Game 006:James Madison 59, at LaSalle 50 Saturday, November 20, 2004 Tom Gola Arena - Philadelphia, PA
Do we humans truly have free will to carve our own paths through life, or are we each living out a predetermined destiny that we are essentially powerless to change? When we come into the world, are we truly innocent? Or are we depraved, guilty souls doomed to waddle in the muck of guilt and strife, just because our very earliest foreparents ate the wrong piece of fruit? Are we screwups that need divine fixing, or are we screwups waiting to happen?
Whoa, that's some pretty deep stuff there, mister. These are the questions that have divided peoples of the world since the beginning of recorded thought, split religions into splinter groups of splinter groups, ignited bloody and endless wars. A humble little weblog about mid-major college basketball isn't about to shed any new light on those subjects.
Jean-Baptiste de la Salle was a French educator who preferred to believe that the default state of the human condition was "good." The man who founded the Lasallian Order Of Christian Brothers in 1680 spent his life founding schools for the poor. He instituted educational revolutions such as a "simultaneous method" of larger-sized classes and adjusted grade curves for each student based on perceived learning capacity - instead of the several-pupils-per-teacher model that had served as the norm. One class, many goals, equal opportunity.
De La Salle's vision was often at odds with a prevailing theology of his time and geographic area, Jansenism. Jansenists believed that Adam and Eve's "original sin" made it so that human beings are born losers, and that only a select group of people are born with pre-punched tickets to heaven - in their view, most of these folks just so happen to be wealthy, white and well-read. A number of his writings were blistering attacks on Jansenism, in which he called their ideas "novelties" that were out of step with a humane view of humanity. This gained de la Salle a phalanx of powerful enemies.
But he was able to get himself into trouble, enemies or none, as his belief in the inherent good of people occasionally left him vulnerable. He trusted too easily, was betrayed by people he considered colleagues and friends, and fell victim to scams brought by people who wished to start LaSallian schools in provincial France and beyond. That's the problem with optimism - it can sometimes make you a pushover.
Just over 300 years after the patron saint of teachers walked the earth, an American university named after him faced a serious crisis. Two basketball players, star guard Gary Neal and sixth man Mike Cleaves, were accused of raping a player from the University of New Haven's women's team in a LaSalle dormitory during a summer basketball camp. Positive DNA samples made the case a likely open-and-shut. The two were dismissed from school immediately, and many believed that the incident was an isolated one, one that was headed towards resolution and justice.
But a scandal exploded this summer when a LaSalle women's player reported to Philadelphia police that she had also been raped by a member of the men's team, and that both men's coach Billy Hahn and women's coach John Miller had discouraged her from reporting the incident to the authorities. Despite strong denials that they had tried to suppress anything, the two coaches were noosed and hung by a 1998 amendment to the Jeanne Clery Act, a federal law that defines reporting requirements for sex crime allegations on college campuses. LaSalle not only lost its basketball coaches, but its students will likely lose tens of thousands of dollars in federal financial aid.
Not stopping for a moment to ponder meta-ethical questions or grant second chances, the Christian Brothers who run LaSalle University made quick moves to wash their collective hands of the players and coaches involved. "It is in the best interest of everyone involved that we take this action at this time," President Brother Michael J. McGinniss said after Hahn and Miller's forced resignations. "In serious matters such as these, we must act and will act decisively."
And so, after perhaps the worst offseason any college basketball program has ever experienced in history, The Official Wife Of The Mid-Majority and I made the long trek up to 20th and Olney to see what was left of the LaSalle Explorers. They have a new coach, a P.E. doctor named Dr. John Giannini. The Tom Gola Arena, named in honor of a great ballplayer who lifted LaSalle to a national title 50 years ago, was three-quarters full - not bad for an early-season game. And their official guidebooks and paperwork simply refer to the summer's sad chain of events as "the tragedy."
The opposition for the Explorers' season opener was provided by James Madison, a Colonial Athletic Association school with a new coach of their own. A man with one of the most mouth-widening names available, Dean Keener, was an assistant at national runner-up Georgia Tech and was picked for the JMU job over the man who made the current North Carolina reclamation project necessary, Matt Doherty. The program had gone downhill at the pace of a few games a year ever since Sherman Dillard had taken over in 1997, and Dillard "resigned" after leading the Dukes to a 7-21 record in 2003-04.
When two bad teams collide, you usually get sloppy play, and in this case the adage rang oh-so-true. However, both benches were animated by the excitement of a new season and new beginnings, and there were small signals that more-with-less coaching strategies were being employed. And now, I give you, a peek inside the Great Book Of What To Do If You Know Your Team Sucks (First Edition):
Defensive Flexibility: One thing that talent-challenged coaches can do is institute a system in which the defense switches from zone to man-to-man and back again on the fly. Both teams did this all night, and the disruption it caused kept the offenses confounded and the score low. Now, all you have to decide is whether the coach (or an assistant) will relay the code as to which defense to put up, or whether you trust your point guard enough to make the call on the floor.
Guts = (Some) Glory: You can also reward players who make up in gumption for what they lack in size and ability with minutes, plays and touches. La Salle has a 6-2 freshman point guard named Tabby Cunningham who seemed to be involved in every play, dishing and leaping and taking shots over opponents with six or seven inches on him. He ended up with six assists... and five turnovers. As his ATO ratio gets healthier, I'm absolutely convinced he's going to be a beloved fan favorite before his four years are up.
Get Scrappy: A good way to mask talent inefficiencies is physical play, and both teams complied on this evening. Bump bodies in the paint, reach in, grab a jersey or two. Go ahead, take a bunch of fouls. At the very least, you'll get to see who you have on your bench.
In the end, it was a two-man offensive show (albeit a decidedly non-entertaining one), LaSalle's returning scoring leader Steven Smith with 17 points and JMU's 6-2 sophomore guard Ray Barbosa with 18. The Dukes kept a lead of about 10 points for most of the night, and were able to fend off any and all challenges, volleying LaSalle's short lead-cutting runs with spurts of their own.
Returning home from LaSalle, the airwaves were still cluttered with news of the ugliest night in the history of the NBA, and this basketball fan's mind was more consumed with thoughts of morality than those of motion offenses. Are Gary Neal and Mike Cleaves - and to a somewhat lesser extent, Ron Artest - good people who made extremely bad decisions, or are they rotten-to-the-core people just playing out their scripts? Are these men trapped into a predestined doom spiral, no matter what they do? If you've lived your entire life in a different orbit because of your athletic ability, is it at all possible to tell the difference between right and wrong?
As for the man whose name graces the gates of that scandal-stained university in North Philadelphia, he believed in the inherent goodness of human beings, and the victory of divine providence for all over selective enlightenment - all the way to his deathbed. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle breathed his last on the morning of Good Friday, 1719, and his final words were recorded by his followers. "In all things, I adore the will of God in my regard."