After a long wait, it's La Salle's turn
A school that in many ways embodies its city aims to recapture the glory days
PHILADELPHIA -- Bob (Boop) Vetrone grew up at the knee of legendary Philadelphia sportswriter Bob (Buck) Vetrone.
Buck, who practically raised the Big 5 from its infancy, was Philly's Forrest Gump -- the guy was everywhere. Between his popular "Buck the Bartender" columns and hours logged on a Palestra bleacher, Buck saw just about every major event in Philly or involving the city's teams.
Devoted to the Big 5, he was a fan of all the schools, but La Salle held a special place in his heart -- it's where he worked last, as a sports information director, from 1982 to 2003.
His son isn't much different. Boop works at the Philadelphia Daily News (his dad wrote for the now-defunct Bulletin), has forgotten more local sports trivia than most people know, and roots for any team that has an office or a campus in the city.
But he loves La Salle just a little bit more, mostly because of the school's generosity in spirit to his late father.
When the Explorers beat Ole Miss on Tyrone Garland's now-famous Southwest Philly floater, there were a few people I thought of, Boop among them.
Turns out, Boop didn't even see the shot -- well, at least not until Tuesday, after television replay restrictions were lifted and he could catch it on YouTube.
Boop, who had heart surgery last summer, checked into work early on Sunday afternoon. It just wasn't his day. Too much work to do, someone inadvertently tossing his lunch from the refrigerator and Temple's crushing loss to Indiana conspired to elevate his delicate heartbeat, so he had a co-worker drive him to a nearby hospital.
Between the emergency room activities, he never saw any of the game's second half and didn't know the Explorers had won until his wife casually walked in and said, "Oh, La Salle won by the way."
"Like that happens every day,'' Boop said. "That's like saying a meteor is about to hit Earth.''
That Bob Vetrone Jr. didn't see the biggest La Salle shot in six decades about sums up the past six decades of La Salle basketball.
Back in their heyday, the Explorers won nine NCAA tournament games in a row, rolling to a national title and all the way back to the championship game the following year.
Of course, Tom Gola led that heyday run.
He's 80 now.
In between the magical years of 1954-55 and last week, La Salle had won exactly two NCAA tourney games -- the last one, a first-round game, coming in 1990 with Lionel Simmons.
Meanwhile, every one of the Explorers' Big 5 brethren has had its moment, or moments, in the sun: Temple made a pair of Final Fours and had five other runs end in the Elite Eight; Villanova won a national championship in 1985 and went to the Final Four in 2009; Saint Joseph's ran through a magical undefeated regular season and all the way to the Elite Eight in 2004; even Penn played in the Final Four in 1979.
"It can be any little school anywhere in America that's doing this,'' Boop said. "But to do it in a city with five other Division I schools, from a less-than-auspicious neighborhood, it's really special.''
Six programs call the Philadelphia area home -- Villanova, Temple, Drexel, Penn, Saint Joseph's and La Salle.
In a lot of ways none fits the city's flavor, personality and tortured sports history (one pro championship since the Sixers' NBA title 30 years ago) better than the Explorers. There is plenty of spit and polish in Center City, but at its core, Philadelphia is a proud blue-collar town with a slight inferiority complex.
Stuck between New York, the financial hub of the world, and Washington, D.C., the political epicenter, it has plenty of historical juice but is still something of a civic middle child.
That's La Salle, too. The university's campus is pretty, but stuck in the rough Olney section of the city, and the players are blue-collar John Giannini finds, not blue-chip divas.
Even better, the Explorers are led by a trio of Philly guards in the truest sense of the word.
Garland, Ramon Galloway and Tyreek Duren grew up in Philadelphia (though Galloway finished his prep career in Florida) and play like the prototype. It's hard to explain who a Philly guard is to an outsider.
You know one when you see him. He's a kid who grows up on the playgrounds or in the rec centers that dot the city -- the Myers Rec Center at 58th and Kingsessing is where Garland honed his "Southwest Floater" -- and then spends his summers in the Sonny Hill League.
Plenty of times, he's undersized; always, he's the toughest.
Jameer Nelson and Kyle Lowry are some of the more recent examples of the species. Before them, local kids Doug Overton and Randy Woods led La Salle to a 49-12 record in the two years they played together.
A Philly guard is really kind of what the city is, an overlooked underdog who may lack the finesse and the flair of some of his peers but who will never back down from a challenge, never walk away from a fight.
Some terrific athletes have called this town home, but never endeared themselves because they lacked that trait. Others, pariahs outside of the city, are beloved here for working hard.
Ricky Watters had an incredible football career. Here, he's still the guy who said, "For who? For what?"
Donovan McNabb? Puked in the huddle at the Super Bowl.
Allen Iverson? Who cares if he practiced and was an off-court debacle? He played hard.
La Salle is Iverson sans issues -- undersized, underfunded, and at least if you go by the seed, an underdog.
It may have taken the Explorers almost 60 years to have their moment, but now that they've arrived they're definitely making the most of it.
"Look, we're never going to be a Final Four contender every year,'' Boop said. "They may not always be the top team in their league. But every couple of years, you get your shot. They'll never forget this.''
And neither will Boop.
Even if he was a little late to the party.
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