The Family Hour

La Salle basketball has had its moments, but very few over the last two decades. After storming from the play-in game to the Sweet 16, the Explorers are having one now.
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“Attention parents: Do not enroll your children at La Salle University.”

So wrote Stephen A. Smith in a Philadelphia Inquirer article written on September 24, 2004.

It was just a few weeks after “the events of 2004” unfolded. On day one, two basketball players – current San Antonio Spur gunner Gary Neal and Michael Cleaves – were charged with sexually assaulting a girl visiting the campus at a party. On day two, a woman’s player came forward and said she was sexually assaulted the previous year by Flo Laraki, another men’s player.

She added that she told John Miller, her coach, and Billy Hahn, the men’s coach, about the assault. Neither said a word to anyone. Not to their supervisor. Not to the school president. Not to law enforcement. Not to anyone trained in how to handle the all-too frequent sexual assault incidents which happen on American campuses.

This was in violation of the Clery Act, a federal law put in place to ensure college campuses report sexual assaults. The three men’s players were kicked out of school. Hahn and Miller were both fired.

Naturally, there were headlines. Naturally, Stephen A. Smith took to his pulpit and took the opportunity to Quite Frankly swing his axe at a college in its lowest moment. His reasoning was that the school acted too quickly in kicking the players off the team and firing the coaches. No one was found guilty of any crime. The school acted to protect its image, Smith said, and besmirched the names of basketball players who were admittedly involved in a drunken threesome and coaches who willingly kept their mouths shut when a female came forward with an accusation. It was not the first or the last time Stephen A. Smith would write or say something so completely laughable and repugnant. He is, at least, not doing this in print, anymore.

However, it was the last time for nearly a decade that any headlines were written about La Salle University basketball, the last time anyone, aside for the few students who gave a crap and the maybe few hundred die-hard alumni and fans left from the team’s glory years, thought about the team.

That is, until this past week, when La Salle played its way from the play-in game to the Sweet 16. This week’s headlines are only about basketball, which makes sense given those games and this run, the fact that La Salle is a win away from the Elite Eight in the same season in which it finished third in the Atlantic 10. But the real story, as usual, is beneath the headlines. It’s in Philadelphia, same as La Salle.

***

La Salle University is a Catholic liberal arts school located at 20th and Olney in a section of Philadelphia that’s not quite North Philly and not quite Germantown, but still notably rough around the edges. The school has just under 5,000 undergraduate students, and feels much smaller; I know because I went there. The campus is starkly pretty and stands out amongst the fading rowhouses and spray-painted billboards of the neighborhood. It’s not Ivy League picturesque, but it’s far from commuter school brutalist.

The school’s run by the Christian Brothers, a religious order whose members take the same vows as priests but cannot serve mass. The reasoning for this is that teaching, the task God set out for them to do, should always come first; the school is named after St. John Baptiste de La Salle, the patron saint of teachers. A headline writer covering the basketball team in the early 20th century mistakenly thought it was named after the famed explorer, giving the school its nickname.

There’s a certain irony to the nickname, given that most La Salle students haven’t ventured far from their homes, generally in the surrounding neighborhoods of Catholic Philadelphia, to campus. For generations, La Salle was a school for people who were the first in their family to go to college; that has changed over the years, as Philadelphia has become less Catholic, and as the number of first-in-family matriculators has dwindled. More of the student body now comes from the suburbs or out of state. The school is still what it was in many ways, though: a Philly school where parents send their kids to do better than they did. It’s insular in the same way Philadelphia is – many La Salle professors were once La Salle undergraduates – and remains Catholic enough that some of those professors still start class by saying a brief prayer that always ends with “St. John Baptiste de La Salle, pray for us.” The worst thing one can do on a campus this small is act bigger than the world. Bill Raftery is a LaSalle alum, which should tell you something. It’s a legacy school for people who don’t need or want to have a legacy. It’s also a basketball school in a basketball town.

La Salle, more than a few times in city’s history, has been at the top of that heap. The 1952 team won the NIT, back when that meant something. The 1954 team won the NCAA Championship, then came one game from repeating the feat the next year, only to run into Bill Russell’s San Francisco Dons in the finals. Tom Gola’s 2,201 total career rebounds is a record that will likely stand the test of time. The 1969 team finished second in the polls but couldn’t compete for the title because of probation; there are still fans who swear they could have toppled the UCLA dynasty. Michael Brooks was the AP National Player of the Year in 1980 and the 1990 team, led by AP Player of the Year Lionel Simmons, ended up ranked in the Top 10 in the country, finishing with only one regular season loss.

The little, blue-collar Catholic basketball school competed with the big boys consistently. And then they stopped competing.

***

It was a well-intentioned move. La Salle had dominated the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which featured similarly small Catholic schools like St. Peter’s, Siena and Iona, and wanted a bigger stage. It was convinced, in an era of conference realignment, to move into something called the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, believing that Notre Dame’s non-football sports and other eastern schools would join up. They didn’t, which was how a Philly team wound up traveling to Wisconsin-Green Bay for games. The school eventually joined the Atlantic 10 conference but did so without any momentum whatsoever, after years in what was, with all due respect to Green Bay, a mostly literal wilderness.

La Salle never had a sizable basketball arena on its campus, part of the reason why its best teams won the hearts of the city. Its main base of operations was the venerable Philadelphia Convention Hall located in West Philly. That closed in 1995, forcing the Explorers to the Spectrum – the mammoth 18,000 seat arena that was home to the Sixers, and which was on the opposite side of the city from campus. The school then renovated its recreational facility into the Tom Gola Arena, a glorified high school gym that’s quite possibly the worst home court for any basketball team in a multi-bid conference.

And so: losing season after losing season. Coach William “Speedy” Morris, once renowned as an ace recruiter, was eventually fired. Fan interest slipped, particularly as Temple, St. Joe’s, Villanova, UPenn and even Drexel fielded good-to-great teams over that period. As the losses piled up, the connection between alumni and the school atrophied. This was reflected in the school’s endowment, and in a number of less quantifiable ways. It was palpable, and it lasted for some time. After Morris came Billy Hahn, and then came the 2004 rape scandal and something like rock bottom. And then came Dr. John Giannini.

***

Kevin Nolan graduated from La Salle in 1967. He was a photographer for the Collegian, the school’s weekly newspaper. He sat courtside at the Palestra, taking pictures of the legendary players and teams of the era.

He now lives in Auburn, Alabama. He’s kept an interest in the Explorers over the decades. However, his La Salle college sweater – the one he saved up for, the one piece of La Salle apparel he kept since his school days – had long remained in a box in the basement. When he learned the team had made the NCAA Tournament, he wrote Dr. G a three sentence letter thanking him.

A few hours later, he checked his e-mail. Dr. G had written back thanking him for his note, even as he was in the midst of preparing for his school’s biggest game in two decades.

This is a good story, but not exactly an outlier. Giannini has preached family and humility and the other virtues the Christian Brothers value, though he’s not a member of the order himself. He also instituted a new team ritual after every home game, win or lose, in which the players stand before the student section and clap together as the band plays the fight song.

He’s had mixed results during his tenure. His early teams were ripped apart by the 2004 scandal but gave a few black eyes to some bigger named schools. The teams he recruited himself had more somewhat, but not notably more, success. The 2011-12 season looked as if it could have been his last, at least according to the handful of people dedicated enough to discuss the program on message boards. Sophomore center Aaric Murray, a Top 50 recruit coming out of high school, was supposed to bring the program to a new level. Instead, he frequently screamed at his teammates and coaches. He left after the year and ended up going to West Virginia, coached by Bobby Huggins and gleefully assisted by Billy Hahn.

On the positive side, though, Ramon Galloway also joined the team. Galloway grew up less than a mile from La Salle’s campus on Bringhurst Street, a dark and narrow alleyway where homes have bars over their windows, if they have windows. He went to high school in Florida, staying with family, in order to escape the tragic nonsense of inner city life, the same intractable context and entrenched dysfunction that helped land two of his brothers in prison. He signed with South Carolina, but after his sophomore year there, Galloway got some bad news. His beloved grandfather only had a few months to live without a liver transplant; his father Gerald had also lost his vision after taking a shotgun blast to the head while beefing with someone over a loan. So Galloway came home, to be near his family and to find a second one at La Salle.

***

Galloway is the team’s leading scorer, but also its spiritual center. He also leads the team in post-game press conference answers, spontaneous breakdancing routines; he captains the team’s “All we do is turn up! Turn up! Turn up!” post-game ritual, co-opted from a Meek Mill/2Chainz song.

Gerald Galloway is at every game, surrounded by family members; despite not having sight for over 25 years, he still extols his son’s basketball wizardry to any who ask and plenty who don’t. Point guard Tyreek Duren’s family sit next to the Galloways; the TD3 t-Shirts they all wear are, they swear, not for sale.  Forward Jerrell Wright’s from South Philly, too, and while his family’s less noticeable, they’re still at the arena every game. Ty Garland’s mom is very superstitious and gets nervous during games; he made his roots plain when he tabbed the game-winning runner he hit in La Salle’s win over Mississippi “the Southwest Philly Floater.” The Garlands sit behind the La Salle bench. When the fight song is over, the Philly contingent of players flies over to get well wishes from the people who raised them.

More and more families have been joining them at games at Gola this year. This was clear when the Explorers hosted mid-major darling Butler. I stood next to my classmate Meghann during the game. Her father, an alumnus, was next to her. They both wiped away tears as they watched the student section storm the court after La Salle’s win.

***

Philly’s two local daily newspapers and two sports radio stations have barely covered La Salle basketball, even this year, save to give a quick game recap. During their NCAA Tournament run, the Explorers have made the front page of both pubs consistently for a week. Philly sports radio now spends as much time talking about the Explorers hopes against Wichita State on Thursday night as it does on the iffy shoulder of Roy Halladay; somehow, blessedly, La Salle basketball has pushed discussions about the Eagles’ potential first round draft pick out of the conversation.

The staff of the Collegian newspaper faced a bind. They traveled to Dayton to watch the play-in game against Boise State. They then headed out to Kansas City for the next round. The excuse couldn’t have been better, but this is a small college newspaper without a travel budget. They started an online fundraising campaign to get them out to Los Angeles, ended up on a few local TV channels to discuss their plight, and finally raised $9,000, a decent chunk of which was provided by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Ty Garland gave a shout out to his Cousin Bern in the same impromptu interview where he revealed the Southwest Philly Floater, one of the foremost #TrendingTopics of March Madness. Cousin Bern has now made no less than four appearances on local TV or sports radio. A Southwest Philadelphia deli has also picked up the tab to send Ty’s mom to LA, where she can watch nervously watch the game, right next to Galloway’s dad. Less literal families of convenience have come together for watch parties; one as far away as an airport bar in Istanbul, if a Facebook status update can be trusted.

Nolan, the photographer, didn’t go to anything like that. Instead, he watched the win over Ole Miss which marked La Salle’s entrance to the Sweet Sixteen from his Alabama home, and then he went down to the basement and found his old La Salle sweatshirt. He put it on for the first time since the late ‘60s. He was delighted to find that it still fit.


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