The La Salle Explorers had a bit of a shakeup before last night’s game against Fairleigh Dickinson. As reported by Jeff Goodman through the old-fashioned reporting trick of going to the team’s official website and taking a screenshot, Pat Chambers was now listed as La Salle’s top assistant. Chambers, who spent nine years at Penn State and compiled a very “yup, that’s Penn State basketball” record of 148–150, began the season as a volunteer special assistant.
The Explorers are in a weird spot. They are nearly a decade removed from the program’s high-water mark this millennium, a run to the Sweet 16 in 2013 that marked a simply delightful moment in Philadelphia sports history. That’s a better season-end spot than any other Division I men’s basketball team in Philadelphia has had since the early 2000s. (Villanova is in the suburbs.) The Explorers have gone just 108-144 since. Coach Ashley Howard, in his fourth season, has not yet had a winning record.
But it’s not just a results issue. It is 2021, and La Salle is a small college. Covid complicated things further; the school recently laid off 7 percent of its workers. The future of the institution is hazy in a number of ways. It has tried various things in an attempt to find a way forward. Some were well-received (slashing tuition prices); others less so (selling some of its artwork to fund a new strategic plan). Its athletic future may be even hazier. In a story about Loyola Chicago’s move to the Atlantic 10 in The Athletic last month, Dana O’Neil wrote: “La Salle’s enrollment and credit rating are both dropping at alarming rates and some in and around Philly have wondered how long the school can sustain its Division I status.” The school already cut seven sports last year.
So it was with all of this in mind that I attended a game at Tom Gola Arena last night and saw the Explorers in action. The gym is small. It only has sideline seats. It is above a pool and kind of smells of chlorine; like most college gymnasiums, it is approximately 125 degrees at all times. (It is even worse when crowded; I counted 128 people in attendance at tip-off. Reported attendance was 1,172; presumably this included people swimming in the pool.) My dad likes to joke that it looks like a middle school gym with water fountains along the baseline. I always thought this was funny, but actually, it is true—there are water fountains there. Fan bathrooms are also along the baseline. Earlier this year men wanting to pee had to step over a team’s injured player.
College basketball might be my favorite live sporting event. It’s usually played in some weird gym above a pool, for one thing. The promotions are also frequently confusing; La Salle has a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? type quiz that uses a dance remix of the Jeopardy! theme. Tom Gola Arena also offers fans multiple chances to win free food; last night we got free pickles (Fairleigh Dickinson missed two FTs in one trip), free pizza (the Explorers hit 10 threes) and a free cheesesteak roll (La Salle beat the Knights, 81-55). There’s also a promotion where cheerleaders just walk out and hand pizza boxes to random fans in the crowd! Oh my goodness. That I didn’t actually take advantage of any of these promotions is unimportant. It’s the thought that counts.
But my favorite part of the game was La Salle’s smoke machine. The sideline with the bathrooms and the water fountains also has a giant, light-up L. Before the game, someone gets to light the L. Last night it was economics professor Beth Paulin. Enhancing this spectacle is a smoke machine that appears to have been bought at Spencer’s Gifts.
I’m pretty sure all 128 people in attendance at tip-off heard me whoo for this one. I stand by it.