La Salle bubbling with excitement as game day nears

Posted: March 28, 2013

Anna Allen, assistant dean of students at La Salle University, doesn't understand why enrollment goes up when a school's basketball team is successful.

"It's weird," she said. "But it's true. And we're going to capitalize on it."

Prospective students are receiving video links showing behind-the-scenes footage of the players and their coach from this season's underdog NCAA tournament run. The camaraderie. The inspirational pep talks. The sweat. The thrills. The awesome musculature.

The hope, said Allen, is that anyone interested in attending the 3,200-undergraduates university will see beyond the athletics and into the heart of a community that cares about all its students.

"Every bit of school spirit needs a catalyst," she said. "And basketball this year is the catalyst."

À La Salle alumna, Allen is married to an alum and sent both her children there as well. Her brother and two of her brothers-in-law went to La Salle. So did her father-in-law. And her son's godparents.

"It's not an accident," she said.

The allegiance, she said, surely did not stem from the university's basketball team, which has not had this kind of season since she was a student in the 1970s.

Still, a record for great community service just doesn't get anyone's heart thumping quite like this.

Strange, that a bunch of students running back and forth in a gym and throwing a ball through a hoop can have such a powerful impact on so many people, in so many ways.

Inducing women with graduate psychology degrees to line up in a crowded college bookstore on a sunny spring day to buy armfuls of T-shirts emblazoned "Sweet Sixteen" on the chest. At $19.99 apiece.

Inspiring alumni nurses and bankers and accountants and lawyers to attend parties in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and the entire Philadelphia region - just so they can watch a college basketball game that starts at 10 p.m. on a weeknight.

Infusing undergraduates with milk-of-human-kindness magnanimity towards total strangers, as long as said strangers are rooting for the same team.

And, perhaps strangest of all, influencing high school students to apply for admission to a small liberal arts school run by an order of Roman Catholic brothers, to study such un-basketbally subjects as organic chemistry, business, and philosophy.

The day before the La Salle basketball team was scheduled to play the next critical round in the NCAA tournament, the university's campus in Northwest Philadelphia burbled with school spirit.

"Put the ball in the hoops! Get that score!" said Phyllis M. Smith, a nine-year veteran of the dining service. Standing behind the cash register in the food court, the grandmotherly Smith jumped six inches, flung her arms overhead, and cocked her wrists, mimicking a slam dunk.

"We've come a long way," she beamed, upon landing. "A mighty long way."

Pride in the La Salle Explorers saturated everyone who has had contact with any of the team members - and many who have only seen them on television.

"I'm with them all day out here," said Joe Kitchen, a white-bearded security officer. Nodding toward an empty counter, Kitchen said, "They eat lunch right over there on those stools."

Brother Ed Sheehy, now in his 25th year at the university, was basking in the reflected glory as he prepared to catch the charter flight to Los Angeles for the Thursday night game - along with the cheerleaders, the band, the university president, and other school officials.

Sheehy, a history professor, faculty adviser, and game moderator, and the team chaplain, remained loyal through 13 straight losing seasons.

"I don't do it because the program wins," he said.

Winning, however, does nudge him over certain self-imposed boundaries.

He has made it a policy to never miss teaching a class, unless he is forced to by a board of trustees meeting. He's absconding, however, for the Thursday game.

His students in "Themes in American History" and "U.S. History, 1877 to the Present" will have to settle for a substitute professor.

Sheehy said he already worked out the rough outlines for the prayer he would lead to inspire the players.

"I will pray that we play with enthusiasm, with effort, and with energy. As I always remind the team, they're still the same fine people whether they win or lose. Obviously, I prefer to win. But God has other issues," he said. "So I never pray for a win."

Winning, in one way, will make life complicated on a campus that shuts down for Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter, and Easter Monday.

Dorms, fortunately, will remain open, said Allen. And any conflicts that arise with religious observances will be up to each individual to resolve.

Students say they can't think of anyone at La Salle who hasn't felt the frisson of March Madness.

But surely, someone must be beyond its reach. Someone from a distant land. With an antithetical culture.

Someone, perhaps, like Rawah Baz, a 24-year-old married student from Saudi Arabia who arrived on campus three months ago to study English?

Don't be absurd, said Baz, clutching her head-covering a little tighter beneath her chin. "If they win the match, all of people will be happy for that," she said. "I am so proud of that."

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or or @dribbenonphilly on Twitter


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