I expected to spend Saturday night on the couch, eating lentil soup and watching I, Tonya on Netflix.
Instead, I spent the evening in first tier seats at at Madison Square Garden, watching Villanova men’s basketball win this year’s Big East tournament with members of the school’s famous 1985 champion team.
They’d met me only an hour or so before, when I stopped at the food hall above NYC’s Penn Station for a pint of Troegs Hopback amber ale while I waited for my train back home. We immediately clicked. Talking about the Super Bowl is easy, but as the conversation turned to other Philly-related topics, these guys stayed interested.
“Is that place Katmandu still there?” one of them wanted to know, as we started to talk restaurants. “Does Spring Garden still have a lot of clubs?”
“I can’t believe they haven’t built a better way to get to King of Prussia yet,” said another, who’d been following news about SEPTA’s proposal to extend rail service.
Although many of the former players no longer live near the region, it seems most of them still identify with it strongly. And I can babble about all things Philly with convincing enough authority, apparently, that they invited me to continue join them at the game.
I popped open the Amtrak app, paid a $27 fee to change my ticket to a later train, and accepted the invitation.
Reserve center Chuck Everson was there, his 7′ 1″ frame parked three chairs down from me in the seventh row of seating right behind one of the goals. To my right was Gary McLain, one of the ‘85 team’s most instrumental guards, and on my left was Connally Brown, who’d been a sophomore during the storied championship run, but remains an active part of the group.
Others filled in behind us, some looking trim as they’d been as student athletes, others showing what three decades can do to a large man’s waistline.
But all were thrilled to be watching the next generation battle the Providence Friars for Big East prominence. Together, along with 19,000 other fans, we shouted and whistled and got generally swept away by March Madness.
Everytime a “Let’s go, Friars!” chant echoed over the court, some of us tried to down it out with a lusty E-A-G-L-E-S shout, including Brown, aka C.B., who was on the sidelines of the field in Minneapolis and heard for himself Doug Pederson call for the “Philly Special.”
The Friars mascot was another fun gametime distraction for the Nova alums: “It looks like it belongs in Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream.’”
When the Wildcats of today edged past the Providence Friars in overtime with a 76-66 victory, it felt like more than half the arena exploded in cheers.
The 1985 NCAA tournament, which saw the late legendary coach Rollie Massimino lead his team to an unlikely 66-64 championship over Georgetown, was almost like the Eagles Super Bowl win. Nova was dismissed every step of the way, but came back to take the title anyway.
The university’s in the suburbs, sure, but the trophy was celebrated by the entire Philly region — like the Wildcats’ 2016 win — and beyond.
Players on the ‘85 team have become minor celebrities definitely within the Nova Nation, but also outside their alma mater. They contributed to one of the biggest upsets in sports history, which has since been memorialized in a book and in a feature-length documentary.
McLain, who on the championship’s 30th anniversary made waves by admitting he’d been a heavy cocaine user when he was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player, refrained from drinking Saturday night. But he was still in the middle of the action before and after the match, toasting players both young and old with swigs of cold Red Bull, and posing for countless pics.
Sometimes the attention bestowed has less to do with how much they contributed to the successful championship drive than the specific role they played during the final game drive.
“I played like three minutes in the game but got like half an hour in the movie,” said Everson, referring to the 2005 film Perfect Upset, which went into detail about a key play near the end of the game where he had to guard an out-of-bounds throw. “It’s kind of crazy…but I’ll take it.”
Same for me, but for joining a group of strangers on a random Saturday night to soak up some regional sports pride. And I wasn’t alone — that late Amtrak home to Philly was packed full.