BASKETBALL HAS been an integral part of Steve Donahue's world for about as long as he can recollect. Along the way the game has certainly given him some moments. Yet, for someone who coached Cornell to the Sweet 16, there's one snapshot that always will remain way up there, even though it happened a long time ago.
He was a sophomore at Ursinus College in 1981-82, when the Bears were a Division III quarterfinalist a season after they reached the semis. One day, en route to a game in Virginia, they stopped in West Philly to practice for an hour at the Palestra.
You might have thought they'd been invited to the White House.
"I'll never forget that," said Donahue, who's now in his first season at Penn, where he was Fran Dunphy's assistant for a decade beginning in 1990. "As a kid from the Catholic League (Cardinal O'Hara), the Palestra was your goal. That's what you wrote on the back of your shirt. My senior year, we lost to Roman there for the title.
"What an experience. It was almost overwhelming. Then you see the Penn kids come in and they're kind of lackadaisical. I'm thinking that they take it for granted. Can you imagine getting to do that every day? For us, it was the ultimate.
"As we get older, the memory gets more vivid. I still get chills thinking about me walking in, seeing that big cathedral ceiling, the lights shining in, the big split P (at center court). And I'm going, 'Wow, this is the Big Five.' "
On Saturday afternoon (2:30), Donahue is giving the same opportunity to another group of Ursinus players. Only he's going one better. Penn (4-5) will play the Bears (1-4), who are coached by his good friend Kevin Small. Donahue's Hall of Fame coach, Skip Werley, will be in the house. As will many former teammates and members of the program's family.
"Steve's been a loyal alum," Small said. "And he helped me get my first date with my wife. We've been married 20 years. He gave us tickets to come down and watch Penn play. So now I'm grateful to him for something else.
"We're going to get there early, walk the hallways, give the kids a chance to dream a little bit."
And who can put a value on that?
When Donahue approached Small about doing this, there was only one issue. The Ursinus schedule was already set. So Small talked to another friend, Widener coach Chris Carideo, to see if there was any way Ursinus could get out of that commitment.
"He said, 'Look, I know what it means, don't worry about it, you're off the hook,' " Small recalled. "I owe him one."
Or a whole bunch more. At least.
"I want my guys to appreciate what we have," Donahue said. "I don't think people understand how close the basketball community is here. (University of the Sciences) Dave Pauley coached me as a seventh grader in a Biddy league in Ridley. Phil Martelli was my JV coach (in high school). We're all doing the same thing, and we love what we do, helping kids. I've been fortunate. But I could be one of these (small-college) guys and I would've been thrilled. I think everyone feels the same way I do. I tried to do (something like) this at Boston College and no one cared.
"The Spurs (just) played here, and (Gregg Popovich) called and set up a practice time. The plans got screwed up but his point was, 'I want these 15 millionaires to see the greatest basketball arena there's ever been.' "
He hardly needs to convince Small.
"Growing up, I remember going to Big Five doubleheaders with my pop," he said. "He played soccer at St. Joe's. I still have a cowbell from one of those games. That was a connection a lot of us had.
"I think there's a real bond here, that many people aren't aware of. Someone like coach (Jay) Wright understands that our guys are working just as hard or harder. It's still basketball. The great thing is, they are us. I don't know if that exists anywhere else. There is no class system. It's Philly basketball.''
Small referenced Ursinus' 2008 run to the Division III Final Four.
"When we went to the Final Four, I remember with each win getting so many texts from all my peers in the area,'' he said. "It was like the whole group was winning. It was a real celebration of the sport."
For Ursinus and Donahue, so will this matchup.
"When I first called our captains (Mark Wonderling and Malik Draper) and asked what they thought, they went, 'Oh my God coach, are you kidding me?' '' said Small. "We've played Franny (O'Hanlon at Lafayette), Princeton, Colgate with Matty (Langel) up there, Bucknell. This one's really different. Our kids understand that. We're not playing Penn. We're playing at the Palestra.
"We're going to compete, but I want them to have their eyes wide open. Many of them did get a whisper in recruiting from Ivy and Patriot League teams. So for them it's a little bit of, hey, this is what it would've been like. It's a history lesson. A big deal on many levels."
Donahue, who sees it from both sides, knows as well as anyone.
"I really hope Kevin's kids enjoy it as much as we did, which I'm sure they will," he said. "It's a thrill for me to have them come here. I just hope they don't enjoy it too much.
"If they beat us, I'll be really disappointed. But I'd be excited for those kids. Maybe I'm screwed up, but that's how I am. Whatever happens, they're going to carry it with them the rest of their lives. That's what it's supposed to be about."