Familiar faces join Explorers on game day

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Steve Zack at practice Wednesday after being cleared to return from foot injury.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Steve Zack at practice Wednesday after being cleared to return from foot injury.
Posted: March 29, 2013

LOS ANGELES - Game-day morning and the first person I see in La Salle's hotel lobby is Steve Zack. A good sign is that the 6-11 sophomore, who was just cleared to play on Wednesday after suffering a foot injury early this month, has sneakers on (as opposed to a fitted walking boot) and appears to be walking well. He admits the foot is sore after he ran a little bit on it for the first time in a while Wednesday. Playing appears to be a long shot, but Zack just wants to be in uniform and experience the thrills the great run has provided as a player, not as a bystander. But doing too much too soon could risk further injury, and no one wants that.

It's about 10 hours before game time and coach John Giannini has watched some more film but now is just relaxing in his hotel room, looking over some notes and trying to grab some down time before gathering with the team at breakfast in about a half-hour. We talk about many things, few of them relating to basketball. It's a good diversion for the coach, no doubt, as just about every minute of every day lately has been nonstop basketball.

At the team breakfast, players begin rolling in and are their usual selves - joking with one another, throwing down the food like healthy young men can - not a hint of nervousness.

Brother Michael McGinniss, the university president, makes it to breakfast after flying in the night before on a chartered plane along with the band and cheerleaders and others. "Funny thing happened," he says. "We get on the plane and they said midway through we'd have to stop and refuel. Guess where we stopped? Wichita, Kansas."

It is yet another funny travel story of many. The team, for example, flew to Dayton for its play-in game in a chartered plane formerly owned by the Miami Heat. "That plane was awesome," says academic adviser Christine Cahill. The next plane, from Dayton to Kansas City, also was chartered, but far less luxurious than the first. To get to Los Angeles, the team flew commercial. If it meant advancing, they'd bus across the country.

There's an hour before the team will have a light walkthrough at the University of Southern California practice facility, and Cahill pulls up an email sent to guard Tyrone Garland from a father in Kansas City. Turns out Garland had stopped and signed his son's basketball and chatted. The email says that the whole family has now become La Salle fans, even ordering sweatshirts. Garland immediately responded to the email, leaving his address for the boy in case he ever wanted to communicate.

The short walk to Galen Center draws laughs as Cahill points to a huge banner hanging over the street promoting a production of "Cinderella." If there is a word that puts Giannini in a frenzy, it's that one. To him, Cinderella means a team that doesn't belong in the Sweet 16. His team does. Nevertheless, we all get a chuckle at the banner, knowing how much it would irritate the coach if we say anything.

The walkthrough accomplishes what it was intended for: to reacclimate the team with its offensive and defensive assignments. It's a quick hour session and the team heads back to the hotel for a few hours of rest.

In the lobby stands Roland "Fatty" Taylor, a starter on the 1969 La Salle team that went 20-1 and is considered the best Big 5 team of all time (Kenny Durrett, Larry Cannon, Bernie Williams, Stan Wlodarczyk and a sub named Fran Dunphy). Taylor was a defensive specialist on that team (so don't bring up the 52 points that Calvin Murphy scored for Niagara against La Salle at the Palestra the season before).

Appropriately, guard Sam Mills is waiting nearby at the front desk for some help. Giannini calls him over and introduces him to Taylor. "Sam, this is Fatty Taylor. He was a defensive specialist on the greatest team in Big 5 history. Much like you, defense came first." Mills is thrilled to meet Taylor and listens intently as Taylor talks.

Taylor now lives in Denver and was planning to get to Kansas City for the games there, but a snowstorm changed that plan. "There was no way I was going to miss this," he says. "I couldn't be happier for coach and the players and the university."

Nearby, Kale Beers is beaming. The radio voice of the Explorers for the past 17 years and a 1995 graduate of La Salle, Beers has been through a lot of tough stretches during his time at 20th and Olney. Now the associate director of athletic development, Beers can't hide his excitement for the school.

"I've been associated with the school for 21 years and this is so rewarding," he says. "There have been some tough times through the years with the basketball program, and many really good times, too. But this is incredible."

Few bleed blue and gold more than Beers. It's no wonder the smile has been ever present here.

The small lobby is hopping with alums, each getting a handshake and a "thanks for coming" from Giannini. In all, about 400 tickets have been dispersed by the university. Former players Lionel Simmons and Chip Greenberg are in town, as well as former assistant coach Rich Prendergast. Many walk the streets here wearing La Salle garb.

One final tidbit that Giannini likes to share: His alma mater, North Central College in Naperville, Ill., has produced two Division I basketball coaches. Besides himself, the other is Gene Smithson. Smithson coached from 1978 to '86 at - you guessed it - Wichita State.

On Twitter: @BobCooney76

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