11 hours of driving, 40:00 of Hoops—Merry Christmas

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11 hours of driving, 40:00 of Hoops—Merry Christmas


It’s about 6:15 a.m. Saturday and my co-pilot, my brother-in-law, Roger, and I are about fifteen minutes south of Syracuse on Rte. 81. The Liacouras Center, home of the Temple Owls and our destination, looms four hours away.

We have watched as the temperature gauge on the dashboard has steadily dropped from a, what seems now, balmy 21 degrees to five. We continue on through the snow belt of Central New York, our surroundings go from a foot accumulation of snow to ice covering every tree branch along the roadside.

While the snow to ice transition should indicate a positive trend, I am uneasy what we might encounter.

The seeds for today’s journey were sown a month ago when Rey responded to one of my pre-season NCAA hoops articles. The Temple grad mentioned an interest in attending the Owls match-up with the Tennessee Volunteers.

I couldn’t resist.

The thought of catching an A-10 / SEC game and adding a gym to my collection of arenas-attended was too much for me.

Of course a month ago the average temperature was in the 40s, and the thought of the daughter playing a game the night before did not play a part in my decision. I also couldn’t have known that the daughter’s game would get started late and when it was all said and done, I wouldn’t fall asleep until after midnight.

4 a.m. came way too soon.

All of that doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that any vehicles problems will force me into single digit temperature.

I am questioning my sanity—driving five and a half hours to watch 40 minutes of hoops—only to turn around and make the trek home.

I am doing everything to keep those thoughts as just that—thoughts. Verbalizing these ideas can only work as a negative.

Soon after daybreak the phone rings. It’s Rey. We check our coordinates and make tentative plans for meeting in Philly.

After our conversation ends it occurs to me—that talk accomplished nothing. We shed no new light on the day’s plans. Rey was only calling to make sure I would follow through with my intentions. Yeah—he too is questioning the sanity of all this.

Couple hours later we are in northern Pennsylvania; Roger and I stop for gas.

It’s 15 degrees outside. As I am opening the door, I’m expecting the air to cut through to my bones.

Much to my surprise it doesn’t feel that bad. I know this sounds crazy, but 15 degrees can actually feel warmer than say 28-34 degrees. Usually when it’s below 20 the air is at least dry. The nasty precip that comes with 28-34 makes the situation twice as bad. Just a theory.

As we continue south on Rte. 476 the ice and snow slowly disappear. Cars and trucks of hunters dot the roadside, and I am thinking of the final scene from Deer Hunter. Robert DeNiro, after a failed attempt to retrieve his buddy from Vietnam, is back in the familiar haunts of Pennsylvania. He is tracking a deer through the woods of Pa. He has his prey in his sites when the deer turns and looks at him. “Okay, Okay…OKAAAAAAAAYYYYYY!”

10:45 We meet up with Rey and Michael in northern Philly. After a brief exchange of introductions and pleasantries I can’t help but comment about Michael’s UNC hooded sweat shirt.

“Hey Rey, I didn’t realize it was ugly sweat shirt day.”

We load into Rey’s vehicle and head for 1776 N. Broad Street (great address isn’t it?)

Rey: (at first speaking to Michael) “Didn’t I tell you he would say something. That took you about :30 to make a comment about his NC shirt.”

It occurred to me at this point that my crass comment has actually broken some ice. Rey and Michael have obviously discussed my Duke allegiance. If I had not said anything, they would have been uncomfortable the whole time wondering what was up.

The topic of the Big Five is one of our first conversations.

How is it that Drexel is not a part?

I am realizing the importance of Philly in the hoops landscape, and that I have been irresponsible in waiting this long to attend a game in the "City of Brotherly Love."

I mention to Rey that I have the game notes for today’s game if he needs.

Rey: “I don’t need to know anything else about my team. We have a seven footer who can’t do anything and no guards.”

Conversation proceeds into how Temple’s back court is going to get exposed by the Volunteer press.

After a rather serpentine trip through the streets of Philadelphia, Rey gives up searching for a parking spot and opts for the on-campus parking garage—more on this later. 40 minutes ‘til tip off—I am not gonna complain.

As we are walking, Rey points across the way to a school and notes that Rasheed Wallace attended there.

I take the bait and go into a rant about how Wallace and his former Tar Heel teammate, Jerry Stackhouse, are punks and in Stackhouse’s case—overrated.

Rey gets me to admit that I have respect for Roy and the Tar Heels.

Inside Liacouras and Rey is waiting at Will Call for tix. Michael with as big a grin on his face as you can imagine: “He says you are pretty good at punting a basketball.”

Amazing. I coach a guy for how long, and the only story he can relate is how I blew a gasket one day and decided to play punt the ball into the ceiling.

We find our seats—about 19 rows behind the Temple bench on the foul line.

We have spotted Bill Raftery with his court side seat. Nervous discussion ensues considering the possibility of Raftery using "with authority" while referring to Wayne Chism and Brian Williams.

Rey: “After driving this far I just hope we don’t embarrass ourselves.”

Yeah it’s safe to admit it now that we are in our seats, and both of discuss how little sense it makes for us to have made this trip especially if Temple gets blasted.

One way to encourage student participation at games—keep the fight song simple.

“‘T’ for ‘Temple U’ U-ni-versity! Fight, fight, fight! For the Cherry and the White, For the Cherry and the White, We’ll fight, fight, fight!” Throw in some choreographed hand motions and you have spirit.

Works for me.

Interesting color contrast—the cherry red of Temple mixed with the Tennessee cream-sicle orange—a little lacking in aesthetics.

Tip off—Temple gets possession.

Scotty Hopson and Wayne Chism are not in the starting lineup for the Vols. Word is they missed team breakfast. What are the chances of a college student missing a meal?

Lavoy Allen gets the rebound and put back. Temple up 2-0.

Tennessee misses the first of 26 three-point attempts. Important to note – the Volunteers only took 25 shots inside the arc.

Ryan Brooks gets the ‘bound—gives it up—gets it back and scores at the other end. Temple 4-0.

Another Volunteer possession and another attempt from behind the arc—Brooks again with the rebound.

At the other end Sergio Olmos (the "seven footer who can’t do anything") finishes. Temple 6-0. Bruce Pearl calls a time out. We stand up and cheer. I can’t help but think we are doing this because it may be our last opportunity for the day.

Three more Volunteer possessions—two more three-ball attempts and still nothing.

Olmos finishes another layup. Rey is at a loss for words. 8-0 Temple.

“One way to beat the Tennessee press is to not let them score, so they can’t set it.”

With that in mind I’m thinking one Volunteer bucket could lead to two more.

We need a pulse-finder for Semaj Inge. The Temple guard appears completely detached from the events on the floor. Rey is calling for his removal.

Guess the penalty has been served. Hopson comes off the bench and scores.

Dionte Christmas responds with a three. Rey sends his first of many text messages that read: “Merry Christmas.” The Vol fan on the receiving end has to figure he’ll get the last laugh.

Despite a few field goals Tennessee surprisingly doesn’t press.

11:00 mark—Renaldo Woolridge knocks down two free throws and the feeling is it just a matter of time before the Vols break this one open. They have been showing some token pressure, but not getting any turnovers yet.

With Olmos swatting everything that comes his way the Owls score the next seven.

Tennessee responds with a pair of field goals.

Unintentional comedy moment of the game—shot clock running down, ball ends up in the hands of Olmos who launches from behind the arc…nothing but back board.

TV time out: Temple by three.

At the break Rey and I discuss the logic behind the Temple dance team—Co-eds scantily clad using the most provocative of dance moves while Def Leppard’s "Pour Some Sugar on Me" plays in the background. I’ve gotta guess (and it would only be a guess) that if you surveyed 100 strip joints across America and asked what songs are the most popular in their clubs—Leppard’s little ditty would rank in the top five.

Rey: “Why don’t they just send them out there with brass poles and complete the scene. I can’t imagine any of their fathers are here. If they are, they’ll be leaving at halftime.”

7:00 Christmas joins Allen on the bench with two fouls.

Two minutes later Christmas returns. Unified breath-holding permeates Temple nation.

For the next three possessions the Volunteers go well into the shot clock, but not by design. The perimeter continues passing the ball around while the interior runs a lifeless flex cut. Tennessee players can be seen looking over to the bench during a possession as if to say—what are supposed to be doing?

One minute later Christmas gets tangled on the baseline and rolls his ankle. Not looking good.

Olmos scores five in the last four minutes of the half. Bobby Maze launches another Volunteer three-point attempt. The long rebound kicks to Inje who leads Luis Guzman and Temple takes a nine-point lead at half.

Not that I needed any evidence to the fact that Philly sports are harsh. But at half time a fan is pulled from the crowd for a three-point shooting contest. The challenge is to make as many in a minute as possible, but the contestant has to rebound his own shot. The guy behind us is giving the contestant a hard time for not hustling after his rebounds—only in Philly.

Rey: “Pearl has just been feeling them out. They wanted to see how Temple would break the press.”

Tennessee scores on the first possession of half and slaps on the press.

Temple guards make three quick passes and cross half court. Nice response

Christmas’s ankle looks fine. He knocks down the next nine for Temple including a sweet dunk—Owls by 12.

Allen is on the bench with four fouls as well as Michael Eric. Fran Dunphy has to go small. The 6’4” Inge is covering 6’10” Brian Williams. Suddenly the kid who played the first half devoid of a pulse is stepping up.

Williams stops during a possession at one point, tries to get his teammates attention by pointing at Inge while doing his fairest Keysahwn Johnson and calls for the ball.

With all five fouls to give Inge makes the transformation into a man.

Pearl has taken off his coat and reveals cream-sicle colored suspenders.

One minute later he gets a technical.

Not sure if it was something he said or the suspenders.

Christmas knocks down three consecutive threes—Temple by 15.

Timeout Tennessee.

At this point I am realizing my dream match-up would be Temple and Davidson. Dionte Christmas and Stephen Curry on the same court—WOW! (In case you’re keeping count that is eight consecutive basketball articles that I have mentioned Curry).

The Temple band starts jamming and stops.

Student section:”Oh oh we’re halfway there. Oh oh we’reliving on a prayer.”

I have a momentary lapse of reason and confuse the Bon Jovi song with a Neil Diamond song. Rey brings me back to my senses. The excitement is getting to me. EVERY time Christmas touches the ball the excitement is palpable. People start buzzing even when he takes the ball out of bounds.

After another Christmas trifecta the Owls have a great possession and work the ball inside to Allen who has Williams pinned on his hip. Allen turns and finds Olmos at the foul line.

As the ball is in mid-air from Allen to Olmos, Rey is yelling: “No, don’t settle for that!”

Olmos releases—nothing but net.

Everything is falling for the Owls.

Inside a minute remaining the student section readies itself to rush the court. Rey declares that anyone over 25 cannot rush the court.

The final horn sounds. Temple 88 Tennessee 72.

Rey: “I officially approve of the Dunphy hiring.”

There are at least two fans on the court that are drawing from the Social Security fund that I am contributing to but will probably receive none of in return.

We stroll from Liacouras with steak in mind. Lines are too long and we decide against victuals. Off to the car.

Remember the parking garage decision?

After waiting in our spot for 20 minutes and still not moving—Rey: “Why did I settle for this spot instead of searching the streets?”

Another theory: When you have a five+ hour ride after a game, you might not want to park on the third floor of a five-floor garage.

Luckily the experience doesn’t pass without some drama.

A sports car cuts off an SUV and accelerates before slamming the brakes about 100 feet later. Guy in the SUV takes exception and decides to take matters into his own hands—gets out of his car and approaches the other vehicle. Fortunately there was a sudden movement in traffic, and the altercation was avoided.

Roger: “City of brotherly love, huh?”

It all works out though. Roger and I get on the road and are home by nine. Just in time to meet the better half and younger daughter at Paddy’s on the corner of Latta and Long Pond for the second half of Xavier at Cincinnati.

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