The news that Magee is a legend is no news in Philadelphia. It is a legend that was born in the mid-1950's on city playgrounds such as Fourth and Shunk, and in the cramped gymnasium at St. Francis de Sales in Southwest Philadelphia.
Herb Magee could shoot a basketball. Still can. He can shoot a basketball like very few who have ever attempted to perfect the art of throwing a rubber ball through an 18-inch steel rim situated 10 feet from the ground. It was that singular, natural skill that made Magee a star at West Catholic High School and Philadelphia Textile College, giving the 5-foot-9, 150-pound kid a stature in the game that belied his own.
"My earliest recollection is on that little indoor court at St. Francis and we were in, like, eighth grade," said Jim Lynam, who would become Magee's backcourt partner at West Catholic before going on to his own fame as a player and coach. "We went there and would play like four, five, six hours - and I had played with some good guys. I remember walking out and saying, 'I've never seen anybody shoot like that.' I don't know that he missed a shot in four or five hours."
Magee parlayed his shooting talent into a playing career, and then stayed at Textile to become an assistant coach, turning down at least one NBA training camp invitation in the process. In 1967, Magee became the head coach at the Division II school, which would change its name to Philadelphia University in 1999.
All these years and 922 career wins later, Magee is still there, a legend not just for his coaching, but for the stable of young coaches who prospered under his tutelage, and for his thriving side business as a "shot doctor," in demand for his clinics and private instruction on the finer points of shooting a basketball. This summer, Sixers guard Evan Turner is scheduled to be one of his pupils.
"This is tremendous for Herb," said a longtime friend, Temple coach Fran Dunphy. "He's a great friend and we all share in this, and he allows you to share. Of course, he is a character and will tell you how many points he scored. You have to be ready for that and bust on him and say, 'How many assists did you have?' It wasn't a lot."
Compiling assists was not Magee's concern. Getting open and getting a shot were his goals. Once those were accomplished, the ball did the rest.
"We'd play at Fourth and Shunk, and once Herbie came across half-court and went up for a shot, all you could do was untie his shoes while he was up there to try to mess him up," said former Temple coach John Chaney, who would later battle Magee for years when Chaney coached Division II Cheyney University. "You'd do everything dirty and bad to him, but his mechanics were so outstanding it didn't matter. He'd still make the shot."
Magee said Monday he intends to ask Chaney and Jack Ramsay, both Hall of Fame members, to introduce him at the Hall of Fame induction in Springfield on Aug. 12. Ramsay, then the coach at St. Joseph's, attended a West Catholic game to watch Lynam, whom he would later recruit to play for the Hawks. Ramsay saw a skinny guard have a great game and came away convinced Lynam would do well at St. Joseph's. The only problem was the player he thought was Lynam was actually Magee. Ramsay stuck to his original plan and says one of his great recruiting mistakes was not taking both of them.
"And as Herbie will then add, 'Who didn't know that?' " Lynam said.
Magee, whose teams have advanced to 25 Division II NCAA tournaments and won the 1970 national championship, had opportunities over the years to leave Philadelphia University and get other coaching jobs, but he had no taste for departing the city and always preferred running his own program to working as an assistant on someone else's. Plus, he was happy, he was successful, his family was around, and he didn't have anything he felt he needed to prove.
Sixers coach Doug Collins, who is on the Hall of Fame election committee and voted for Magee, has known about the coach since Collins came to Philadelphia as a rookie professional player in 1973.
"Sometimes guys who don't coach at the D-I level or are not out there in the spotlight or on TV, sometimes they get lost in the shuffle when it comes to recognition," Collins said. "But I don't know anyone in Philadelphia who has devoted more of themselves to basketball."
Basketball allowed itself a little devotion in return on Monday. Right there on national television, Herb Magee's legendary status was announced to the whole country. Maybe that news arrived half a century after it did in Philadelphia, but waiting to get your shot is sometimes the name of the game.
Bob Ford: Magee: By the Numbers
922: Career NCAA victories, making him the all-time, all-division NCAA wins leader.
44: Seasons as head coach at Philadelphia University.
25: Appearances in the NCAA tournament.
51: Combined seasons as player and coach at Philadelphia University.
2,235: Points in his college career as a player, third all-time best at Philadelphia University.
Bob Ford: A dash for cash: Early-entry players change the face of college game
HOUSTON - The college basketball season came to an end Monday night in the vast expanse of Reliant Stadium amid a cascade of confetti that also signaled the annual beginning of the NBA draft season.
There soon will be a string of fresh announcements about which early-entry players will make themselves available for the draft, which will hire agents, which will test the professional interest with the option to duck back to their schools if necessary, and which will give it the old college try at least one more time.
According to NBA talent evaluators and the best guesses of the mock drafts, more than one-third of the first-round selections will be players who have just completed their freshman seasons. Adding in a handful of sophomores, nearly half of the players in the first round will be great basketball prospects who have only begun to fulfill their potential.
This talent drain from the college game almost always affects only the best programs from the biggest conferences. Those are the schools that attract the just-passing-through players because they represent a chance to snatch some major television time and maybe some championship glory in their dash to the pros.
The era of "one-and-done" players became the norm as a result of the 2005 NBA collective bargaining agreement, which mandated that players could not be drafted until they were either 19 years old or had played one season of college ball.
The question - one highlighted nicely by the just-completed Final Four - is whether this system has hurt college basketball or helped it. On one hand, there are few great teams any longer, and the talent level, especially at the upper echelons, has been diminished. But on the other hand, it has brought about an era in which there seems to be greater parity from top to bottom than ever before, an environment in which schools from non-power conferences like Butler and Virginia Commonwealth actually can hope to advance to the Final Four.
So which is better? Great players for a longer time, and truly great teams, or the sense that anything can happen, and the little guy, with lesser players but more experience, truly has a chance now?
"With the way it is now, it's kind of like the wild, wild West. May the best team win and it doesn't have to have pedigree attached to it," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, whose perennially powerful Big East team defeated Butler, from the more lightly regarded Horizon League, 53-41, on Monday night. "If you could grab [back] some of the kids in the NBA, maybe the establishment would still be the establishment. But that's not the facts. The facts are that . . . there's an opportunity for teams. I think that's healthy."
The question of whether it is good for the overall game, however, is a different one. It is a question being asked against the backdrop of a coming labor dispute in the NBA that is expected to lead to a lockout and, in a worst-case scenario, to the loss of at least part of next season. Some underclassmen who might otherwise jump to the league are considering a return to the safe haven of college instead while the situation settles itself. That trend could mean college basketball will have a refreshingly deeper pool of talent next season and the more powerful programs will reassert themselves.
The NBA's collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight June 30, just a week after the annual draft. The issue of contention between owners and players is almost identical to the one that led to the current NFL lockout. The owners, claiming financial losses, want a bigger piece of the revenue pie, and the players would like to keep the status quo. The two sides do not appear remotely close to settling things.
Among the side issues expected to be negotiated is a possible change in the "one-and-done" rule to an eligibility system that will make basketball more like baseball. Players will have the option of entering the NBA draft right out of high school, but once they choose to attend college, they will have to remain there, or remain ineligible for the draft, for at least two, and possibly three seasons. Baseball players who opt for college after high school rather than the minor leagues must stay in school three years.
"I'm in favor of anything that encourages people to stay in college," said NCAA president Mark Emmert. "If there are changes that encourage students to stay in school, develop and grow, that's great."
Emmert, predictably, takes exception to the idea there's anything out of whack with the college game, however.
"The so-called 'one-and-done' phenomenon has taken on a bigger-than-life position in people's minds. There were last year, 14 or 15 or something like that. Fourteen out of 5,500 Division I basketball players. I would very much like to not have that become the image of intercollegiate basketball, even though there are some that do that."
True enough, but there are dozens of players in the NBA who otherwise would have been in the NCAA tournament field had they remained in school. Almost without exception, they were players from power conferences. The little guys, meanwhile, have continued to do what they have always done - build around good players who stick around.
"Two years ago, we started three freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior in an NCAA tournament game, and we weren't ready to win at that level," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "I do think the landscape has changed. I think the more juniors and seniors you have, the better. I think that's a great thing."
It has been a great thing for Butler in the last two seasons, and the trend may continue with more small programs making their marks in the tournament. Whether it is good or bad for the game is a matter of perspective, and it will take more than 40 minutes of basketball played in a football stadium to decide it.
Bob Ford: It's mutt-ugly, but big, bad UConn prevails
HOUSTON - It was a game for the record book but not the video library, as Connecticut won the national basketball championship Monday night with a nearly unwatchable 53-41 victory over Butler.
At least the ending wasn't as painfully close for the losers as was last year's attempt at the title for the mid-major Bulldogs. It wasn't one missed shot that cost them the championship, but a raft of them. Butler scored just 19 points in the second half and went more than seven minutes between field goals as UConn took control of the game for good.
What the evening at Reliant Stadium before a crowd of 70,376 lacked in artfulness, it made up in intensity, as these games tend to do, but that was a lot to make up for. The combined 41 points scored by the teams in the first half were the fewest in a championship game since 1946, back when it was hard to control the ball because the laces kept getting in the way.
But they don't award national championships on style points. They award them on scoring more points than the other guys, even if that isn't very many. Give the Huskies that much, and give them the trophy.
Connecticut's victory, and its third championship with Jim Calhoun as head coach, might not have totally erased the stigma on a program that played all season under the threat of NCAA sanctions, but it didn't hurt. Calhoun still will be suspended for the first three games of the 2011-12 Big East season because of recruiting violations. Those transgressions, and UConn's role in the title game as the big bad guy paired up against whistle-clean little Butler, didn't seem to dampen the celebration.
One thing the win certainly accomplished was some satisfaction for the Big East conference. The league placed 11 of its 16 teams in the NCAA field, but only two - Connecticut and Marquette - survived until the second weekend. A washout in the Final Four for UConn, which nearly happened in a narrow semifinal against Kentucky, would have added volume to the chorus that believes the conference was overrated this season. A national championship tends to change that kind of thinking.
"I heard some comments about our league," Calhoun said after the game, "and let me tell you, what we went through in the Big East helped us figure out what to do tonight when we couldn't make shots in the first half."
The next obvious question is whether the 68-year-old Calhoun will seize this as an opportune moment to slip into retirement. It is a question Calhoun has dodged for the most part, but he says his desire to coach basketball has not seriously waned.
"You never make a decision like that at a moment like this," Calhoun said. "But I can say that as long as I feel I can give them everything I have, I'm going to keep coaching as long as humanly possible."
Calhoun's insistence that the Huskies be better is what kept them going when they lost four of their last five regular-season games and faced a daunting task in the Big East tournament. UConn won five games in five nights, closing out that run with wins over three of the top four seeds in the league - Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville.
That run made it possible for the Huskies to be rewarded with a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and now, six wins later, with the biggest reward of them all.
"My assistants kept telling me, 'We're this close,' and I think we finally closed that gap somewhere in the Big East tournament," Calhoun said.
The gap between UConn and Butler took a while to become apparent, but it eventually did. In the first half, if you believed the popular story line leading up to the game, there was, indeed, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good was little Butler, representing all the little guys in college basketball. The bad was Connecticut, which barely avoided those NCAA sanctions that might have kept it out of this tournament in the first place. And the ugly? Well, that was the game itself.
Maybe the two teams were tight. Maybe there was some great defense being played out there. That isn't what it looked like. Whether in November in a half-filled gym or in April in a sold-out football stadium, bad basketball looks about the same.
"They did have a lot to do with it," Butler coach Brad Stevens said of his team's abysmal 18.8 percent shooting. "They guard so well that when you do finally get some open shots, you don't feel comfortable."
Connecticut came back from a three-point deficit at the half to take control midway through the second half as Butler went cold and didn't make shots for the longest time. When the score got to 46-28 with just over five minutes to play, it was over except for the scorekeeping and the sweeping up of the stadium after all the confetti fell.
Connecticut might still be bad, but the Huskies are national champions. Butler might still be good, but the Bulldogs weren't on Monday night.
Philly's basketball legend
Bob Ford: News that Magee is a legend is no news in Philadelphia. A1.
Significant numbers in the career of coach Magee. A1.
Contact columnist Bob Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact columnist Bob Ford at email@example.com and read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns
Contact columnist Bob Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/postpatterns.