Past and present collide as La Salle basketball comes full circle

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Jerrell Wright and La Salle won their first NCAA tournament game in 19 years by beating Boise State. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Jerrell Wright and La Salle won their first NCAA tournament game in 19 years by beating Boise State. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

DAYTON, Ohio -- Lionel Simmons was here tonight to see his alma mater, La Salle, win its first NCAA tournament game since his own final season in 1990, bringing everything full circle. The Explorers, owners of a national championship won on this day 59 years ago, producer of three national players of the year, were finally back in the national discussion for a good reason after two-plus decades of disrepair.

A proud program with deep roots in Philadelphia basketball tradition, La Salle started to tail off after Simmons and fellow NBA player Doug Overton left, with a move into the newly formed Atlantic 10 hastening the decline. By 1992-93, they were 14-13 and they subsequently had 12 straight sub-.500 seasons after that, the last of which was current head coach John Giannini's first year. The program also made national news in 2004 when star guard Gary Neal was accused of (and later acquitted of) rape and ultimately transferred to Towson.

Giannini's rebuild project in West Philadelphia has had fits and starts, but he has cobbled together an entertaining roster heavy on athletic, slashing guards. He's seen some of the struggles and is well-versed in the school's history, so after the Explorers ran and shot their way past Boise State here Wednesday night, he tried to add some perspective on the historical significance of the victory.

"I've gotten texts [in the past] from Tim Legler, Doug Overton, Rasual Butler," Giannini said, speaking of some of the school's players who have gone on to NBA careers. "Unbelievable tradition here. I think people have tended to [forget] what a basketball power La Salle was for like four decades, so it's a big deal. It's a big deal to reestablish that."

While Simmons may not be the most distinguished player the school has ever produced—Tom Gola, after whom the school's current gym is named, is a Hall of Famer—he's definitely the best and strongest modern link to the program's glory days. Simmons is the only player in NCAA history to score over 3,000 points and grab over 1,100 rebounds, and he sits third on the all-time Division I scoring list behind Pete Maravich and Freeman Williams.

In that 1989-90 season, Simmons poured in 26 points a game for a nationally ranked team that ended up 30-2 and swept the Big Five when that really, really meant something. They may be better recalled, though, for being tied to some of college basketball's most memorable moments.

The Explorers, criminally underseeded as a 4-seed in that NCAA tournament, ended up losing their second-round game, 75-71, to Clemson. That's the same Clemson team that ended up being immortalized by Tate George's full-court catch and buzzer-beating turnaround jumper.

And, of course, that Connecticut team was beaten two days later by Christian Laettner's second-most famous NCAA tournament buzzer-beater.

A couple weeks earlier, though, Simmons was a central character in one of college basketball's saddest (and eventually greatest) stories. Philadelphia, just as it is today, is an extremely tight-knit basketball community. Simmons, a hometown kid who stayed home to play, was close friends with Hank Gathers, who left the city to eventually land at Loyola Marymount. Everyone knows the story of Gathers, who collapsed during a West Coast Conference tournament game and died on the court, and of those Lions, who rode fellow Philadelphian Bo Kimble and a wave of emotion all the way to the Elite Eight.

Fewer know about Simmons, who was informed of Gathers' death during La Salle's MAAC tournament semifinal against Siena. Devastated by the news, Simmons was unable to continue playing, and spent a good chunk of the game on the La Salle bench, towel over his head, heaving with sobs. It remains one of the most poignant hidden moments in the sport's history.

Twenty-three years later, the program has a new moment and the ability to look forward, in the immediate present, toward a date Friday in Kansas City against 4-seed Kansas State. It's a winnable game, especially if the Explorers shoot anything close to the 63.3 percent they made tonight. But just getting to it, to the main draw of this NCAA tournament, is momentous for this program. Tonight, the past and present came back together, creating a lasting memory for a new generation of Explorer fans and smiles for the older ones who remember Simmons, Gola and when La Salle basketball mattered.