The dream that refused to die: How Matt Hanessian became a Penn Quaker

Matt Hanessian successfully walked on at Penn as a senior, and is now playing meaningful minutes. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream, albeit a dream differed. Courtesy photo / Penn Athletics
Matt Hanessian successfully walked on at Penn as a senior, and is now playing meaningful minutes. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream, albeit a dream differed. Courtesy photo / Penn Athletics

Matt Hanessian ran out of the darkened underbelly of the ancient hoops cathedral onto the hallowed hardwood floors under the high-arching overhead beams of the Palestra on Dec. 9., wearing the storied uniform of the University of Pennsylvania.

As a kid growing up in Chicago, Hanessian had dreamt of playing basketball under the bright lights at the center of a grand stage. It was a dream that was nearly lost when Hanessian spent his entire freshman year of college completely removed from any organized ball, and a dream that remained deferred over the next two years while he played before empty, echo filled seats on the junior varsity squad, where thoughts of a post-college career in the real world drowned out and daydreams of making the varsity.

But it was a dream that simply refused to die.

And when Hanessian’s shot with 15:56 remaining in the first half against Marist, set up by a dump-off feed from guard Matt Howard — the first field-goal attempt of Hanessian’s career — found the bottom of the net, pushing the Quakers lead to 6-0, it was the culmination of one of the most circuitous routes to Division I basketball, and the realization of the previously impossible dream.

Hanessian didn’t have any time to soak in the moment: he had to sprint back on D, and that’s what makes the story so much better.

“To be honest there wasn’t even time to think about that (my first points), because the ball came right back down the court and I had to play defense,” says Hanessian, taking a break before finals to talk about his long and winding road to becoming a Division I player.

“It was as routine a play as could be. And then I think I turned the ball over the next time I touched it,” he laughs.

“It wasn’t like it was the end of the game, the last game of the year, and a charity bucket where we’re trying to get Matt the ball,” says head coach Jerome Allen of the 6-foot-6-inch forward who was so much of an afterthought when he was added to the roster in October that he still does not have a headshot on the team’s website, only to become an indispensable part of the Quakers’ rotation and presence in their locker room. “I recognized the story, but we’re far past that: He’s on the floor, he’s expected to play, play well, and play to the highest standard.”

It would be easy to cast Hanessian as a modern day Rudy set on the hardwood instead of the gridiron – a personification of perseverance: The kid who grows up dreaming about simply setting foot out under the lights for one moment, and after years of toiling on the JV and spending time as a punching-bag practice dummy for the varsity, grabs that dream. But Hanessian refuses to cast himself in that role.

“I know it would be nice if I said ‘yes’ — that I was the storybook hard work and never losing sight of a dream pays off — but it’s not so much that,” says Hanessian. “There was an opportunity that very easily could not have presented itself. It was kind of more seeing an opportunity, being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage.”

And that’s exactly what makes him all the more refreshing: He’s real. Most of us don’t realize when we are being presented with a genuine opportunity until it has already passed us by. Fewer of us still have the sack to take advantage of such an opportunity.

Hanessian is one of those select few.

“He’s taken advantage of every opportunity that he’s been presented with,” says Allen. “He wasn’t happy with being just one of the guys on the team: his commitment was to be ready for whatever was asked of him. He’s the first guy off the bench to celebrate his teammates and support them, and if you call his name as the first big man off the bench, he’s gone in and produced.”

Hanessian’s story begins in The Windy City, where he grew up with basketball on the brain.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to play in the NBA,” says Hanessian.

By the time he reached high school, Hanessian had a fairly good idea that a career playing hoops wasn’t in the cards he was dealt, but he still loved the game and dreamt of playing in college.

“When it was apparent that [the NBA] wasn’t going to happen, I wanted to play college basketball,” he says.

Hanessian attended University of Chicago Laboratory High School, where he lettered in both Basketball and Golf, captaining both teams as an upperclassman. On the hardwood, Hanessian, along with Michael Turner, helped lead Laboratory High School to Independent School League titles in 2010 and 2011, and a regional championship in 2010.

During their careers, Turner became a prized Division I recruit, narrowing his choices down to Northwestern and Penn, which is how Hanessian first crossed paths with his Allen.

“My senior year of high school, one of my best friends and my teammate, Mike Turner, was one of Penn’s top recruits and he was deciding between Penn and Northwestern, so coach Allen was actually at a bunch of our practices all throughout my senior year of high school,” he remembers.

“I was in Chicago for seven straight weeks recruiting Michael Turner, and [Hanessian] was thinking about applying to Penn,” remembers Allen.

Penn was already Hanessian’s top choice academically, and after several weeks of practicing and playing in front of Allen, he broached the subject of trying to play at Penn. It didn’t go as Hanessian had hoped.

“I wanted to play college basketball, didn’t know if I could, so I figured why not: I asked coach Allen if he had a spot for me on the team after one of the practices; he said, ‘Nope,” Hanessian laughs.

“Well, I wasn’t that blunt,” Allen says, breaking into a soft laugh. “Maybe he put a little bit of extra sauce on it.

“At that time I wanted what I wanted. The crazy thing is that his story and his journey is now to the point where we need Matt. Whether it’s the practice setting or games, he makes us better and I give him all the credit in the world. “

Turner wound up choosing Northwestern. Hanessian was accepted to Penn and, despite his best friend heading elsewhere and his basketball dreams seemingly DOA, decided to enroll, assuming his playing days were over.

But after a year completely away from the sport, Hanessian started to get the itch. When Allen had originally rejected him from the varsity, he had suggested Hanessian play for the junior varsity squad, a program that exists throughout the Ivy League but has become extinct across much of the rest of the Division I landscape. After playing pick-up with several of the JV players in the spring, Hanessian decided to try out for the squad, and wound up starting as a sophomore and serving as the JV captain as a junior.

“The coolest part of the JV program was that it was actually very connected to the varsity,” says Hanessian. “We basically ran a light version of the same system – got to run the same plays. The varsity guys were always very supportive, and it was just a really cool experience to get to play organized basketball at a pretty high level in college.”

And they got to play in the Palestra. And for a long time, that was enough for Hanessian.

“I didn’t even really want to play varsity. I was involved in a lot of other things on campus, it would have taken up a lot of my time, and I was happy to take something that was less of a time commitment, if it meant playing organized basketball, especially organized basketball in the Palestra, which was something I never thought I’d be able to do once I was done with [high school] basketball.”

But towards the end of his junior year, his varsity dreams began to resurface.

“Some of the graduating seniors would come to the gym and play pick-up with students. And there were a couple of times – obviously, for me that pick-up game meant a lot to me, for them they were just messing around – but there were a couple of games when I’d be on the floor with my JV teammates and they’d come with three or four of their varsity teammates and we’d actually win, and for me, I’d be like ‘if I can do this, I can hang with them, maybe this is a possibility.’”

And the end of his junior year, he decided to make one run at the varsity – it would be his first, last and best chance at being an official Division I player.

“A lot of people around me said things along the lines of ‘good luck,’ but I don’t think anybody, myself included, expected this to happen,” he says.

Unfortunately, the real world sidetracked him, as a summer job ate up a lot of his time.

But late in the summer into the early fall, Hanessian could be found in the gym, going all out against the varsity.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Allen and his staff were watching intently, having been impressed by Hanessian’s tenacious play during his time on the JV.

“We all like to make projections of how our team is going to be. I watched a lot of the JV games last year, and the way he approached the games, we thought he’d be a great body in practice, and his overall spirit was something we needed as far as being the glue – as being one of the guys who was going to push everyone else in the right direction.”

According to Hanessian, his official induction to the varsity was somewhat anti-climactic.

“Coach Allen came down, he basically yelled at the rest of the team, and he just said ‘give coach Mike [Lintulahti] your shoe size and be in the weight room on Monday,’ and that was it,” he laughs.

But once it sunk in, the moment – and the journey to get there – truly sunk in for Hanessian.

“When it did happen it was very validating for me,” he says. “It was just an awesome experience to know that I wanted something for a long time and I wound up getting it.“

After making the team, Hanessian had no delusions of grandeur about fighting his way into the rotation, and was thrilled simply to be part of the team and push his teammates in practice. But things went a bit differently.

Hanessian didn’t play a second in the first game of the season, before getting a glimpse of garbage time in a 16-point loss versus Rider, and then returning to the end of the bench one game later against Lafayette.

“The first time that I played was against Rider, the second game of the season. They outplayed us that game and we were down by 15 or so and he put me on with about 50 seconds left,” he says. “It was cool. It was surprising to me how normal it felt.”

But then the Quakers were racked by injuries to their front court, losing talented freshman Mike Auger to a broken foot and later sophomore Dylan Jones to a concussion.

Against a long, athletic and physical Temple squad from the Atlantic-10, Allen wasn’t happy with the effort of the front court, and called on Hanessian in the first half, and the economics major and music minor went right at the Owls front court.

“Coach Allen put me in with about six minutes left in the half. I’m nowhere near as gifted as the other players – especially the Temple players – but the one thing I can do is work just as hard as everyone else on the floor, and I think coach Allen saw that.”

Hanessian didn’t post any statistics in three minutes, but he put a body on a far larger and more athletic opponent every time down the court, and defended the heck out of the paint.

“His number was called and he was ready. We talk a lot about being ready when the opportunity presents itself and he’s embodied that,” beams Allen.

After registering one more “DNP” Hanessian has played in the Quakers’ last three games, helping the team register three straight wins – their first three of the season. In six minutes in a 79-70 win at Binghamton, he pulled down three rebounds, before following that up with six hard minutes against Marist and his first career points.

“We need Matt to deliver, we need Matt to get underneath a ball screen, we need him to close out, we need him to box out, we need him to help us win games,” says Allen.

Hanessian, who has a job lined up working for Deloitte in Washington D.C., knows his role on the team: set bone-crushing screens, play relentless defense, and push his teammates in practice and pick them up in the locker room. He knows that as his teammates return to health, his playing time will likely decrease. But no matter what his stat line reads at the end of the year, he’s left his mark on the program.

“He’s part of this program and he’s expected to help us win,” says Allen, “whether it’s one second or 50 minutes.”

Return to OBW’s Top 20 Great Reads of 2014