Magee's an unheralded hoops legend

Originally Published: January 13, 2006
By Rich Podolsky | Special to ESPN.com

Herb Magee, a Philadelphia treasure, is also one of the city's best kept secrets.

A great shooter in his own right, once making 77 straight jump shots at Jim Lynam's basketball camp, Magee has become a shooting doctor to the pros. He's more likely, though, to be remembered as one of the winningest basketball coaches of all time.

In 1963, Magee graduated from Philadelphia Textile (now Philadelphia University) as the school's all-time leading scorer with 2,235 points. Four years later, at the tender age of 26, he became the school's third head coach. There has never been a fourth. Now in his 39th season, he has coached the Division II power to 804 victories (seventh on the all-time, all-divisions list) and, given that he's a youthful 64 years old, Magee might become the first NCAA coach to reach 1,000.

"He can flat-out coach," said Lynam, an old friend and former 76ers coach. "One of the first things I did when I went back to coach Saint Joseph's in the '70s was to take Textile off the schedule. He beat Temple twice. He's a terrific teacher, and the fact is, he still makes every shot."

Herb Magee
Magee's had over 800 reasons for late-game player handshakes.

In his very first year, Magee took the Rams to the NCAA Division II postseason tournament. In his third season, in 1969-70, without a player above 6-foot-5, he won the national championship. That team finished 29-2, winning its final 28 straight, 22 of them on the road. The Rams blew out almost everyone they played.

"In the tournament that year," Magee said, "we won by 27 over Youngstown, 18 over Ashland, 48 over American International, 16 over Cal Riverside, and the only game that was close, we won by 11 over Tennessee State. I remember saying at the time -- and not trying to be cocky -- 'That was pretty easy. I'll probably do that a lot.' Here we are, 36 years later, and we've been to the Elite Eight a couple of times but never back to the championship [game]."

Magee was forced to grow up fast. When he was 12, his mother died of cancer, and a year later, his father died suddenly of a stroke. He and his three brothers were about to be split up when his uncle Edwin, a priest, stepped in and became their guardian.

Magee's basketball path began in West Philadelphia at West Catholic High, where he played alongside Lynam and Jim Boyle, teammates who were to become lifelong friends. Together, they won West Catholic's last Catholic League title, in 1959. Lynam was the point guard, Magee was the shooter, and Boyle set the picks and got the rebounds.

"Our friendship started as a result of our passion for playing," Lynam says. "We played every day, all day. That's all we did. Herb was an extraordinary shooter, and I mean extraordinary! He understood shooting, even at that age. The whole foundation of us playing effectively was that if he got open, it was in. That's a pretty strong premise."

During their high school years, Lynam and Magee became especially close. Because they were seated alphabetically, Magee sat right behind Lynam all four years. "And," Magee added tongue in cheek, "he never had an answer worth copying."

Lynam and Boyle eventually were tapped by Jack Ramsay to play for the Saint Joe's Hawks, a national power at the time, but there was no room for Magee, who was heartbroken. When it came time to pick a college, Bucky Harris (from Textile) recruited Magee and his uncle Edwin.

"My uncle told me, 'That's the place you should go,' " Magee recalls. "And I said OK, because whatever he said, that's what I did. And as they say, the rest is history. I've been there ever since."

Magee averaged more than 29 points a game in the 1961-62 season and more than 24 for his college career. After the '62-'63 season, in which his team went to the NCAA quarterfinals, Magee was drafted 63rd overall by the Boston Celtics. Before reporting that summer, though, Magee broke two fingers on his shooting hand in a summer league game, just about ending all hope of playing in the pros.

"I told somebody the other day," Magee says, "that there are five reasons why I wouldn't have made that team. The first is Bob Cousy, the second is Bill Sharman, [then] Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and John Havlicek. They're all guards, and they're all in the Hall of Fame."

So Magee asked Bucky Harris to help him find a coaching position somewhere. Harris replied, "How about here?" A position was created that involved a little more than just coaching the junior varsity team.

"I taught a couple of phys-ed classes," Magee said. "Coached the cross country team, and I had tennis. Then they said, 'Take the golf team, Herb, just for one year.' Twenty years later, I was still coaching them. This is small college basketball. You've got to do all kinds of things. They created a spot for me, and I was very grateful."

Magee borrowed from every clinic and especially from Ramsay, Jack McKinney and Harris. Then he made the best $2 investment of his life.

"The one thing I really used," Magee said, "was this $2 pamphlet I bought called 'Let's Play Defense' from Bobby Knight. It had numerous drills that he used when he was coaching at Army. And we still use a lot of the same principles and the same drills."

Success quickly followed. Now, almost four decades later, Magee's teams have made 22 appearances in the NCAA Tournament and he has 25 20-win seasons to his credit. The Rams' streak of 80 straight home-court victories from 1990 through '95 still stands as the Division II standard.

After the early success, other schools reached out to hire him, but Magee, who was going through a divorce at that time, was reluctant to leave his two young daughters, Kay and Eileen, behind.

"And the next thing you know," Magee says, "it's [been] 25 [years here], and [then] you turn around, and it's [been] 39, and you actually have to be reminded of it when we hit one of these milestones like 600, 700 or 800 [wins]."

Along the way, by tutoring pros like Charles Barkley, and more recently Malik Rose and Sebastian Telfair, he has become sought after as one of the top shooting specialists in the country. Through HerbMagee.com, his videos have taken on a life of their own. Still, the only thing historians are focusing on is his ascension on the all-time victories list.

"I kiddingly told my brother recently that, 'I keep whizzing by dead guys,' but let me tell you, it's really hard to win basketball games." Magee says. "I never set out in coaching to win more games than anyone else [who] ever lived. That's just something that comes along. Right now, the only thing I'm concerned about is just trying to win tomorrow."

Of those in front of Magee, only Knight is still active and is his most likely competition in the race to 1,000. But for Knight, who is 65, it would mean coaching at least six more seasons after this one, which is not a given.

"I look at coaches like Bobby Knight and Dean Smith that have done it at a higher level, and I marvel at guys like that," Magee says.

In perfect health, Magee has no plans to retire.

"When the day comes that I don't look forward to practice and playing, or doing the little things -- the recruiting, fundraising -- I'll know that's the time to stop."

When Magee won his 800th game last month at home, you practically needed a printed invitation to get in. Attending were four of Philadelphia's Big 5 coaches, several of his dozen or so former assistants who are now head coaches around the country, and scores of former players. Magee's No. 4 jersey, the only number ever retired by the school, hung from the rafters. When the game was over, his daughters unfurled a huge "800" banner for the TV cameras.

"It was standing room only," Magee laughed. "It was fun. It was really fun."

Rich Podolsky is a contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN Insider.

Rich Podolsky

College Football
Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.

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