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Alexander Wolff
January 15, 1990
Lionel (L-Train) Simmons has carried La Salle to the top of Philadelphia's Big Five
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January 15, 1990

Takin' The Train

Lionel (L-Train) Simmons has carried La Salle to the top of Philadelphia's Big Five

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Knowledge of several important distinctions was crucial if you were in Philadelphia last week:

•The Auto Show was at the Civic Center. The Train Show was next door, in Convention Hall.

•The local guy they call Speedy coached the slow team. The local guy who would just as soon curl up with a good book coached the fast team.

•Goode is the name of the mayor. Basketball in this city—last week, anyway—merited a more dynamic adjective than that.

Four members of what is known in Philly as the Big Five hosted four spotlight games over five days. First, Seton Hall, an interloper from New Jersey, beat the locals from Villanova 67-64 at the Wildcats' duPont Pavilion. Then the next night, at Temple's McGonigle Hall, Lionel (L-Train) Simmons of the Owls' inner-city rival, La Salle, sank two free throws, and Temple's Mark Macon could only match one of them, in the final seconds of a 63-62 La Salle win. The defeat was the Owls' first at home in 28 games. Last Thursday, St. Joseph's, which had won one game all season, dedicated its refurbished field house with an effort for the ages, a 99-96 loss to Loyola Marymount that was decided when a Philly kid who's leading the nation in scoring, 6'5" Greg (Bo) Kimble, heaved in a 35-footer off his right shoulder as the buzzer sounded. By last Saturday, after Loyola Marymount had completed its cross-country journey by going into Convention Hall and handing 17th-ranked La Salle its first loss in nine games this season, 121-116, Philly had gorged itself on a city wide hoops feast.

Not a bad week, as weeks go. A capacity gathering of some 3,900 people saw La Salle's win over Temple. One of them was Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead, who quipped, "I left at the half, when it was 63-62." About 3,200 fans squeezed into St. Joe's gym to watch the Hawks and Lions.

Alas, basketball in Philadelphia will never be the same now that La Salle, St. Joe's, Temple and Villanova have abandoned the brotherly confines of the historic Palestra on the University of Pennsylvania campus, which for years had served as the Quaker Meeting House for the game in this town. For reasons that distill to ego, one-upmanship and money, each of the schools came to feel it had to have its own home court, preferably on its own campus. In L.A. people get vanity license plates. In Philly they get vanity hardwood floors.

Loyola Marymount's two stars, Kimble and Hank Gathers, both graduates of Philly's Dobbins Tech, had counted on performing at the Palestra in at least one of their two games on their East Coast swing. So had Westhead, who played at St. Joe's, coached at La Salle, got his master's in English lit at Villanova and did other graduate work at Temple, but has always considered the Palestra home. "I belonged there," he says. "The greatest achievement of Philadelphia basketball is what happened in the Palestra. When you get something like that, you should preserve it at all costs."

It was in the late '70s in the Palestra that Westhead committed the first apostasy that has since evolved into the radical 100-points-plus-per-game offense the Lions call the System. While coaching La Salle against Temple, he became irritated that the Owls, who led, were holding the ball against his zone defense. In an attempt to entice Temple into taking a shot, Westhead sent one of his defenders to his offensive end of the court, leaving the Owls' offense to play five on four. Still Temple held the ball. So Westhead sent another defender downcourt. Five on three, but still no go. Only when La Salle repositioned a third defender, leaving the Owls to go five on two, did Temple finally shoot. The Explorers didn't win, but that night, inside the red-brick-and-sandstone building on the banks of the Schuylkill, Westhead discovered that there's always a way to force the tempo.

As the Palestra era passes, it's comforting to note that the best team in the city, La Salle, is the Philly-est of the Big Five. Four of the Explorers' top six players are from within the city limits, and their coach, William (Speedy) Morris, teethed on cheese steaks. Otherwise, Morris couldn't be more unlike Westhead. He's one of the few basketball coaches in Division I without a college degree, he used to own a bar, and he still lives in a Roxborough row house. Morris reams out his players so severely and in such earthy terms that the school's administration once asked him to watch his mouth during games—"I'm not smart enough to remember all their mistakes and tell them at halftime," he says, "so it all just comes out"—yet he blesses himself as free throws go up. And he does a fury-fueled striptease as the game unfolds. In his first season, while coaching against Villanova, he split his pants while doing some sideline acrobatics.

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