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Forgotten no more, La Salle steals Philly's heart

Tuesday - 3/26/2013, 11:04pm  ET

La Salle guard Tyrone Garland (21) gets past Mississippi forward Reginald Buckner (23) to make the game-winning shot in a third-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament Sunday, March 24, 2013, in Kansas City, Mo. La Salle won the game 76-74. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

DAN GELSTON
AP Basketball Writer

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- La Salle has this little thing it does in the locker room after a win. A huddle of jumping players is the best way to describe it, a pogo-sticked, smiling pack of blue, if you will.

There's a chorus, as well, to the postgame bounce that goes like this: "Turn it up! Turn it up! All we do is turn it up!"

Well, the Explorers have being doing just that -- and singing their hearts out -- all month.

With three NCAA tournament wins already in their pocket, the Explorers -- who have led a basketball renaissance that has captured this proud basketball city which houses their campus -- are the talk of the town.

Turn on the radio, it's La Salle basketball. Thumb through a newspaper, it's Explorers Extra in news and sports sections. Walk down the streets, you'll see people wearing blue and gold.

Coach John Giannini is at the head of this train. It's his sense of realism and his way of getting the most out of his players that has helped to orchestrate the run. After one of those recent celebrations, he briefly settled his team before he got the exuberant bunch to holler some more as he credited several Explorers.

"We're rolling, baby," Giannini told them. "This is what you work for. We're bringing it back. Right now, we're one of the best teams in the country."

Giannini then addressed the man in the grey La Salle T-shirt, blue hat and glasses sitting alone in a locker a few feet away from the frivolity.

"With that man right there," Giannini said, pointing to his right, "they were 30-2, best record in the country. It's all coming back."

He was talking to Lionel Simmons.

Before this streak, and two decades of darkness, Simmons made the small-school Explorers a big-time program. With La Salle enjoying its deepest tournament run since the 1950s, the L-Train is back along for the ride. Simmons, the 1990 AP Player of the Year, has become a regular at La Salle's games and traveled with the team from Dayton, Ohio to Kansas City, Mo., and now Los Angeles as its biggest fan on this improbable win streak.

Simmons' presence is a blazing reminder that La Salle wasn't always one of the bottom programs in Philadelphia and invisible on the national scene. Led by Hall of Fame standout Tom Gola, the Explorers were NIT and NCAA champions in the 1950s. Paul Westhead coached them to tournaments in the 1970s. Simmons rocketed them to the national rankings in The AP poll for the final time and their last NCAA tournament win.

Indeed, La Salle's had a heyday or two.

It's the lean stretch, though, that defined the program once the L-Train followed tracks into the NBA. The Explorers had 12 straight losing seasons from 1993-2008. There was an ill-fated move to a Midwestern-based conference, and the Explorers tried to make do without an on-campus arena -- an enormous handicap -- the caused the program to spiral downward. La Salle bottomed out in 2004 when three players were charged with rape and both men's coach Billy Hahn and women's coach John Miller resigned, throwing the athletic program into disarray.

Enter Giannini, who led Rowan (N.J.), in the Philadelphia suburbs, to the 1996 NCAA Division III national title. Thanks to a patient administration, Giannini molded the team into a winner. He led it to the NIT last season and now the first tournament since 1992.

"The guys really believe in him and like him, and I think that's why they play hard for him," Simmons said.

Giannini has to sell La Salle recruits on his vision because there's not much else to see on campus. The Explorers don't play in a historic gym or a modern palace funded by corporate dollars. In fact, calling Tom Gola Arena an arena is a bit of a stretch. It's a gym. More like a high school gym plopped on a city campus. Gola is actually on the third floor of Hayman Center and seats only 3,400 fans. Even then, sellouts are rare. And parking is free, which is not a common thing to see anywhere in Philadelphia.

The arena's namesake, however, demands reverence.

Gola is college basketball's leading rebounder with 2,201, and led La Salle to the 1952 NIT title and 1954 NCAA championship. He was a five-time All-Star in his nine-year NBA career, which included four seasons with the New York Knicks and a championship with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956.

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