Thirty minutes before tipoff Wednesday at Thomas Jefferson University. Big night. The last regular-season home game of Herb Magee’s career. People were starting to fill the Gallagher Center. And in the athletic offices, a familiar face.
“Wanna talk?” he said.
Didn’t he have a big game to coach? Hey, there was time yet. It had been a jam-packed day for him: two TV interviews in the morning, lunch with his team, a walk-through, an afternoon spent in his office dwelling over game plans and prep work. Now people spilled into the offices, too, students and staffers and guys who had played for Magee in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“Anytime you give a college student a free T-shirt,” he said, “they show up.”
Sure enough, in the lobby, T-shirts were piled high, lumpy castles, on three tables outside the gymnasium’s entrance, each shirt navy and periwinkle with the same words stenciled on the front.
PHILA U &
The name of the place kept changing. The Man of the place never did. That’s what everyone around Jefferson calls Magee. The Man. Hell, he calls himself The Man. No pushback here. You spend more than 60 years in that place as a player and coach, win 1,142 games – the most victories in Division II history, the latest of them Wednesday night, 82-56, over USciences – and get inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, you’re the undisputed king of the campus, and you can damn well call yourself whatever you want.
He had announced in September that this season would be his last. He had turned 80 in June. The pandemic had cost Magee and the Rams the 2020-21 season, and it had knocked some of the starch out of him. So much stress. Games that were supposed to be played and weren’t. His handpicked successor, associate head coach Jimmy Reilly, had been with him 15 years and was ready. It was time.
Time to play more golf with his forever friend, his West Catholic buddy Jim Lynam. Time to re-watch The Sopranos – “I have them all memorized,” he said – and enjoy a nightly SportsCenter happy hour. Time for his wife, Geri, and his two daughters and his grandchildren and the occasional shot-doctor consulting call, if the 76ers or whatever team might be in need of his services would provide him a driver. Even a team up in Brooklyn. He used to get asked all the time: Coach, when are you going to work with Ben Simmons? When Brett Brown was the Sixers’ coach, he asked Magee to do just that.
“I said, ‘I will, but you’ve got to ask Ben Simmons,’ ” Magee said. “And he never got back to me. Ben is the type of guy who doesn’t really want to improve.”
The comment was quick and cutting and thoroughly Philadelphian. No wonder. Magee’s life is the kind that, in this city, is completely familiar and completely unique. He and Lynam were the backcourt of the last West Catholic team to win the Philadelphia Catholic League championship, when they were seniors in 1959, and that fall Magee arrived at what, at the time, was called Philadelphia Textile Institute. He averaged 29 points a game over four years, immediately became an assistant coach there, became the head coach himself in 1967 when he was 26, won the Division II national championship in 1970 when he was 28, and has been The Man ever since.
When Lynam accepted the St. Joseph’s head coaching job in 1978, one of the first things he did was take Magee and Textile off the Hawks’ schedule. Was that to not lose to him? Or was it a matter of friendship? “No,” Lynam said. “Stop. End of story after one sentence. Not to lose. If you’re St. Joe’s, you can’t lose to him. You’ve got a war on your hands. That’s how good a coach he is.” Lynam had seen Magee beat Villanova and Temple in the same season, 1975-76. There was nothing to gain by playing him … and everything to lose.
St. Joe’s, La Salle, Rutgers, a few NBA teams: All of them considered hiring Magee in the ‘70s. One Division I school offered him its head coaching position without interviewing him, then offered it to him again – still without an interview. He said no to all of them.
“I am from here, from Philadelphia,” he said. “This is where I chose to live. This is where my children are, where my grandkids are. And all of a sudden, after X number of years, I just wasn’t interested in anything. And then stuff like this happens.”
Stuff like an easy victory, the Rams shooting 56% from the field, like a good Magee team should, to coast to 19-5 this season. They’ll play one more home game, this Tuesday, in a quarterfinal of their conference tournament, but Wednesday was the real goodbye, the one they could schedule. Afterward, some 200 people – his current players, his former players, fellow coaches, friends, family, Lynam, Fran Dunphy – gathered in Bucky Harris Gymnasium, the old gym on campus, the gym where Magee used to coach, for a press conference/reception. A couple of ovations, a couple of one-liners from Magee, lots of handshakes and hugs, the fruits of loyalty given and received there for all to see.
“The word I would use is ‘finality,’ ” said Tom Shirley, Jefferson’s athletic director and women’s basketball coach. Shirley has been at the university since 1989 and has 817 career victories himself, making him the secondest fiddle of all time. “Rode along as Robin for 30 years,” he said. For all those years, it was taken for granted that one Magee milestone would eventually beget another. Seven hundred wins would become 800. Eight hundred would become 900. And on, because Magee was The Man, and The Man’s success was as steady and reliable as a metronome, and he was never going anywhere.
“Now this is it, and I keep thinking about … 1959,” Shirley said. “I’m 67, but 1959 to 2022 in the same place, as successful as you can possibly be, who does that?”
Around here, around anywhere, only one guy. The last Jefferson basket of the night was by Jayson Fain, a freshman who had played seven minutes all season. He swished a three-pointer. His teammates erupted in cheers. Arms crossed against his chest, Herb Magee didn’t react. As the gym emptied, they played Sinatra. “Summer Wind.” A perfect shot. A wistful song of memory. The right notes for The Man to exit the stage.