The Eastern State Story

At first, Herb Magee wasn’t sure.

It had been more than half a century since Magee stood in this spot, between Cell Blocks 5 and 6 inside Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue. The sights all around him quickly began matching up to his memories. Magee could envision inmates sitting on a low-hanging roof over a cell block, watching a basketball game, a game he was playing in.

“This is it,” Philadelphia University’s Hall of Fame coach decided.

Magee had been there a couple of times to play against inmates, once in high school, once in college. Tufts of grass had mostly taken over the cracked asphalt court. The two backboards were gone. The poles that had held them up were all that was left, about 70 feet apart.

“The guard tower was right there,” Magee said, “and these guys screaming at you, right here. No pressure.”

Did his team win?

“We did win, but they were pretty good,” Magee said of his first visit. “We had some good guys on our team, older guys. I played on an independent basketball team. Guys who hung in bars, like the Cherry Tree Inn, the Pennsylvania Railroad Post. I was probably the youngest guy on the team. . . . They weren’t intimidated coming here.”

‘I can feel his presence’

The group was invited to play at the penitentiary by Magee’s uncle, Father Edwin Gallagher, who had been Eastern State’s Catholic chaplain. Before going out to the court, Magee had stopped in what was the chaplain’s office.

“I can feel his presence,” Magee said in that room.

“My uncle was the most influential man in my life,” Magee said as he stood in his uncle’s old office. “He was the finest man that I knew, and the finest man I’ve ever met in my life. He’s the reason that I am what I am today.”

Magee’s mother had died when he was 12 and his father when he was 13. He was one of four brothers living at 45th and Baltimore. Another uncle moved in, but it was Uncle Edwin who was in charge, visiting twice a week either from the prison or, later, a parish assignment at St. Michael’s in Fishtown.

“When he came home, he was all business,” Magee said. ” ‘Let me see your grades. What did you do here? When’s your next game? We’re all going to say the rosary.’ ”

If Magee won a big game, the priest would slip him a $10 or a $20 bill.

“He was always on the scene, Uncle Edwin. That’s, like, one word – UncleEdwin, ” said Herb’s brother, Chas. “We had three uncles. One other lived at the house. We’re Irish. . . . Every Irish family has one crazy guy. That was [Uncle Joe]. He never left the house.”

Uncle Edwin was the boss, the reason the family held together, and all the Magee brothers went on to successful lives.

“I would do whatever he asked me,” Herb Magee said.

Now the winningest college basketball coach in history, with 960 career victories, Magee also came to play at the prison one other time when he was in college at Philadelphia Textile, as Philadelphia University was called then. St. Joseph’s was going to play there. Magee’s friend, Jim Lynam, asked whether Magee wanted to join the Hawks, who included his buddy Jim Boyle.

He remembered the name of one opposing player.

“Biggy Small. He was this big,” Magee said, indicating Biggy was smaller than him. He remembered when Biggy was asked whether he wanted to take a picture with Hawks coach Jack Ramsay and the players. Biggy was fine with that.

“He was like, ‘Man, I’ve got nowhere to go. Where am I going?’ ” Magee said.

Magee doesn’t remember the details of either game he played inside the prison.

“Guys back in West Philly could play, even guys who didn’t play in college,” Magee said. “They use the word ‘spacing’ now. We did that without even talking about it. There were screens being set. There was stuff being run. It wasn’t just whoever had it, shot it. We played good team basketball.”

As for the prisoners, “My recollection of the game, I was impressed with their athletic ability but not with the way they played.”

They were more of a pickup team, he said, uncoached but competitive.

As for how Magee fared personally?

“Knowing me, I probably took the most shots,” Magee said as he stood in the old prison yard.

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