A Monday morning phone conversation with Herb Magee. First question for the legend of Henry Avenue is the most obvious — he’s not done, right? He’s coming back next season?
“Yes,’' Magee said right away. “Because of what happened. Who knows what would have happened if we’d played the year.”
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Jefferson University recently added its basketball teams to the list of schools not trying to have a 2020-21 season. Which meant it was worth checking in with Magee, who is merely the second-winningest NCAA men’s basketball coach of all time, all divisions, 1,123 victories in. A Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer still going at age 79. Should we mention last season’s team went 27-4?
No way did we expect Magee to say he was done, that his career was finished when COVID-19 knocked out the 2019-20 season last March as Jefferson was about to play its first-round NCAA Division II first-round game, in the 31st NCAA tournament of a one-school Magee coaching tenure that began in 1967.
“I’m giving out room keys in the hotel, I get a message, it’s over,’' Magee said of how that played out.
As 2020 kept going, Magee stayed realistic.
“It was OK, then it was a big spike,’' Magee said of the fall monitoring COVID. “We had a couple of kids get it. I decided myself to stop practice with a week to go, then wait and see what happened.”
Many of his league rivals began canceling their seasons. Magee isn’t a go-with-the-crowd type, and he knew such decisions were made at higher levels, but looking at the landscape, he said, “I didn’t see any value in it. I didn’t see any reason to play. My picture was, get on the bus, you have to eat on the bus, can’t stop at a restaurant. You play the game. You can’t shower at the gym afterward. Get back on the bus. Eat on the bus.”
And the teams still trying to have a season were mostly out of state, so his realistic assessment didn’t mean minutes on the bus, it was hours. In Division I, Magee said, there is more money for testing and everything else. At his level, if a group of players has to quarantine, you lose six games, and there’s no money to bring in replacements on the fly, so issues at one school knock out others on the schedule.
“Nothing good can come of it, and somebody is going to get sick,’' Magee said. He didn’t just mean test positive. “I mean sick, sick.”
Jefferson had been allowed to practice eight hours a week, four with a basketball, four just on conditioning. Magee wore both a mask and a face shield, but one of the players went to his daughter Kay, who runs operations for the team, and said they couldn’t hear him, so she got her father a microphone, too.
“It worked,’' Magee said. “We were getting things done. I think the team was going to be decent. We had one starter back.”
Magee knows how to take care of himself, his own exercise regimen typically including a golf club.
“Jimmy Lynam and I, we have played quite a bit,’' Magee said of his old West Catholic backcourt mate, still active on Sixers studio shows. “It’s cold now but he still plays. He called me last night, ‘You want to play?’ … ‘Jim, no, it’s freezing.’ ’’
Two walks a day with his wife is Magee’s bottom line, temporarily replacing victory pursuits with chasing 10,000 steps a day. He’s also got weights set up in the basement. “To occupy myself for a half-hour,” Magee said.
Right now, the plan is for Jefferson basketball practice to get going again in March to the end of April, the same as in the fall, with four hours of court time and four hours of conditioning.
Talking a little more about whether he was going to keep going, Magee said, “There was no way a guy like me was going to say, ‘That’s enough.’ The decision was easy.”
Losing the 2020 postseason was rough, since Magee genuinely believed his veteran group had the goods to make a run. You never know about such things, he added. One year, he thought the same thing and his point guard got food poisoning. “My best player,’' Magee said. “He’s gluten-free and somebody gave him gluten. Other years, other teams had injuries. You never know. It balances out.”
Over 54 years, it surely does. He’s not suggesting he’ll never leave the place that used to be Philadelphia University and Philadelphia Textile before that — “the idea behind it, what is best for the school? Jimmy Reilly [top assistant] is ready to take over. What is best for me and the school? I don’t think it’s that big a deal.”
No, but Herb Magee remains a very big deal. The man has always been able to look ahead. A pandemic has not changed that.