"The guard tower was right there," Magee said, "and these guys screaming at you, right here. No pressure."
Did his team win?
"We did win, but they were pretty good," Magee said of his first visit. "We had some good guys on our team, older guys. I played on an independent basketball team. Guys who hung in bars, like the Cherry Tree Inn, the Pennsylvania Railroad Post. I was probably the youngest guy on the team. . . . They weren't intimidated coming here."
'I can feel his presence'
The group was invited to play at the penitentiary by Magee's uncle, Father Edwin Gallagher, who had been Eastern State's Catholic chaplain. Before going out to the court, Magee had stopped in what was the chaplain's office.
"I can feel his presence," Magee said in that room.
Magee was at the prison because he is chairing a May 9 fund-raiser designed to reopen his uncle's office to the public. Closed as a prison in 1971 after 142 years, Eastern State is now a museum of sorts. You can see Al Capone's old cell and imagine how the place was in 1829 when it opened, surrounded by fields. When Magee showed up to play, there would have been about 1,100 prisoners in the place.
The chaplain's office offers its own surprise. There are religious paintings all over the plaster walls, done in a one-year span in the 1950s by a convicted armed robber. The story goes that Father Gallagher had seen a painting on the wall of Lester Smith's cell and invited him to paint more scenes in the chaplain's office. Many of the paintings are deteriorating, and the goal is to restore them as much as possible.
The largest painting in the office is of the communion of saints. ("There are people in purgatory. These are people on earth. These are saints," pointed out Eastern State president Sally Elk.)
One of the men portrayed in purgatory had his arms lifted in a position in which you could almost imagine him taking a jump shot.
"Do you think this was me?" Magee quipped. "Was he painting me?"
'The finest man'
Until Eastern State contacted him last year, Magee hadn't known about the paintings or about Lester Smith, but this endeavor is important to him.
"My uncle was the most influential man in my life," Magee said as he stood in his uncle's old office. "He was the finest man that I knew, and the finest man I've ever met in my life. He's the reason that I am what I am today."
Magee's mother had died when he was 12 and his father when he was 13. He was one of four brothers living at 45th and Baltimore. Another uncle moved in, but it was Uncle Edwin who was in charge, visiting twice a week either from the prison or, later, a parish assignment at St. Michael's in Fishtown.
"When he came home, he was all business," Magee said. " 'Let me see your grades. What did you do here? When's your next game? We're all going to say the rosary.' "
If Magee won a big game, the priest would slip him a $10 or a $20 bill.
"He was always on the scene, Uncle Edwin. That's, like, one word - UncleEdwin, " said Herb's brother, Chas. "We had three uncles. One other lived at the house. We're Irish. . . . Every Irish family has one crazy guy. That was [Uncle Joe]. He never left the house."
Uncle Edwin was the boss, the reason the family held together, and all the Magee brothers went on to successful lives.
"I would do whatever he asked me," Herb Magee said.
Now the winningest college basketball coach in history, with 960 career victories, Magee also came to play at the prison one other time when he was in college at Philadelphia Textile, as Philadelphia University was called then. St. Joseph's was going to play there. Magee's friend, Jim Lynam, asked whether Magee wanted to join the Hawks, who included his buddy Jim Boyle.
He remembered the name of one opposing player.
"Biggy Small. He was this big," Magee said, indicating Biggy was smaller than him. He remembered when Biggy was asked whether he wanted to take a picture with Hawks coach Jack Ramsay and the players. Biggy was fine with that.
"He was like, 'Man, I've got nowhere to go. Where am I going?' " Magee said.
Magee doesn't remember the details of either game he played inside the prison.
"Guys back in West Philly could play, even guys who didn't play in college," Magee said. "They use the word 'spacing' now. We did that without even talking about it. There were screens being set. There was stuff being run. It wasn't just whoever had it, shot it. We played good team basketball."
As for the prisoners, "My recollection of the game, I was impressed with their athletic ability but not with the way they played."
They were more of a pickup team, he said, uncoached but competitive.
As for how Magee fared personally?
"Knowing me, I probably took the most shots," Magee said as he stood in the old prison yard.
For more information on the May 9 fund-raiser at Eastern State, contact Shanna Lodge at 215-236-5111, ext. 24.
Basketball coach Herb Magee talks about his return visit to Eastern State Penitentiary in a video at www.inquirer.com/magee. An image gallery is also available.
Contact Mike Jensen at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @jensenoffcampus.