Philadelphia’s established basketball culture and traditions have greatly influenced University of Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
Just ask him.
McCaffery, who is in his 10th season at the helm, was asked about the city’s hoop culture in the run-up to the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten game against Penn State on Saturday at the Palestra in Philadelphia. The game marks Iowa’s first visit to the Palestra since 1961.
The Hawkeyes are 11-3; the Nittany Lions are 11-2.
On Thursday, a reporter inquired: “Most of us have never been to the Palestra. What’s it like? What was it like for you? What striking memories do you have of having been there for the years you were there?”
McCaffery, a University of Pennsylvania point guard from 1980-82, brings his team back to his hometown with an abundance of memories.
“You know, my memories are a little bit different because it starts with my mom and dad bringing myself and my brother to games when we were kids, like young,” McCaffrey said. “You want to sit up in the student section, you want to watch the games, you want to throw streamers, watch the really good players, maybe get to meet them, something like that.
“And then as a high school player, you want to get your team to the Palestra. Here it’s kind of we want to get to the state tournament. We want to get to Wells Fargo Arena. There you want to get to the Palestra. That’s where you want to go. So I had the opportunity to do that.
“Then you hope to be recruited by one of those five teams so you get to play there. Well, I got recruited by the one that that’s our home arena, so we practiced there every day and played pickup there in the summer, that kind of thing.
“So, there’s so many incredible memories. I’ve seen great high school games there, great players after I became a coach. I saw Kobe Bryant play there, Wilt Chamberlain has played there, the Sixers would play there back in the old days.”
Special city for basketball
He continued: “But the thing that was really special about it is throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, there were always doubleheaders, so you went and you stayed there for six, seven hours, and you watched four teams play, and nobody left. It wasn’t like, okay, I’m rooting for Villanova, they play in the first game so I’m going to dinner while Penn plays South Carolina. It wasn’t like that. Everybody stayed, watched both games. There was actually a TV package, before cable, you could actually watch those games on those old UHF stations. So if you grew up in Philadelphia, you watched all the games, you knew all the players, you knew all the coaches.
“Chuck Daly was coaching at Penn. He was the Dream Team coach, the first one. Rollie Massimino won the national championship. Harry Litwack and John Chaney are in the Hall of Fame. Paul Westhead revolutionized how to play fast while he was at LaSalle. Jack Ramsay is in the Hall of Fame. Jack McKinney ended up coaching the Lakers. Jimmy Lynam was a head coach in the NBA for many years after coaching at St. Joe’s. Bob Weinhauer took us to the Final Four; he will be at the game. He was my coach; he’ll be at the game on Saturday. Because ironically enough, at 7 p.m., Penn plays Princeton in the Palestra. So 9,000 people will leave, 9,000 more will come in and watch that game.
“So it was a very — and remains a very close-knit basketball community in Philadelphia that would convene every Saturday night at the Palestra, but oftentimes on Tuesday or Wednesday during the week, they also played double-headers during the week.”
Influence on coaching career
During Thursday’s media session, Fran McCaffery was also asked the following: “How do you think that Philadelphia basketball which you grew up on, lived on, has influenced the rest of your entire coaching career?”
“Well, you could argue that it’s influenced the coaching profession, when you think about all the guys — I just gave you a litany of Hall-of-Famers, so it’s different styles of play,” McCaffery stated. “So it definitely impacted me as a player, as a coach. Pretty much all of us remain close at some level. We all know each other, whether it be Jay Wright, known him for 30 years, and the guys that are there now, Pat Chambers, of course, I’ve known him since he was an assistant at Villanova.
“But it’s something that — if you’re talking about — let’s say you were at the Final Four and you’re talking to basketball people. They will refer to all of those people that I just mentioned, myself included: Well, he’s a Philly guy. So everybody understands what that means. He played or coached in Philadelphia, and he was influenced by watching — when I’m watching Paul Westhead score 107 points a game before the clock and before the 3-point shot. They were trying to score in four seconds, and nobody did that before.
“Jack Kraft played a match-up zone. Nobody played a match-up zone in those days. Things like that.
“John Chaney and Don Casey was the temple of zones. He replaced Harry Litwack and then went on to coach the Clippers, and Chaney replaced him. They played the zone kind of better and differently than most other teams.
“Penn had its run with Dick Carter and Chuck Daly and Bob Weinhauer winning multiple Ivy League championships, NCAA Tournament runs. In ‘79 we went to the Final Four, which was the last time an Ivy League team did that, and it may never happen again.”
In the final analysis, Fran McCaffery knows how unique and special basketball history is in Philadelphia.