Making family, basketball history

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Several stories exist in my family involving the epic failure on my part to produce entertainment from something that otherwise sounded like fun. 

One involves the Brown Bay Trail on a vacation in St. John. It was a beautiful, interesting hike through two climate zones in the Caribbean. It was also long, hot, dry, mostly uphill and an up-close look at how some people enter a United States territory illegally and leave their belongings in the forest. Another time, I took everyone to see Rick and Rick’s Christmas Variety Show which was more like two guys, an angry ex-wife, a teenage daughter, really bad senses of humor, even worse costumes and a karaoke machine.

Those trips make us laugh. They also make me hesitate to plan another outing. But I do it anyway.

“Hey, do we have anything going on Saturday after Nolan’s swim practice?” I asked at the dinner table Friday night. “No? Oh good. I’m not saying it’s going to be great, it might be terrible, but does anyone want to go to a basketball game in Philadelphia?”

Then I had to explain. The trip wasn’t to Villanova or Temple or the Palestra. I did not score Sixers tickets. The Globetrotters were not in town.

I told Sam and Nolan all about Herb Magee. The coach at Philadelphia University needed one win to become the second men’s basketball coach in NCAA history to reach 1,000 wins – about a week after Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski did it. The Division II school was playing Post College from Connecticut at 4 Saturday afternoon and I could get tickets.

We could see history.

“Is this going to be like the Brown Bay Trail?” someone asked.

I assured the inquisitor that no, it wasn’t, though I really wasn’t sure. I’d never been to Philly U, which used to be Textile. I really had no idea where it was. I had read several cool articles about Magee – how he’d been at Philly U as a player or coach for more than 50 years. I knew he was a shooting consultant for NBA teams, how he could make 30 consecutive free throws blindfolded, how he’d stayed in one job at a small school in a career that rewards nomads who bounce to bigger things at every opportunity.

Sam isn’t exactly a sports fan, but she likes college basketball the most (she says it has nothing to do with once dating a Drexel player), which made the trip plausible. Nolan said he’d heard about Magee on SportsCenter a few days earlier, which really helped my cause. 

So we went. To see history.

The gym was packed with former Magee players, dignitaries including former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, little kids in jerseys, senior citizens, alumni, young girls in cheerleader outfits. We sat on single slivers at the ends of three rows of bleachers, on an aisle. They seemed like the last seats in the place, until the aisle filled in with students. It was loud, uncomfortable, raucous and wonderful.

Befitting a team trying to win one for their coach, Philly U started slowly. Shots were tentative. The offense was ragged, the defense a step behind. The Rams had lost by two points four nights earlier, on the first attempt at the milestone, and through the first few minutes you could see the tension increase and the rim get smaller.

Post led 22-11 midway through the first half and the Brown Bay Trail flashed through my brain. We weren’t going to see history. This team we had no connection to was going to lose. This man we didn’t really know was not going to get his 1,000th win. We were going to go home disappointed and we certainly weren’t coming back on another night.

Magee called a timeout, then another, and the ship began to straighten. The student section picked up the cue and got really loud – hassling the Post players, chanting Magee’s name, twirling giant Herb Magee face posters and getting on the referees. Shirtless dudes with letters and numbers on their chests led cheers. A DJ blasted music during breaks in the action. The cheerleaders did their routines.

A college basketball game might be the only platform where it’s OK to accuse someone of abusing his wife – in a rhythmic chant: “The ref . . . the ref . . . the ref beats his wife.” It sounds awful, we didn’t really mean it, it was funny at the time and I’m sure he’s a nice guy.

Philly U rallied, and took a seven-point lead into halftime then steamrolled the second half. At one point, the Rams made four unanswered three-pointers as part of a 17-0 run and led by 29. There were dunks, daggers, blocks, an avalanche of good basketball. Our neighbors, smelling of sweat and alcohol, picked up a “Start the buses – clap, clap, clap-clap-clap” cheer and we laughed, smiled and saluted the team and Magee.

When Magee, who rarely gets beyond the starting five, finally cleared the bench the place erupted in cheers. When the horn sounded with an 80-60 win, Magee had made history – joining Krzyzewski (who coached at Army in addition to Duke) in an exclusive class.

Magee reached the milestone his way. The man played at Textile, set a record with 2,235 career points, graduated in 1963, then simply stayed – first as an assistant coach and later taking the head job. He’s in his 48th season as head coach. The court is named for him. There’s a bust of him in the lobby. Banners flutter in the rafters to recognize achievements – his induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, 80 consecutive home wins, a national championship in 1969, a remarkable 27 NCAA tournament appearances and on and on.

The game ended with a court-storming – this is Division II so it was more like a court stalking – and free T-shirts until they ran out (Nolan got one). University President Spinelli Jr. presented Magee with a commemorative basketball, which had sat on the scorer’s table all game and unfurled one more maroon banner from the rafters. Holding his basketball, standing on his court, smiling under his trademark mustache, Magee spoke to the crowd and said something simple and powerful.

“I always said my whole career the most important thing to me was to put a great team on the floor as a representative for you young people who go to this school so thank you for your support over the years and especially tonight,” he said. “One of the reasons we won that game was because of the fan enthusiasm, especially from our students. Thanks again and thanks to everybody. I really appreciate it.”

Then he headed off to a (small) press conference and life as a Division II basketball coach. We went to dinner at Winnie’s in Manayunk, safely absent of another Brown Bay Trail moment.

NOTES: Attendance was a sold-out 1,366 . . . Philly U’s bench scored zero points and each of the five starters had at least 15 . . . The Rams are 17-6 (11-3 in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference) with five games to play . . . Magee was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1963, but broke his fingers before training camp and returned to college as an assistant coach. He was 25 when he became head coach . . . Magee was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011 . . . Check out a Philly U slideshow from the game.

Special thanks to Philadelphia Inquirer writer Mike Jensen, who helped make sure we got tickets. He covers college sports and has written several quality articles about Magee. Some of the highlights by Jensen and others over the years:

Jensen on the record-breaking game.

Jensen on Magee’s visit to Eastern State Penitentiary, where his uncle was the chaplain. 

Bob Ford on Magee’s Hall of Fame induction.

Ray Didinger on Magee back in 1991.