Game 005: Auburn 80, at Temple 78Friday, November 19, 2004
Liacouras Center - Philadelphia, PA
I never attended Temple
University. It was a close call, though - when I moved to Philadelphia back in 1997, I looked long and hard at TU as a transfer option. I mean, it's a great school. But my girlfriend at the time made her position very clear on the issue after our initial campus visit, which ended with an intensely uneasy walk through the tough streets of North Philly to get back to our parking lot.
"If you transfer here, I'll never come visit you," she told me once we were safely locked inside the car, her voice quavering. "This place scares the shit out of me."
So I ended up going to Drexel
instead. What could I do?
I remember that those were the headiest of days for the basketball Owls, way back when. They'd dominated the Atlantic 10 Conference for most of the Nineties, and had been to the NCAA Tournament eight straight years. The very same year I arrived in town, John Cheney's team was vacating the crumbling and cramped McGonigle Hall, and were moving up Broad Street to a sparkling new 10,000-seat building - one which bore the coolest arena name in all of sports: The Apollo Of Temple.
Just over two years later, Temple held a big surprise ceremony (Bill Cosby was the emcee, of course), at which they officially renamed the building to honor Peter J. Liacouras, the school's longtime president. Liacouras was retiring after two decades of service, and he had been well-beloved in the Temple community - enough so that they wanted to stamp his name indelibly into the basketball court. Because I never had the opportunity to build the sort of spiritual connection to Temple that only tuition payments can forge, I kept on referring to the place as the Apollo. While this saved my word processing spellchecker from constant confoundence, it also made all my Temple student friends think I was a moron and a jerk.
I'm reminded of my near-miss with the Cherry and White every time I climb out of the Cecil B. Moore subway station and approach that stately white mid-sized sports palace they call home. And again this past evening, when I visited Temple for their regular-season opener against the Auburn
Tigers of the powerful Southeastern Conference.
A man wearing a dusty parka and a blanched, wild-eyed facial expression approached me in the night. "You need Owls tickets?" he asked nervously.
I hadn't purchased anything yet, I just figured I'd hit the box office on my way in. "Yeah, what you got?" I replied.
"Two. Downstairs." He pulled two tickets from his pocket, thrust them into my hand and turned away.
"Um, you sure you don't want anything for these?" I called out after him.
"Just... just take them," he mumbled, scurrying into the wine-darkness.
The Temple Owls are years removed from the age of glory, haven't made the NCAA's for three years, and have lately been forced to play an uncomfortable second fiddle to St. Joseph's
in the Philadelphia Big Five. As a result, they've struggled to put behinds in their building's cherry-red seats... but I didn't know it had gotten to the point where people were just giving tickets away.
Because one can never be too careful, I took all the appropriate precautions. I sat up
stairs, far away from my assigned seats, up near the famous "Temple University Welcomes You And Your Family" sign. That sign that promises an enjoyable and entertaining atmosphere for young and old alike.
Perhaps to divert attention from the product on the court, Temple games are all about entertainment these days. Hooter and Baby Owl warm things up with their opponent-baiting antics during warmups. The lights go down during player introductions so that the laser show and swirling spotlights are visible, just like the ones in the NBA.
A new early-game musical feature is "Temple Request Live," where crowd noise determines what song will be played over the P.A. system. This evening's choices were "Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones and "Welcome To The Jungle" by Guns N' Roses. Nicking the "TRL" concept is a few years removed from being clever, and the music is decades removed from being fresh, but I guess there's something to be said for representing the Old School.
And there's nothing that says Old School like John Chaney's famous matchup zone defense, which was on full display once the game was on. Auburn, a squad primarily made up of wiry greyhounds, attempted to drive through seams, puncture holes and cause breakdowns, but it was not to be. Temple's youthful starters roared out to an early 21-5 lead, and many in the World's Toughest Crowd were starting to believe that maybe this wouldn't be just another rebuilding year.
After a re-orientation at the first TV timeout, Auburn did what most super-athletic teams have done to combat the Chaney system: they simply went over and above it. Lofting long passes over the zone and hoisting shots from downtown, they slowly worked their way back into the game. Three after three fell in a spectacular display of geometric exactitude, and I learned later that their 18 made triples was enough for an Auburn school record. By the time the first half had expired, there was a Tiger lead of 10 points.
And then, the halftime extravaganza. The crowd was treated to a special performance by the four-man troupe called the Jabali Acrobats. They danced around to lite reggae music in flowing orange and gold shirts while one of them performed with a limbo stick. Then there were some jump rope stunts, and then an exhibition of extreme gymnastics. The crowd - at least the portion that wasn't standing in the concession lines - was satisfied with the performance and cheered politely.
And then it was time for the Diamond Gems dance team (as in, "Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Diamond Gems"), all dressed in tight black sequined unitards. They are the only dance team in the Big Five that can pull off synchronized hair flips, and they seem to be quite aware of this fact. They flawlessly executed a series of dance moves accompanied by a medley of recent uptempo urban hits, and left the court to wild applause.
As the second half ticked by and the Owls struggled to climb back into the game, there was also some stand-up comedy on this amateur night. A roly-poly man seated six rows in front of me yelled out, "Put me in, maybe I
can grab a rebound!"
The joke had hit paydirt - there were smatterings of laughter from his fellow patrons in section 202. Flush with success, he directed his next zinger at the Temple band. "Hey, learn some new songs!"
Teetering on that dark edge of failure and desperation, the comic tried a last-ditch observational riff, one based on the home team's grizzled old coach and his stubborn refusal to ditch the sputtering zone defense in favor of a man-to-man. "Hey Paterno, maybe it's time to retire!"
Sometimes, the Executioner literally comes to take you off the stage... ahh, but most of the time he comes silently and invisibly like a thief in the night.
Finally, out of a time out near the seven minute mark, John Cheney rubbed the Lucky Stump and unleashed a tight man defense to counter the continued success of Auburn's outside shooters. It worked. Like a crumpled and spent James Brown leaping up from under the cape to finish "Please, Please, Please," the Owls powered to cut the deficit from twelve to four. A pair of unforced errors by Auburn later, the score was even.
The final minutes were played furiously. Back and forth the teams went, trading the lead. In the final 30 seconds, Temple's frosh phenom Mark Tyndale hit a three-ponter to pull Temple ahead, 78-77. Then Tiger guard Ian Young hit a three to make it 80-78. A botched inbound play later, and Auburn had notched a road win to start the season.
Just another night in the world of college basketball, where stars are born and legends are made.Photo Gallery