On the edge of the Saint Louis University campus sits a palace.
A basketball team plays in this palace, which cost $80 million to build and has promotional signs for season tickets plastered all over it. Once you pass the Market Street exit on Interstate 64 (or, as the locals call it, "Highway 40"), the palace's bright lights, glass windows and brick exterior become immediately visible. It is a magnificent sight, especially during a night-time drive. It's the kind of palace you might find in Lexington, Ky., or Chapel Hill, N.C., or any major college basketball city for that matter.
But surely not in St. Louis. Not for the Saint Louis University Billikens, who play below the Red Line in the Atlantic Ten Conference. Our Game is supposed to be modest, played in a world without fancy arenas, luxury boxes and rich boosters. That's the beauty of the Mid-Majority.
So how could a contest between Saint Louis and Temple, located at the multi-million dollar Chaifetz Arena and televised on the national CBS College Sports Network, be a part of Our Game? Keep driving on Highway 40 and you'll find your answer.
Drive past this palace in Midtown St. Louis and keep going until you hit downtown. You'll start to see more palaces. You'll see the gloomy Edward Jones Dome, where a bad NFL team plays its games. You'll see a retro-style red-brick building named Busch Stadium, where a historical baseball team plays its games and won the World Series this fall. You'll see the Scottrade Center, where the St. Louis Blues drew thousands of fans a night for 41 home games. If you were really brave and hopped on Interstate-70 to drive west in the opposite direction, you'd reach Columbia, Mo., in less than two hours, where the state's flagship university has a basketball squad that plays in a 15,061-seat palace called Mizzou Arena that puts Chaifetz to shame.
And as you keep driving, you'll start to realize that SLU athletics are a forgotten part of St. Louis' sports landscape. With so many professional teams to worry about, St. Louisans don't know the Billikens from the Kangaroos of Missouri-Kansas City. They know that SLU is a smallish, Jesuit university with a basketball team. And they know that this particular basketball team hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since the turn of the millennium.
With this in mind, I walked into Chaifetz Arena on Wednesday feeling firmly below the Red Line. Just because I wasn't in a high school gym didn't mean this game was any less pure for the 800 Games Project. With both teams in contention for an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament, I also felt as though I'd walked into a big-game atmosphere when I settled into my seat on press row about 90 minutes before tip-off. Since I was covering the game for a college basketball website called Rush the Court, I thumbed through all of the media materials to make sure I was well-versed on all the important information, like how many points per game the walk-ons average and what the backup point guard's assist-to-turnover ratio is.
After about five minutes of that, I got bored. So with 85 minutes remaining until the 8 p.m. tip-off, I had a lot of time to kill. That's fine with me. I always arrive to sporting events early, especially college basketball games. I like to watch warm-ups, and I like to watch the managers and assistants lounge around and occasionally embarrass themselves in pick-up basketball games.
But on this night, as I scanned the arena, I saw something I'd never seen before. I looked up in the third row of the stands behind the Temple bench and saw head coach Fran Dunphy relaxing. Normally, the coaches hang out in the locker room until right before tip-off. But there Dunphy was, looking like a normal John Doe. And guess what? He was reading the same media stuff as I was. It was like a seventh-grader cramming for an exam five minutes before the teacher hands it out, except Dunphy could probably have recited the tendencies of every Saint Louis player on Rick Majerus' roster in his sleep here. In this case, he probably just had nothing else to read. He probably also wanted to know what the backup point guard's major was.
Dunphy is known as a master tactician -- an old-school, throwback kind of coach, just the way I like them. And in many ways, that's how Majerus is too. He's a little more edgy than Dunphy, but by all accounts he's still a nice man and a mastermind of a basketball coach. Although Temple and SLU have terrific players, this coaching matchup is what I'd been waiting all week to see.
As expected, both coaches had their teams ready to play. It was a physical battle without many foul calls, much to the crowd's displeasure. Temple led by two at the half and extended its lead in the second half to nine points, thanks to a tough offensive stretch for the Billikens and a quick four-guard attack by the Owls that exposed SLU in a major way. The Bills cut the lead to one in the final few minutes -- twice, actually -- but they never took the lead. They just couldn't get a stop. And when Temple's Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson threw down an alley-oop with less than two minutes to play, the game was all but over.
Six sentences. That's all I needed to really recap the game. It took more more than 1,000 words to recap the game for Rush the Court, and I enjoyed every minute of writing that piece. But even as I watched Temple and SLU play each other from strictly a basketball perspective, I found these two coaches much more fascinating. Since my press row seat was near the basket and about 15 feet from Dunphy, I observed him during the game.
Had he known some college kid was looking at him all game, he probably would have called security. But this wasn't one of the SLU cheerleaders I was eyeing. I just wanted to get inside the mind of this basketball genius. After I saw him sitting in the Chaifetz Arena stands before game-time, looking as though he were just another random fan thumbing through statistics-- I just had to know what that man must have been thinking about.
When Dunphy re-entered the court for pregame introductions, he looked as poised as can be. Fran Dunphy, after all, has coached more than 600 basketball games for both Penn and Temple since 1989. This one game, on this one January 11, 2012 night, was just one game among many for Mr. Dunphy. That explains the bland expression, I suppose.
When Rick Majerus took the floor, he immediately found Dunphy. They spoke for about 60 seconds and seemed to have mutual admiration for each other. Majerus then said goodbye and shook the hand of every Temple assistant. I have also never seen a coach do that before.
When the SLU game operations crew blared the team's intro video, Dunphy didn't crack a smile. He looked a bit tired, even a little bored. More accurately, though, he looked prepared. When the game began, Dunphy started to show his emotions. As his team struggled early, he got down on his knees at one point to observe the game, almost as if that would bring his team good luck. It did.
Dunphy rarely made any notable movements on the sideline, mostly pacing back and forth. Sometimes, he'd sit down or go to his knees again. Every once in a while, he would have an outburst at a player or official. As this intense, physical battle took twists and turns for 40 minutes, Dunphy never changed his tone.
That's also exactly how his team played. When SLU led by a modest seven points early in the first half, Temple responded, and when SLU cut the lead to one late in the game a couple of times, Temple responded again.
On the other end of the court, Majerus looked the same way. But he doesn't sit down much. He just stands there, almost as though he's a scientist observing his test subjects on the court. He's poised and prepared, too. His team just didn't play as well as Temple on January 11.
When the final buzzer sounded, a few Owls raised their arms in celebration. Nobody was going to go hang a banner back in Philly for the win, but this was the win Temple needed to get back on track in a wide-open Atlantic 10.
As the players exited the court and the press conferences wound down in the bowels of the stadium, Chaifetz Arena became quieter and quieter. After a few hours, only myself and two other writers were still working in the press room. Eventually, I left those two behind and headed for the exits.
As I walked away from Chaifetz toward the parking lot across the street, I took one more glance at this palace. It looked peaceful, even after a loss for the Billikens. That's because there is no pressure on the palace. The Bills are not the Rams, Cardinals, Blues or even the University of Missouri. They will not ever get enough attention in this city because they don't have a large or rich enough fan base to get front-page headlines. But that's OK. In fact, it's better that SLU stay under the radar in St. Louis.
Someone's got to stay under the Red Line in this city, after all.
TEMPLE 72, at SAINT LOUIS 67 01/11/2012
TEMPLE 11-4 (1-1) -- R. Nyakundi 6-15 0-0 14; R. Moore 7-14 4-5 18; K. Wyatt 9-13 1-1 22; R. Hollis-Jefferson 6-7 0-1 12; A. Lee 3-5 0-0 6; J. Fernandez 1-8 0-1 2; A. Brown 2-4 1-1 6; W. Cummings 2-2 1-2 6; T. DiLeo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-53 7-11 72. SAINT LOUIS 13-4 (1-2) -- K. Mitchell 6-16 0-0 16; D. Evans 6-10 2-4 14; B. Conklin 5-9 2-4 12; K. Cassity 1-5 0-0 2; C. Ellis 3-8 0-0 8; J. Jett 4-9 4-4 12; M. McCall 0-1 0-0 0; R. Loe 0-2 1-2 1; C. Remekun 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 26-62 9-14 67.
Three-point goals: TU 5-7 (R. Moore 0-1; K. Wyatt 3-3; A. Brown 1-2; W. Cummings 1-1), SLU 6-16 (K. Mitchell 4-7; C. Ellis 2-6; J. Jett 0-2; R. Loe 0-1); Rebounds: TU 24 (A. Lee 9), SLU 32 (D. Evans 8); Assists: TU 11 (J. Fernandez 4), SLU 11 (K. Cassity 3); Total Fouls -- TU 13, SLU 17; Fouled Out: TU-None; SLU-None.