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TAKIN' THE TRAIN

Jan. 15, 1990
Jan. 15, 1990

Table of Contents
Jan. 15, 1990

On The Scene
NFL Playoffs
NHL Soviets
Buck Williams
La Salle
Speed Skating
Seth Abraham
Point After

TAKIN' THE TRAIN

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

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

This is an article from the Jan. 15, 1990 issue Original Layout

•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.

Morris was a legendary coach for 14 seasons at Philadelphia's Roman Catholic High, but in 1981, for various reasons, he was let go by the school's principal. Rev. Edward B. Cahill. Disconsolate, he drifted around Philadelphia, from Monsignor Bonner High, where he spent a season as a volunteer assistant, to Penn Charter, a private school that hired him as coach. But in 1984, just as his son Keith was entering Penn Charter. Speedy decided to sell Speedy Morris' Drop in the Bucket, which was losing money. And to assure that his four kids would get a chance for the college education he never had, Morris became the women's coach at La Salle, which allowed his children to attend the school tuition-free.

Keith was crushed. He had dreamed of playing for Speedy at Penn Charter, and now, on the eve of his matriculation there. Dad was bailing out on him and going off to coach...girls!

Keith cried the night his father told him of his decision. Speedy wasn't exactly thrilled about it himself, yet he made the most of the move, loosing his salty tongue on the women's team and turning them in one season from a group that had gone 11-18 and lost to Temple by 50 in 1983-84 to a 22-8 team that beat the Lady Owls 77-68. After a second 20-win season, in '85-86, and the resignation of La Salle men's coach Dave (Lefty) Ervin—Ervin is righthanded, and Morris isn't speedy; you've probably noticed a pattern here—Morris was put in charge of the men's team, and Keith, now a college sophomore, got to play for his dad after all, or at least ride the bench for him.

Within a month after Morris took the job, Simmons, a star at South Philly High, chose La Salle after getting virtually no interest from any schools in the Big East, who simply underestimated him. During his freshman season, Simmons beat Villanova with a buzzer shot in an NIT first-round game. As a sophomore, in a loss to North Carolina in the Dean Dome, he went for 37, the most any collegian has ever scored there. By last season Simmons had settled into a groove so comfortable that, he says, "on my worst night I knew I had 25 in my pocket before the game started."

Even as the L-Train was gathering steam, he still stopped for passengers. The first was point guard Doug Overton, a former teammate of Kimble's and Gathers's at Dobbins—"I'm used to passing the ball," Overton says with a smile—and the 1987 Public League Player of the Year. Then the 1988 Player of the Year, Randy Woods, came aboard. Along the way, Morris hustled up a center from Holland, Milko Lieverst; three-point shooter Jack Hurd; and Bobby Johnson, a spindly-legged sixth man who had been a high school teammate of Simmons's.

Simmons, who's only a shade over 6'6", is a frighteningly efficient player who forces nothing, even though very few plays in La Salle's motion offense are run expressly for him. Last week at Temple he confronted two 7-footers and a matchup zone and took only 10 shots. But he made seven, including all four of his three-pointers, and five of six free throws for 23 points—this despite having had fluid drained from his mouth that afternoon because of an abcessed tooth. "A galliant effort," said Morris, mal-appropriately.

Let loose against Loyola Marymount, Simmons had 34 points and 19 rebounds, but he was so weakened by the pain in his swollen mouth that he air-balled four free throws late in the second half.

Last spring Simmons was told by one NBA team that he could expect at least a $2 million, four-year guaranteed contract if he were to leave school early. But he returned to La Salle to make good on a promise to his mother, Ruth, to get his degree; Simmons majors in criminal justice. (Mama didn't raise a fool, either; a cousin dipped into his savings and lent Simmons $10,000 to buy a $1 million insurance policy with Lloyd's of London, to cover him in case of a career-ending injury.) He'll likely score more than 3,000 points before the end of his collegiate career, becoming only the fifth collegian to do so, yet he hasn't once scored more than 40, which delights Morris. "He could score 40, but if he did, I don't know if we'd be 8-1," Morris says.

Says Simmons, "People already know I can play. I don't have to prove anything."

If Simmons were all the Explorers had, they wouldn't have beaten three Big Five rivals and such distant powers as DePaul, Ohio State and Florida so far this season. Last week against Temple, Woods wandered out for the start of the second half and, long before the official showed up to hand the ball to Temple to inbound, found Macon, the Owls' star. He went chest-to-chest with him, staring up into his eyes, as Macon looked away, irritated. "I just wanted to let him know what it was going to be about," says Woods. Nearly 20 minutes of basketball later, after Macon had gone 2 for 8 in the second half against Woods in the La Salle box-and-one, Macon missed the free throw that would have tied the game.

Despite successes like the Explorers' against Temple, Westhead wonders whether the basketball programs at places such as Loyola Marymount and La Salle aren't susceptible to delusions of grandeur. "Over the years La Salle has come up with a player to string it out," he says. "They always seem to pull a rabbit out of a hat. [Or a forward, anyway—Tom Gola, Ken Durrett, Michael Brooks and now the L-Train, All-Americas all.] It's good fortune. The misfortune is that people tend to think you're not doing well when the miracle isn't there anymore, when in fact real life finally sets in."

Then, speaking as much for his Lions as for the Explorers, Westhead says, "This may be a fleeting moment. You have to enjoy it while you can."

Which leads him back to the Palestra. "There's a famous speech in King Lear, where Lear says, 'Reason not the need....' Basically, that's what's going on here. There was more to that place than what served individual interests. Collectively, it was marvelous.

"When he was founding the nation, what did Ben Franklin say? That if we don't hang together, we will surely hang separately.' "

It was a hot time in the old town last week. But to paraphrase another Philly fellow, "On the whole, I'd have rather been in the Palestra."

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERSimmons chugged for 34 points against Loyola Marymount but ran out of steam.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERThe Lions' Tom Peabody kicked up a fuss as Overton searched for an open Explorer.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERLa Salle's local talent: (from left) Overton, Woods, Simmons, Johnson; (front) Morris.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERSpeedy, whose Explorers play relatively slowly, is fast to shed his coat and tie.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERDespite a duo of 7-foot Owls, Simmons got 14 rebounds.