The phone rings, the ID says Dan Harrell. The only thing you know, Harrell’s probably not calling about Dan Harrell. The man doesn’t operate that way.
Harrell might be calling about a youth basketball team visiting the city from Belfast or he might say, “Hey, you know something, John Hardnett belongs in the Big 5 Hall of Fame.” He’s usually on target, including with the idea that a late Sonny Hill League honcho and local workout guru deserves to be honored for his decades of work with so many Big 5 legends.
Not too long ago, Harrell called and said, “Johnny B’s retiring.”
Harrell, for the uninitiated, is a Palestra icon -- a fast-talking son of Southwest Philadelphia who mopped the Palestra floor at the same time he was getting his own Penn undergraduate degree. (Harrell definitely belongs in the Big 5 Hall of Fame.) But within the walls of our local Cathedral of Hoops, John Borraccini has the same kind of earned status, especially to anyone who made a habit of wandering through a door just off the court’s Southeast corner.
Johnny B took care of things. He showed up 32 years ago just to play a pickup basketball game, not knowing he’d end up with keys to the place. Can there be a more perfect way to start a career at the Palestra? Penn equipment manager Fran Murray played in that game, got to talking to Johnny B, and offered him a job as his assistant. Borraccini never left, until last month, just kept picking up more teams.
“I started in ’88 as an assistant with football, traveling with them,” Borraccini said. “I took care of soccer, sprint football. They also had freshman football back in ’88. In 2000, I became equipment manager for the sports at the Palestra, like 20 sports.” Not just men’s and women’s basketball and wrestling and volleyball and gymnastics, but the sports that headquartered next door, including fencing and squash, plus softball and swimming and rowing.
Those sports quickly all found they’d gotten lucky.
“His job went from washing the clothes, folding them, including practice equipment, to sitting down with the coaches designing the uniforms, ordering the uniforms,” Harrell said. “He’d pick out the materials. John handled everything. Now, he’s responsible for ten times the equipment. Now they get new uniforms every year.”
Harrell knows all that because after retiring from cleaning the floor, he picked up part-time work for Borraccini. They go back to Southwest Philly, when Harrell coached CYO football and Borraccini was an ambidextrous quarterback -- he’d roll right and throw right-handed, or roll left and throw left-handed.
Harrell was coaching Our Lady of Loreto. Borraccini was playing for St. Irenaeus.
“We were both undefeated, playing at 74th and Lindbergh,” Harrell said. “We were losing by four points. If we scored, we won. Last play of the game. I called a screen pass. Our back got down, honest to God, to the 6-yard line. He’s going in. Our biggest guy was blocking this little guy. I couldn’t even see him. He got around, tackled our guy at the 1-foot line. He cost us a championship. It was one foot.”
You can hopefully see why you want to answer the phone when Harrell calls. You never know where the journey will take you. You might find out who picked up what nickname for a little sideline work selling football pools back when such things were popular, and which official team photo also showed those pools sticking out of the entrepreneur’s socks.
You definitely find out how when Harrell officially retired from cleaning the Palestra floor, he picked up hours working in the Palestra equipment room.
“I got fired every day for two years after that,” Harrell said.
It was Borraccini doing the firing.
“Every time you come in, production stops,” Borraccini would tell Harrell. “All you want to do is drink coffee and BS.”
Then Borraccini would say, “Let’s go get coffee.”
(”There should be a reality show with those guys,’' said one of the Penn hoop coaches. “I’d never miss an episode.”)
Borraccini’s own hours tended to be crazy. Johnny B loved being in that Southeast corner. It was about as close as you could get to a street corner in Southwest Philly. Visiting teams usually dressed in the Southeast locker room. It was always busy just outside his door, and his desk was straight in from the door.
“You had to work the game, make sure the visiting team had everything they needed,” Borraccini said. “Back in the day, before the electronic scoreboards, we had to change the signs manually.” Part of Johnny B’s job was getting the name of the visiting team up there. He remembers Fran Dunphy coming to him one time when Dunphy was coaching the Quakers, saying, “Hey Johnny, if it were me, I would already have that team’s name up on the scoreboard when they came in for practice. If it were me.”
Borraccini appreciated that approach. Not telling him what to do. “If it were me ...”
“He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” Harrell said of the man who kept firing him. “Sometimes when things get tight, people get nasty.”
Borraccini, known as a fearless hockey player in his time at West Catholic, loved the lunch time hoop games he was part of for a quarter of a century, and the squash games he graduated to against Penn staffers including several coaches.
It’s not easy to leave. Borraccini admits he’s still wondering if he’s done the right thing taking a retirement package. But the memories come along with him.
“People say, you work at the Palestra!” Borraccini said. “Understanding what the place means to people. The games I got to see. As a sports fan, that’s what kept me there for 32 years. You talk to people from other teams, you realized how lucky you were.”
The original Palestra floor shows itself to the human eye these days in one place, just inside Johnny B’s office. Does he have a piece? He does. He’s taken most of his stuff, officially out now, but talking with Harrell, they realized there was one photo that included the two of them still inside the place. They made plans to sneak into the Palestra this week to get it.
A phone call from Harrell? That’s no big thing for Johnny B.