The William Penn boys' basketball team took on Steel-High Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Jim Seip, GameTimePA.com
PHILADELPHIA - Over the drone of music emanating from a player’s headphones, voices of William Penn students sounded out. Players pointed out the landmarks in South Philadelphia’s sports complex as the boys' basketball team rolled into town.
The home of the Eagles.
The home of the Phillies.
And for one afternoon, the home of the 76ers — the Wells Fargo Center — became the home away from home for the Bearcats.
William Penn’s boys’ basketball team played Steelton-Highspire in an afternoon matinee before the NBA’s 76ers and New York Knicks tipped off. Steel-High used a 10-0 second-half run to pull away for a 58-51 victory, but the day was not a total loss.
It was an experience.
The team bus left the high school, driving down Beaver Street and turning onto Market Street. Head coach Clovis Gallon overheard one of his players ask if this is what District 3 basketball is like. Gallon turned around to confirm: This is exactly what Bearcats players experience in the postseason.
Only today, the bus ride was longer.
Only today, the arena would be bigger.
For a team that played in just one District 3 playoff game last year, and for a team with many young players who never experienced even one playoff game at Hershey’s Giant Center, the day offered something new.
“The floor was bigger … the gym, the lights, it was great,” William Penn’s Nasir Smallwood said.
“Even though we had a little bit of fans, it still just echoed through. Everything was just your heart rushing. It was definitely a great experience, this is my first time even coming to Philadelphia. It was definitely a great experience for me, and everybody aboard had a great time.”
Changing into new uniforms at the Holiday Inn located just a short walk from the arena, the team gathered in a conference room to discuss strategy and talk about Steel-High’s zone defense. After the team prayer, the players returned to the bus to ride down the street to the arena.
“For me as a first experience coming up and doing something like this as a coach, it was a logistical nightmare for me,” Gallon said. “I really just wanted to focus on coaching, but you’ve got to sacrifice those things so your kids can have the experience like that.”
The game offered a whole array of distractions.
“The lights are on you,” William Penn’s Marquise McClean said. “You get little butterflies in your stomach when you try to play, but you just have to get that out of the way.”
Unlike William Penn High, where fans sit right behind the players’ bench, the players took the court with nothing but rows of empty seats behind them.
“I could hear my voice echoing throughout the arena,” Gallon said.
During the second half, an arena employee asked William Penn players to shuffle around so she could snake a cord under their seats. And then before the game ended — and as a couple Knicks players stretched in the hallway just behind the Bearcats' bench — fans were asked to gather their belongings and prepare to leave the arena as soon as the game ended.
Still, the day offered something different.
In the first half, Jacquez Casiano stood about two feet beyond the NBA 3-point arc and fired up a shot. He sank it.
“I was just shooting, I didn’t look down to see if it was NBA range,” Casiano said.
“The court was way bigger than I thought. It was a pretty fun experience shooting at an NBA basket. Tough loss,” Casiano said, “but it could have been better if we got a win.”