We lost one of the good guys this week – Jack Ramsay. I graduated Saint Joe’s in 1965. That year in pre-season basketball we were rated # 1 by SI. Not bad for a school with a student body of 1500. The year before I sat in Doctor Jack’s History of Education class. We talked a little basketball before and after class but once class started it was all about the subject matter. When Bob Cousy and Boston College came to the fieldhouse CBS wanted to have some say in the scheduling of Doctor Jack’s timeouts during the game. No way. The game was too important and he called the timeouts as he saw fit. Not that it mattered, Saint Joe kicked their ass.
College sports most defiant cheer came about mostly because of Philadelphia’s Big 5 basketball rivalries and Doctor jack’s influence on his team and his followers. Read these…
Jim rang the doorbell. Without a word Kyle opened the door then went back to watching TV.
“How’s it goin’?” Jim sat on the sofa in the living room.
“Everything’s cool.” Kyle didn’t turn from the TV screen.
“Who’s winning?” Diane’s father sat next to Jim.
“Penn 6 – 0. Dad, Brown stinks.” Mr. Hynes’ 11 year-old son didn’t mince words.
“Give me a break, Kyle. Brown’s my alma mater, Jim. Matter of fact I’ve got tickets for the game tonight. You interested?” Diane’s father took four tickets from his shirt pocket.
“Villanova and St. Joe play in the second game. I’d love to see that game.”
“Second row behind the team bench and the others are a little further back. Brown’s coach and I were fraternity brothers. We had lunch today. Mrs. Hynes and I have the office Christmas party to go to. I thought you might be interested.”
“Kind of late to use all four, but if Diane wants to go we can use two of ‘em ‘n’ give the others away. We’re goin’ to a party but we could go to the game before.”
Diane bounded down the stairs in a Scotch-plaid pleated skirt, white blouse, dark green sweater, and penny loafers.
“Hey yer Dad’s got some tickets for the Palestra tonight. Saint Joe Villanova, ya wanna go?”
“What about the party?”
“We can go after.” Jim nonchalantly waited to hear Diane say the right thing. The right thing being she wanted to go to the game.
“OK, let’s go. Never been to the Palestra.” Jim had told her about the Palestra because Annunciation would play there if they reached the City High School championship game. The name fascinated her. Palestra was the gymnasium in ancient Greece where the wrestlers trained for the Olympics.
“We have to hurry. Free parking down there’s hard to find. I usually take the EL with my friends.”
“I need gloves.” Diane bounded back up the stairs.
“Thanks for the tickets, sir. I’ll find somebody for the other two.” Jim put the tickets in his jacket.
“You’re welcome. You kids be back by one.”
“Thanks a lot, Dad.” Diane returned wrinkling her nose at her father gloves-in-hand. She knew he didn’t like the idea of her going to the party at Peanuts’ house.
Jim parked in a vacant lot under the 30th Street Station that his father used when they went to the Palestra or Convention Hall for basketball. Groups of down-and-out winos stood around trash cans of burning rubbish on the banks of the Schuylkill – ‘hidden river’ in Dutch, unpronounceable in English – River that separated West Philadelphia from downtown.
“Up those steps and we’re on Walnut Street.” Assuming the role of protector for his green-eyed girl Jim took Diane’s hand. They were a long way from Villa St. Mary. He led her to a black forged-steel stairway ascending to a well-lit sidewalk. A damp wind blew across Walnut St. from the north with the hint of snow. With their heads tucked into turned-up collars they turned south on 33rd Street to join clusters of people walking hurriedly to the East Coast Mecca of college basketball. Ben Franklin never foresaw vendors hawking warm roasted peanuts and soft pretzels in front of his Federalist buildings. The pace slowed as they reached an oblong edifice with illuminated brick facing and large panels of plate glass configured into a colonial arch.
Two young men stood by the doors. “Anybody got tickets?” Jim wiggled his index finger. They came and he showed the 2 tickets.
“Thanks, man. Cool seats,” The one with the tickets showed them to his buddy hurrying to the back of the line.
Jim pulled Diane by the hand. The queue moved along handing their tickets to a pot-bellied man chewing an unlit cigar butt wearing a blazer that matched the red of Penn’s Red-and-Blue crest. He was a leftover from the pre-war era when Penn recruited athletes who weren’t the “student-athletes” they boasted of in 1959.
Inside, a tiled hallway wound beneath a grandstand surrounding the hidden basketball court. Thirty years of dried sweat and rubbing liniment from past competitions scented the air. Within Penn’s wooden trophy cases turn-of-the-century lantern-jawed athletes peered stone-faced through the glass. The daguerreotypes and photographs depicted the university’s legendary football teams that were made up of the sons of Pennsylvania coal miners and Philadelphia insurance executives.
“He looks like Victor Mature in the Coliseum.” Diane pointed to the picture of a bloodied football player and followed Jim through an upward-sloping walkway that ended 10 feet or so above center court.
She was stunned by the sound and fury. “THE HAWK IS DEAD…THE HAWK IS DEAD.” The Villanova student body chanted from across the court.
“THE HAWK WILL NEVER DIE…THE HAWK WILL NEVER DIE.” St. Joe students responded behind them.
They sat down as Brown inbounded the ball Diane huddling on the wooden grandstand next to Jim. “Why are all these other fans yelling so much while the Penn game is still going on?”
“That’s the way it is. City Series’ games, especially Saint Joe-Villanova are like wars. The two schools waitin’ to play start cuttin’ on each other. It’s all part of the Big 5.”
The excitement of the crowd was more than audible to Diane it was as palpable as the bicep she squeezed sitting next to Jim. Red light bulbs showed that a little more than 3 minutes were left in the game. Penn was comfortably ahead. As the game ended a wing-flapping hawk led five male cheerleaders in crimson sweaters and gray slacks onto the court to a rousing cheer. The mascot’s outfit was a bunch of bedraggled feathers with a set of wings that seemed ready to disengage. The Saint Joe Hawk stood at the side of the court flapping his wings incessantly. Villanova regarded Saint Joseph College as a Jesuit lunatic asylum while the Saint Joe student body viewed Villanova as a playground for the wealthy followers of St. Augustine.
Another roar went up when Villanova’s wildcat mascot led ten blue-and-white clad players onto the court. The crowd noise rose again when St. Joe’s crimson and silver cheerleaders led their players from the opposite end. Diane tightened her grip. The gymnasium named after a training site in Greece took on the look of the Plains of Troy as the hawk and the wildcat engaged in a mock fist fight. Both teams finished warming up. The P.A. announcer tried to trumpet the starters’ 10 names but was drowned out in the pandemonium. The names didn’t matter, the crowd knew almost all of them from having played high school ball in Philadelphia.
The game began with Jim hunched over watching everything as if he were an artist memorizing a landscape – the coaches, players, referees, even the scoring table just to his right where white placards with red numbers were used for personal fouls. The game’s pace and quality from the beginning were inversely related – the faster the pace, the worse the quality. The opening minutes were a mêlée of mistakes and turnovers. It took almost two minutes before either team made a shot. Villanova was first with a short jumper that was celebrated by rolls of blue and white toilet paper being thrown from the stands. The game had to be stopped for several minutes until the court was cleared. Eventually the game’s rhythm was established after five minutes of misplayed fast breaks, poor passes, and traveling violations. Neither team was superior with one then the other taking the lead. As the game’s quality rose the crowd’s frenzy threatened to shatter the sweating panes of glass in the roof. The first half ended with both teams scoring 30 points and a clamor of adulation that urged them to forget the exhaustion etched in their faces.
“Ya want somethin’?” Jim got up stretching his back.
“I could use something to drink.”
Taking her hand, he led Diane back through the walkway to the outer hallway. The earlier aroma of liniment and sweat had not quite been overwhelmed by the smell of burning tobacco. Jim went to a service counter window. Diane took a spot in the hallway surrounded by young men ambling back and forth in search of the girl of their dreams meeting other young men in serch of theirs.
Jim rejoined her, reaching inside his sweater for a cigarette, but he didn’t put it in his mouth, instead he crumpled it as Coach Chandler and Mick McCloy stopped the passing parade of unintelligible conversations in front of them.
“Hey Jim. Thought you couldn’t make it tonight.”
“Hey, coach, Mick. This is Diane. She’s why I couldn’t come to the game with ya. Her Dad had a couple of tickets to the game so we decided to come here before going out with my friends.”
“Nice to meet you, Diane. I talked to your Dad this morning. You know we both went to Brown, don’t you?”
“Well I didn’t, coach.”
“He was two years ahead of me. Looks like this game will go down to the wire. Have fun.” They moved on.
“That was close.”
“What do you mean?”
“Almost got caught.” Jim showed her the shreds of tobacco he stuck in his empty orange-drink container before throwing it in the trash. “Why didn’t you tell me about your father and coach at Brown?”
“Didn’t think you cared.”
“You were right, I don’t. Especially Brown. Let’s go back.”
Both teams played to their potential at the start of the second half. The lead was never more than five points with the crowd noise getting louder as the fans exhorted one team then the other. With seven minutes left in the game St. Joe’s coach called for a time out. He sat his team on the bench, their backs directly in front of Jim and Diane. Jim leaned over as close as he could to hear the coach lay out his strategy. He told them to play a full-court press. Four in the backcourt in a two-by-two zone defense with the fifth, the center, defending the basket against breakaways. Taking his quickest guard aside he told him to remember the Villanova playmaker always went to his right with his dribble and his guard should go for the steal or the charging foul if it was there. Pressure basketball was a risky tactic, but it was the coach’s trademark; St. Joe teams were often out-manned, but rarely out-hustled or out-thought. They had won many games against more talented teams playing pressure basketball. The coach sent the team back onto the court taking a position on one knee at the bench hollering instructions as his players played out the tactic. In the final seven minutes St Joe’s forced five turnovers converting them into easy baskets. They won by five points.
In the game’s last minute the St. Joe student body began to sing…“OH when the HAWKS! OH when the HAWKS! OH when the HAWKS go flyin’ in!”
Leaving the court, Bobby Galli, one of the St. Joe guards waved. Galli had played for Annunciation 2 years before and had been Jim’s teammate in Ocean City’s Summer League the previous summer. He came over to the stands and motioned Jim down onto the court. After Jim’s congratulations Bobby said he had seen the picture in the morning paper. He called to a couple of St. Joe’s players and introduced them to Jim and Diane saying that Jim might be a teammate. Diane was impressed by her informal welcome to the in-crowd. After chatting a few minutes she and Jim meandered through the silent Palestra hallway that had become a trash man’s nightmare of discarded hot dog wrappers, empty drink cartons and discarded cigarette butts. On 34th Street the early evening’s promise of snow had been kept and Jim bought a bag of soft pretzels from a vendor on the corner.
“So I’m your girl? The reason you weren’t going to the game? Your picture in the paper’s a big deal.” Diane squeezed Jim’s hand, he squeezed back.
“I have it at home. I remember somethin’ flashin’ in my eyes when I took the shot. Blinded me for a second.” Jim chomped into his pretzel mumbling through dough that had dried out and hardened sitting in the cold.
“Your coach probably told my Dad about the party. Everybody knows what hell raisers you guys are. My Dad doesn’t want us at those parties. I’ll cut your picture out of the paper. You’re my hero.” Diane snuggled closer, vamping into the beach party girl she and Jim hated.
“Maybe my coach gave your Dad the tickets. Maybe it was a plot.” Jim offered her a bite of the pretzel.
The cold permeated their bodies. Shivering until the heater kicked in, they tore through the West Philadelphia streets and sidewalks W.C. Fields claimed were rolled-up at 9PM in. There was an empty parking space in front of Peanuts’ house with Little Richard screeching Long Tall Sally as they got out of the car. The front door was open even though the temperature was heading for the teens. There were maybe ten couples drinking, dancing, talking or necking in the downstairs rec room. Peanuts, glass in hand, staggered toward them the sweet smell of bourbon hanging over him like the cloud that accompanied “Pig-Pen” wherever he went.
“Hey, man, where ya been? Never mind, don’ answer. Ya been nice to my friend?” He wrapped his arm around Diane.
“We went to the Palestra.” Jim answered his friend’s question that was more rhetorical than inquisitive.