La Salle uses NCAA tournament run to steal Philadelphia's heart
6:50 AM, Mar 27, 2013
La Salle has this little thing it does in the locker room after a win. A huddle of jumping players is the best way to describe it, a pogo-sticked, smiling pack of blue, if you will.
There's a chorus, as well, to the postgame bounce that goes like this: "Turn it up! Turn it up! All we do is turn it up!"
Well, the Explorers have being doing just that -- and singing their hearts out -- all month.
With three NCAA tournament wins already in their pocket, the Explorers -- who have led a basketball renaissance that has captured this proud basketball city which houses their campus -- are the talk of the town.
Turn on the radio, it's La Salle basketball. Thumb through a newspaper, it's Explorers Extra in news and sports sections. Walk down the streets, you'll see people wearing blue and gold.
Coach John Giannini is at the head of this train. It's his sense of realism and his way of getting the most out of his players that has helped to orchestrate the run. After one of those recent celebrations, he briefly settled his team before he got the exuberant bunch to holler some more as he credited several Explorers.
"We're rolling, baby," Giannini told them. "This is what you work for. We're bringing it back. Right now, we're one of the best teams in the country."
Giannini then addressed the man in the grey La Salle T-shirt, blue hat and glasses sitting alone in a locker a few feet away from the frivolity.
"With that man right there," Giannini said, pointing to his right, "they were 30-2, best record in the country. It's all coming back."
He was talking to Lionel Simmons.
Before this streak, and two decades of darkness, Simmons made the small-school Explorers a big-time program. With La Salle enjoying its deepest tournament run since the 1950s, the L-Train is back along for the ride. Simmons, the 1990 AP Player of the Year, has become a regular at La Salle's games and traveled with the team from Dayton, Ohio to Kansas City, Mo., and now Los Angeles as its biggest fan on this improbable win streak.
Simmons' presence is a blazing reminder that La Salle wasn't always one of the bottom programs in Philadelphia and invisible on the national scene. Led by Hall of Fame standout Tom Gola, the Explorers were NIT and NCAA champions in the 1950s. Paul Westhead coached them to tournaments in the 1970s. Simmons rocketed them to the national rankings in The AP poll for the final time and their last NCAA tournament win.
Indeed, La Salle's had a heyday or two.
It's the lean stretch, though, that defined the program once the L-Train followed tracks into the NBA. The Explorers had 12 straight losing seasons from 1993-2008. There was an ill-fated move to a Midwestern-based conference, and the Explorers tried to make do without an on-campus arena -- an enormous handicap -- the caused the program to spiral downward. La Salle bottomed out in 2004 when three players were charged with rape and both men's coach Billy Hahn and women's coach John Miller resigned, throwing the athletic program into disarray.
Enter Giannini, who led Rowan (N.J.), in the Philadelphia suburbs, to the 1996 NCAA Division III national title. Thanks to a patient administration, Giannini molded the team into a winner. He led it to the NIT last season and now the first tournament since 1992.
"The guys really believe in him and like him, and I think that's why they play hard for him," Simmons said.
Giannini has to sell La Salle recruits on his vision because there's not much else to see on campus. The Explorers don't play in a historic gym or a modern palace funded by corporate dollars. In fact, calling Tom Gola Arena an arena is a bit of a stretch. It's a gym. More like a high school gym plopped on a city campus. Gola is actually on the third floor of Hayman Center and seats only 3,400 fans. Even then, sellouts are rare. And parking is free, which is not a common thing to see anywhere in Philadelphia.
The arena's namesake, however, demands reverence.
Gola is college basketball's leading rebounder with 2,201, and led La Salle to the 1952 NIT title and 1954 NCAA championship. He was a five-time All-Star in his nine-year NBA career, which included four seasons with the New York Knicks and a championship with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956.
Now 80, Gola lives in a nursing home and is in poor health after a serious fall in 2004 put him into a coma. He later had a stroke and has everyone connected with La Salle -- and the city's rich basketball history, actually -- pulling for him as much as they are the Explorers.
"He was as invincible a man as I've ever been associated with," former La Salle captain Fran Dunphy, now the coach at Temple, said. "It's been hard to take for all of us who admired him so much. We've just felt bad that he wasn't the same guy."
Gola also coached La Salle from 1968-70 and went 37-13. His 1968-69 team was 23-1 but was ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA violations that had occurred under a previous coach. When the school needed Gola to aid the program from the bench, he came through in a pinch.
"I get the sense that he wanted to be valuable to La Salle in the day," Dunphy said. "I think he valued what La Salle gave to him as a player and student, so to give back to his alma mater at a time of great need was very important to him. He wanted to do what was right.
"The greater good would always be served by Tom Gola."
Without him, La Salle made spotty postseason appearances for most of the next 20 years. But starting in 1987 under coach Speedy Morris, the program found its stride. NBA-caliber talent like Simmons, Doug Overton, Randy Woods and Tim Legler put them in the tournament four times and the NIT once from 1988-92. La Salle, which hit No. 1 in The AP poll for two weeks in both the 1952 and 1954 seasons, ended the 1989-90 season 30-2 and ranked 11th.
"We had some great players on those teams and I was just proud to be part of restoring La Salle basketball back to a nationally-known team," Legler said.
Then La Salle collapsed. The program left for the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, joining a league with Illinois-Chicago, Cleveland State, Wright State and the closest road game about 600 miles away. They left The Palestra for the Civic Center, then the Spectrum, where dreary crowds became the norm.
And some airballs on top recruits also helped to bury the program.
With Simmons rooting them on, though, the Explorers are back and busting brackets. The 13th-seeded Explorers (24-9) were one of the final teams announced when the field was announced. It was a grueling wait -- for an hour, plus 21 years -- that led to a raucous celebration at their watch party. La Salle and VCU (2011) are the only First Four teams to ever reach the round of 16.
The Explorers play ninth-seeded Wichita State (28-8) on Thursday night.
"As a guy that played there, you want to feel proud about what the program's doing," Legler said. "It's tough every year when March Madness rolls around and all the former players you know around the league are talking their schools in the tournament, and you've got to keep quiet."
Quiet? Not now. Former players are puffing their chest, the current ones are dancing. Heck, one fan even brought a homemade sign to a WWE event Monday night in Philadelphia that said, "Lesnar Fears La Salle."
Maybe heavyweight Brock Lesnar wouldn't want to face these Explorers. Turns out, not many teams in basketball would want to these days, either.
"It took a lot longer than we'd have liked," Simmons said. "But it makes it that much more sweeter."