Rich Hofmann: Emotions run gamut on day in Philly hoops

Posted: February 23, 2012

THEY GATHERED last night, the Temple Owls and the La Salle Explorers and every ounce of their combined intestinal fortitude, for an evening of competition. It is what they do, and what they always have done.

The gym was full and hot and loud and primed to see an upset of the Owls, ranked 22nd in the nation and reportedly about to take a step up to the Big East. The ending was timeless in its disappointment for the Explorers, as they back-rimmed two good shots at the end of overtime and lost by a point, 80-79.

The experience was wonderfully draining. The postmortem was both clinical and respectful. And then, after he was done, Temple coach Fran Dunphy left the interview room at Gola Arena and then came back a minute later, because there was one more story he had to tell.

It was from the day before, at the Big 5 Hall of Fame luncheon at the Palestra. Dunphy, who played at La Salle and coached at Penn and who has been the embodiment of Philadelphia basketball glue now for decades, was there to see inductees Matt Maloney and Marc Jackson and Kelly Greenberg and the rest, working the crowd, living the life.

"I'm hobnobbing," Dunphy said. "I'm having the time of my life, just because I know most of the room. I get to eat my meal late. I'm in the back of the room and I sit down beside Alonzo Lewis. And I spent an hour with Alonzo Lewis yesterday afternoon. Last night, the man lost his life in a tragic car accident. And I got the chance to be with that guy, a great La Salle player and a guy I admire so much as a human being. How many kids did he help along the way?"

Lewis, 77, the former coach at several schools, including Chester High School and Cheyney University, was killed while crossing the street on the way to a girls' high school playoff game at Philadelphia University.

"When I got that phone call this morning, I've got to tell you, my heart was broken for a lot of different reasons," Dunphy said. "And if I hadn't been with him for that period of time, my heart still would have been broken. But to sit next to him . . .

"There was a piece of chocolate cake. He said, 'I can't eat this. I would love to eat this, but I can't - but I'm going to bring it to my daughter and she'll enjoy it.' It just blew my mind.

"I need to tell that story because of how much I feel about Alonzo Lewis, and the quality and the character and the integrity of the man. I'm just so proud to have known him. To be honest with you, I was proud to sit there with him, so much, yesterday afternoon."

And then Dunphy left the interview room again. And we were all left to sift through the remains of another Philadelphia basketball day.

In the morning, word began to spread about the death of a legend of the 1950s, a time when La Salle was playing for the NCAA championship. In the afternoon, reports began to be published saying that the Temple athletic program was on the verge of being accepted into the Big East in all sports, a move driven by football but which would surely have basketball repercussions throughout the city. In the evening, ancient rivals met in the kind of game that mimicked a thousand others, played over the years and decades, in intensity and imperfection.

None of these three events was tied together, yet they were all tied together - because that is the nature of the place. Players stay here and coach here and live here and die here, proudly identifying themselves as basketball people in a basketball city. Teams grow here and strive here and play in different leagues and spend different amounts of money and nurture different aspirations, and they do it within a framework that forever seems to make room for these nights in the gym, for these moments that all run together.

And, so, the losing coach, La Salle's John Giannini, could honestly say, "I thought both of those last shots were in."

And, so, one of the winning players, Temple's Khalif Wyatt, could only look back on those final overtime shots by Earl Pettis and Sam Mills, and say, "Thank God he missed it . . . And thank God he missed it."

A Philadelphia basketball day, then.

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