The other day, Rowan University basketball coach Joe Cassidy sat on the team bus, crawling behind a school bus in Mullica Hill, his Profs headed for a game across the Commodore Barry Bridge. The coach talked on the phone about the play that changed everything.
"Demetrius is two seats in front of me right now," Cassidy said over the phone.
"Guess what we're talking about?" Cassidy shouted ahead to Poles, now a Rowan assistant.
The play has everything to do with Saturday's big local hoop event, La Salle at Rowan. John Giannini, head coach at La Salle, was Rowan's head coach when the Profs won the 1996 NCAA Division III national title. Cassidy was his assistant. There were discussions about doing something special to commemorate it.
"Just having a banquet and reception seemed obvious and not exciting," Giannini said.
In the midst of a discussion with a close friend, a Rowan alum, in his La Salle office, Giannini said he looked at the 2015-16 Explorers schedule on his whiteboard.
"An ah-ha moment," said Giannini, who still lives in Mullica Hill, practically down the road from Rowan.
La Salle needed a game. Why not Rowan? Giannini called Cassidy, who had succeeded him. D-I teams often have played D-II and D-III opponents. The difference here is that word at. La Salle at Rowan. La Salle researched it and found the last time a Division I men's basketball team visited a D-III school, Villanova played at Redlands in 2003. (Nova was heading to Maui and had suspended players so set up that game with the California school to help burn off the suspensions.)
On their first call, Giannini and Cassidy talked about the more traditional type of game, Rowan going to La Salle.
"The next phone call, John says, 'How about we do it at Rowan?' " said Cassidy, who was more than willing to host.
It makes sense. The game on Saturday honors Rowan, not La Salle. But it's just as big a deal for Giannini. He can (and will) go on and on about Rowan as a school.
"The reason for my affinity - basically I got the Kentucky job of Division III for my first head coaching job," Giannini said.
He built something special, made it to three D-III Final Fours in seven seasons. The last game he ever coached the Profs was that '96 title game. He moved on to Maine and then La Salle. If Poles hadn't tipped in a shot with three seconds left for the semifinal win, who knows where Giannini would be right now. Maybe he'd be at La Salle but he rightly questions whether he'd have gone straight to Maine the next season.
"No question it had a huge impact on my life," Giannini said of that national title.
Going to that Final Four, Rowan had identified Illinois Wesleyan as its prime competition. It turned out to be true. After its 79-77 thriller, Rowan got to the final and defeated Hope College of Michigan, 100-93. As usual, Rowan had balanced scoring led by Terrence Stewart, who had 17 points and was named the tournament's outstanding player.
"He would have an all-Big Five player," Giannini said of Stewart, giving credit to Cassidy for recruiting the man who is now Immaculata's head men's coach.
"I expected him to be a good player," Cassidy said. "I didn't expect he would turn out to be the best player in school history. That's the way it turned out."
The overall team, Giannini said, was "so talented it was frankly hard to motivate." So the solution was reached. The team's hardest practice worker, Osco Williams, was elevated to the starting lineup. Worked like a charm.
On Saturday, they'll use Division I rules, which means a couple more timeouts, and slightly longer ones.
"We played Princeton last year - I ran out of things to say," Cassidy said of those timeouts. "I didn't know the game was that confusing."
There obviously will be much rehashing of the old days, with a banquet to follow the afternoon game. Profs assistant Dave Lafferty, then and now (and the man Giannini gives credit for coming up with the Williams-starting idea), got into a debate with Poles the other day at practice about that tip-in, about which side of the basket Poles was on when he tipped it in.
Cassidy related how the discussion ended with getting the film, proving it was the coach who had it right. Poles actually tipped the ball with the back of his right hand - "the guy was holding his left arm down,'' Cassidy said.
Yes, one play can cause a chain reaction that includes virtually all the participants reassembling in Glassboro on Saturday afternoon, joined by special guests from Division I, playing this one for their coach.