving his post positioning. Coach Allen believes more in tough love than in boosting his players’ confidence. When 6’8 Fran Dougherty is blocked by 5’11 guard Patrick Lucas–Perry in a scrimmage, Allen pauses practice to berate him. “Fran, you drive like a f***ing pussy, that’s what’s gonna happen, someone five-nine is gonna block yo’ shot.” Cartwright’s encouragement is a welcome counterpoint to Allen’s vitriol. “Miles helps you out without belittling or cussing you,” says freshman guard and high school teammate Julian Harrell.
When practice ends, the 15 players head to the locker room. Rap music thumps as they take off their practice uniforms and wait for an open shower. Fresh out of the shower, sophomore guard Camryn Crocker pauses in the middle of the room and does his best Miles Carwright impression. The neck veins pop. The arms are extended, palms facing upward. He claps his hands and shouts: “Let’s go!” The room erupts in laughter.
It’s easy to be a cheerleader when things are going well. It’s much harder to maintain a positive demeanor in trying times. During one recent scrimmage, Cartwright calls out a play, but Nelson–Henry goes to the wrong spot. The whistle blows. The coaches are disappointed. But they’re more upset with Cartwright, who throws up his hands and points to the spot where Nelson–Henry should have been.
The next day, Miles throws a nifty pass inside to Nelson–Henry. He can’t handle the pass, and it rolls out of bounds. Cartwright raises his left hand and hits his chest with his right hand. “That’s my bad,” he says. They get into a mini–argument, each player trying to accept responsibility for the turnover. “My fault.” “What are you talking about? I dropped the pass!” “Nah man, that’s my bad.” Cartwright is internalizing yesterday’s message and putting it into practice: “I can’t be the fiery, yelling leader. I’ve gotta put my arm around them when they slip up.”
Cartwright knows what it’s like to slip up. During his freshman season, “nobody got yelled at more than me,” he recalls. He buckled under the constant criticism. “You go through four years being jerked off by coaches, then you pick a school and the honeymoon is over,” he says. “As soon as you get here, they’re up your ass. I’d never had someone yell at me like that, to the point I didn’t want to play basketball anymore. I thought Coach Allen loved me. I hated him the whole season.”
That off–season, Allen told Cartwright: “Don’t take the yelling as me not believing in you.” In the ensuing days, Miles thought to himself: “Maybe I need to grow up. He’s yelling because he needs me. The coaches need us. They depend on us for their livelihoods.” Now that Cartwright understands Coach Allen better, he reveres him. “I think he’s the best coach in the nation,” Cartwright says.
“To everything there is a season,” Allen tells me. After two years in a supporting role, Miles’ season arrives on November 9. It’s hard to tell what’s more impressive: Cartwright’s team–high 21 points, or his remarkable calm in that halftime locker room. “Miles’ biggest strength is being able to say ‘we’re okay’ even when everyone else is panicking,” says co–captain Dau Jok.
On November 17, Penn trails Drexel by 2 with 15 seconds remaining. Cartwright holds the ball at the three–point line. With five seconds remaining, Cartwright accelerates to the basket. Just below the foul line, he loses control of the ball, and the Quakers lose. Cartwright looks ready to cry as he walks off the court. He buries his face in his jersey, and enters the locker room. “I just felt like I let everyone down,” he tells me. “I lost that shit.”
Two days later, Cartwright has two opportunities to defeat Fordham in the final moments. He misses both shots. This time, he walks off with his head up. This time, he doesn’t feel guilty. Instead, “I really tried to learn from it,” he tells me. The ball is going to come back to me. How can I do it better?” The boy who struggled to manage his emotions just a few weeks ago is becoming “a man his parents can be proud of,” Allen boasts.
By January, it’s getting harder to keep saying “we’re okay.” As the Quakers lose 13 of their next 14 games, Cartwright becomes increasingly impatient. His turnovers are up, and his shooting percentage stands at .366, well off his stellar .454 mark from last season. “I wanna succeed so badly, sometimes I just press,” he says.
On Saturday night against Princeton, Cartwright presses. With ten minutes remaining in their Ivy League opener, Penn trails their archrival by 10 points. Cartwright dashes towards the basket, hoping to cut the lead to single digits for the first time all half. But Miles dribbles the ball off his foot, and it rolls out of bounds. The Quakers’ best opportunity slips away, and they fall to 0–1 in Ivy play. Everything might not be okay. At least not this season.
As the losses mount, the confident, gregarious kid from preseason sometimes disappears, replaced by a sullen, withdrawn man. “As a captain, you get all the praise and all of the criticism,” explains Harrell. This season, the losses really sting. “Freshman year when we were losing,” Cartwright says, “it was like ‘okay, I’ve got three years left.’ Now, I automatically blame every bad thing on myself.”
The coaching staff expects to win, and they expect Cartwright to execute his responsibilities. But they acknowledge the inevitable growing pains. “There’s nothing natural about becoming a leader,” explains Allen. “It takes time to be good.”
Despite a 2–13 record, Cartwright’s confidence endures. “I know if we keep working at it, things are going to get better,” he says with conviction. “This is the most talented team I’ve been on. We’re going to win this championship.” While Coach Allen insists Cartwright has done “a tremendous job” as captain, Cartwright isn’t satisfied. “The next step is winning,” he says. “What separates good leaders from great ones are the ones who win.”
Josh Dembowitz is a Senior from Cherry Hill, NJ. He is studying political science.