La Salle basketball team is Daily News 'Sportspersons of the Year'

Posted: December 27, 2013

IT WAS AN hour after La Salle had won its third NCAA game in 5 days. The interviews were over. The locker room was empty. The bus was waiting to take the team back to its hotel in Kansas City. Plans were being finalized for an airplane trip to Los Angeles the next day for a Sweet 16 date with Wichita State in 4 days.

John Giannini realized at that moment he had not taken a single second to savor what his La Salle team had been doing from Wednesday in Dayton to Friday and Sunday at the Sprint Center. There simply had been no time. They would win a game and start to prepare for the next game.

Before he left for the bus, Giannini "forced myself and my staff to appreciate it."

They walked back near the court and "just stood in the empty arena for moment and talked about where they came from"; about assistant Horace "Pappy" Owens' "days as an AAU coach"; or Giannini's "days as a grad assistant or as a Division III player" or "any of us on our staff."

"There are very few people who start at the highest levels of the sport," Giannini said. "In this 20,000-seat arena where you just won to go to the Sweet 16, it was an important moment. It was a moment that I'll remember."

Ramon Galloway, Tyreek Duren, Sam Mills, Tyrone Garland, Jerrell Wright, Steve Zack (even though injured and unable to play in the NCAA Tournament), D.J. Peterson and the rest of them had lured the great Lionel Simmons and long-lost fans and most of the city along for the ride. Once again, the basketball program, so great for so long from Gola to Durrett to Brooks to Simmons to Overton and Woods and then lost in the basketball wilderness for 20 years, had become a source of pride.

It is for that and so many other reasons that the 2012-13 La Salle basketball team was voted Daily News Sportsperson of the Year.

The story of the year came fairly close to not happening at all once La Salle lost on the Friday of the Atlantic 10 Tournament to Butler, its NCAA inclusion anything but certain. The Explorers would have to wait out a very long 48 hours before Sunday's Selection Show.

"I had a reliable source that made me feel very good about our chances, but when the first three regions went through and our name wasn't called yet, I was wondering whether my source was wrong," Giannini said.

When the NCAA Tournament has been your goal for as long as you can remember and your team had earned its way in during a terrific regular season, only to stumble in the final regular-season game against the eventual conference champion (Saint Louis) and then lose in your first league tournament game and your school had not been invited in 21 years, doubt has to creep in.

"We had some people lose that we needed to lose," Giannini said of Championship Week. "We got a little bit of help. I felt good, but it was nerve-wracking waiting for the last region."

Then, La Salle-Boise State in the First Four appeared on the television screen.

"It's hard to appreciate from the outside, but we had been trying to do this for a long time," Giannini said. "To finally reach your goal is an ecstatic moment. I think ecstasy would be the best word to use. We were beyond happy."

There are only 37 at-large spots each year. Typically, around half of them are spoken for by power teams before the season ever starts. So, essentially all the other teams that don't win their leagues are fighting over 20 invitations. Do the math. With 345 eligible Division I teams, 300 are fighting over those 20 spots.

"People really underestimate how hard it is to get into the NCAA Tournament," Giannini said. "One of the impressive exercises is to go through the list of who does not make it every year, and that is a great way to realize how hard it is."

La Salle was No. 36 on the at-large board, two spots from No. 38. And out.

The cool thing about the First Four is that once you are in, you just get to play games. And you are rounds from playing a No. 1 seed. If you are good enough, you can win games and get to play more games.

La Salle was more than good enough, beating Boise State and Kansas State with its speed, creativity and shot-making ability and then taking down Mississippi with its toughness and Tyrone Garland's "Southwest Philly Floater."

There was nothing fluky about it. La Salle was a very good team in 2011-12 and again in 2012-13. The Explorers had been building to the moment, and when they got the opportunity, they embraced it and showed on a big stage what anybody with eyes had been seeing on a much smaller stage.

From that Wednesday night in Dayton until that Thursday night in the Staples Center, La Salle basketball owned the Philadelphia sports scene. The legendary Tom Gola was on the cover of the Daily News on the day of La Salle's first game, and the Explorers were still there the day after their last game.

It has always been the Big 5, but for a generation, La Salle had really been the Lost 1. Its great basketball tradition had been hidden on a shelf, but this staff and these players made it not only relevant again, but magical.

"It creates an enthusiasm and a sense of pride and level of exposure that really you can't get any other way," Giannini said. "I think it was great for all of La Salle. You just hope that when you invest in men's basketball that you get those benefits as a university and I was just thrilled for everyone that it played out that way."

The coach has never looked at any of the four NCAA games. He had no time last March or inclination now. There is simply the next recruit to follow, the next practice to plan, the next game to play.

"I'll save that for way down the road," Giannini said. "I also have a hard time watching our games, emotionally. If it's a bad game, I find myself getting upset all over again and, as a coach, you really need to move on. Some coaches can watch their teams analytically. I just have a hard time doing that."

And there is also this.

"I don't think watching those NCAA games on TV can do the live memory justice," Giannini said. "I kind of like remembering it the way it happened."

One day years from now, Doctor G will watch those four games, even the one that ended the season against Wichita State. He has already imagined it.

"If I'm lucky enough to live on a lake and it's too rainy to go fishing, that would be a great way to spend a rainy afternoon."

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