Saturday, December 4, 2004 The Palestra - Philadelphia, PA Carlos Castaneda's primary life mantra, "fly past the eagle and be free," probably wouldn't go over too well in Philadelphia, a town stuck in a perpetual heartbreak cycle with its football team. But he was still a pretty neat guy.
Castaneda claimed that he met Don Juan at a bus station, did a bunch of peyote with him, and was shown a way of living that eventually led him away from his pedantic professors at UCLA and towards a better understanding of the universe. He believed that people should break their routines and try brand-new things as much as possible, insisting that day-to-day existence blinds us from spiritual truths. He also said that dreams are integral to refining a higher awareness, that they reveal key signposts on each person's path of knowledge.
So while enduring a fitful slumber on Friday night, when a talking tree told me that I should go to the Palestra on Saturday afternoon because something good was going to happen, I had no choice but to take heed. There are probably also secret messages for me to decipher in my dreams about having a refrigerator full of calculators and the one about being chased by hundreds of Matchbox cars, but those can wait until later.
On Friday, I griped in this very space that I would be skipping the Philadelphia Big Five Classic tripleheader due to its ridiculous $65 nosebleed-seat price tag - one which rivals that of NCAA Tournament rounds. This is the fourth year that Penn, St. Joe's, Temple, LaSalle and Villanova (and Drexel too!) have all played at the Palestra on the same Saturday in early December, and the organizers thought they might try a little Philly-style extortion on local hoop fans. It was a relatively sane $45 last year.
But I faithfully walked the five blocks and arrived at 33rd and Walnut Streets ten minutes ahead of the one o'clock tip. I stood there in the biting cold as the huddled crowds gathered and streamed through the corner entrances. "Alright, mister talking tree," I said, not realizing I was speaking out loud and that people were staring. "Show me what you got!"
The minutes ticked by, and I could hear the roars from within as the Penn and LaSalle starting lineups were being introduced. Glum and defeated, I started walking towards the perimeter of the courtyard, thinking I might grab something at Starbucks or go see Division II powerhouse Philadelphia University play later that day. No matter what, I was not going to line greedy pockets with sixty five bucks, and that was final - a proud and defiant cheapskate was I.
But as I approached the gauntlet of fast-talking ticket scalpers, a visibly annoyed man came up to me. "Buddy, you need one?" he asked. Before I could say anything, he shoved a bright and gleaming red and white ducat into my mittened hand.
"Wait..." I called out. "Don't you..."
"Just do me a big favor," his voice trailed behind him as he kept walking. "Don't sell it to one of those assholes."
I had been "miracled in," just like that time during the summer I followed the Grateful Dead around the Midwest. And it was at this moment when enlightenment struck me like invisible lightning. The universe truly is benevolent. People will help me on my quest whether they know they're doing it or not. This 100-game journey - this search for the very soul of college basketball - was once thought to be a trifling blog-filling spare-time amusement, but it is now nothing less than a mighty crusade. I bear on my skinny pale shoulders a responsibility to keep my karma in alignment and to see this through all the way to March. The 100 Game Project has undoubtedly been approved by higher powers, the hoops gods, and all the "Lord Of The Rings" residue from my subconscious, and it will be completed.
Inside, the Palestra was toasty warm and three-quarters full. The usual denizens of the building, the Penn Quakers, were taking on the star-crossed LaSalle Explorers, and seemingly had their hands full at the outset. Very unlike their fast start against Bucknella few days earlier, they had trouble scoring and finally got their first field goal four minutes in. But once the offense started flowing, their guard play took over and they spurted to a 39-32 halftime lead.
One of the primary subplots of this game was that it was the first meeting between the schools since LaSalle unsuccessfully courted alum Fran Dunphy away from the Quakers' bench during their troubling offseason. Dunphy agonized over the decision, looking visibly shaken on television when he announced that he would remain as Penn's coach. But the student section was less politic, unrolling long banners that read "Hide The Women And Children," and "$400K: Not Enough For Dunphy... Or Bail." A few of them even found orange jumpsuits to wear.
As the second half began, Stephen Smith was a monster for LaSalle, delivering punishing post moves and scoring at will. In just a few minutes, the halftime lead evaporated. The game's sixth five-minute session was a fast, furious end-to-end rush of basket-trading between Smith and Penn's Tim Begley that reminded more than a few of the knowledgeable fans in attendance of the legendary shootout between Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird in the 1988 NBA Playoffs.
But LaSalle's go-to guy was the first to blink, and soon it was simply The Tim Begley Show. The senior Penn guard transcended the game by tapping into his unconscious hoop mind, hit four threes in a row against LaSalle's zone, and singlehandedly put the game away down the stretch. His 29 points - which included eight treys - represented a career high for him.
LaSalle's frosh point guard Tabby Cunningham, who impressed me so in his first game two weeks ago against James Madison, was a bright spot once again. He is absolutely not afraid of anything, and will drive into the lane to draw defenders and fouls no matter who is in his way. (He is also very not six feet tall, no matter what the press guide says.) The Explorer offense clicked best when it was a two-man setup between him and Smith, and the ESP link between them is only going to grow stronger. He has about 95 more college games remaining, and let me tell you - he is going to be very, very good.
In closing, I have a special message for the guy who was sitting behind me in the tightly compacted bleachers of section 202, a man whose porcine Rick Majerus-like figure forced him to dig his knees into my back for the entire game. I had to use shamanic transcendental techniques in order to concentrate on the game action, as he spent two hours loudly explaining his midlife sexual quandry to his silent seatmate.
See, there's this hot nubile Temple coed temping at his office. Despite his married status, he thinks he has a real chance at bedding her, because she's smiled at him a couple of times and he feels a kind of "vibe" going on there. By the final media time out, he had constructed a shatterproof logical framework that conclusively proved that his money and his standing in the pharmaceutical-distribution community are infinitely more attractive to her than anything that her young in-class suitors could provide... and that more likely than not, she'll eventually be pleading with him to leave his wife. I speak now with a candor that the tight constraints of civil society expressly forbids.