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'Aha moment' leads John Giannini to revisit Rowan to mark title team

La Salle coach once led Profs to national title. Now he's bringing current squad back to help mark 20th anniversary of that crown.

John Giannini talks to his Rowan players during the 1995-96 season.
John Giannini talks to his Rowan players during the 1995-96 season.Read more(Photo courtesy Rowan University)

DR. MARQUE ALLEN, a distinguished foot and ankle surgeon in San Antonio, a Rowan University graduate and a huge Profs basketball fan, was back home visiting this summer and happened to be in La Salle coach John Giannini's office. Allen, Rowan coach Joe Cassidy and former Rowan coach Giannini had been talking for two years about how to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Rowan's 1996 Division III national championship.

In Giannini's office was a whiteboard with the Explorers' 2015-16 schedule, and "I just had an aha moment," Giannini said.

"I looked up at this empty spot and I said it would be a huge deal if we played this game," he said.

They will play the game 3 p.m. Saturday at Rowan in Glassboro, N.J., a D-I team playing on a D-III team's homecourt. La Salle will win the game, but it won't really be about that. It will be a celebration of the run Giannini, assistants Cassidy and Dave Lafferty and all the players had together at Rowan, a run that included a 168-38 record, four different years at No. 1, Final Fours in 1993 and 1995 and, finally, the championship.

"We didn't want a game, we wanted an event," Giannini said.

They have an event.

"The game is a mechanism to have all these other things happen," Giannini said. "The game is there to promote Rowan, the game is there to raise money, the game is there to reunite all these wonderful people."

Since Giannini left for Maine after that championship, Cassidy has been Rowan's head coach. Lafferty has stayed with Cassidy as an assistant.

"He called me in June and brought up the idea of us playing each other and doing something to celebrate the anniversary," Cassidy said. "When we got further into it, they proposed the idea of them coming to our place."

Rowan will always hold a special place for Dr. G. There were so many reasons to do this. One, Giannini said, was selfish.

"I haven't seen (some of the players) in 20 years," he said. "Life brings people and families to new places and new jobs to where you just don't see each other that often. This is a reunion not only of the championship team, but of all the teams of the '90s."

According to Cassidy, as of Tuesday, only a few tickets remained for the game in the 1,250-seat gym.

"We're going to have a banquet afterwards to honor the team," Cassidy said. "I'm looking forward to seeing all those guys. You remember the good times. This is going to be fun."

Every player from the championship team but one is coming back for the game/event.

Cassidy was an assistant at Drexel until 1991, when Eddie Burke got fired. He happened to be at Holy Family working stats that summer for the USBL Philadelphia Spirit. A friend told him Giannini was looking for an assistant. Cassidy did not hesitate. A deal was done.

"Five years later, we're winning the national championship," Cassidy said.

Last summer, Giannini and Cassidy did another deal to make Saturday happen.

"What makes the national championship team so unique is that it was such a step-by-step process," Giannini said. "That's why we want all those teams and staff members from the '90s to get together."

There is a game to play, and Cassidy will still start three guards 5-11 or smaller. His team's issue, he said, is guarding the 6-4 athletic player. He was concerned about Stockton's best player, "a 6-4 athletic guy," wondering who was going to guard him, and then really wondering "who the hell are we going to get to guard Jordan Price on Saturday?"

Rowan's strategy is obvious.

"Play zone and hope they miss threes," Cassidy said.

Giannini has had had some moments in his career. This will be one he won't soon forget.

"The game is going to be, for me, believe it or not, like any other game," Giannini said. "I'm big on preparation. I like to know what I'm going to say, what I'm going to do. Because of the game, I have no idea what I'm going to say or do or feel after the game. For me, the toughest part is going to be not knowing how I'm going to be emotionally . . . It could be overwhelming at that point."

On Twitter: @DickJerardi