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The Shot Doc

03/12/18

As a player, Herb Magee rarely missed a shot. After half a century as a basketball coach, he's still at the top of his game.

Herb Magee

One day in 1982, Jefferson University men’s basketball coach Herb Magee walked into a gym where kids were seated at midcourt. They were attending a summer basketball camp, and Coach Magee was the guest speaker. Known as “the Shot Doctor,” he was already coaching NBA stars on the fine points
of shooting. Magee never looked at the campers; he just started taking jump shots while instructing them on the mechanics of what he was doing. He talked for 45 minutes and never missed. Then he strode to mid-court and threw the ball up into the rafters. It bounced once on the court before swishing through the basket, ending the lesson with an exclamation point.

As a basketball standout for the Philadelphia Textile Institute, Magee was a two-time All American and finished his college career in 1963 as the school’s all-time leading scorer, with 2,235 points. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics but decided to become a coach at his alma mater instead. Three years later, he led the Rams to an NCAA national championship.

Magee is now in his 51st year as head coach. He’s turned down numerous offers to coach pro and Division I teams. He is one of only two NCAA men’s basketball coaches to record 1,000 career wins and has brought the Rams to 29 Division II tournament appearances. Coach Magee is enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, and the halls of fame for his alma maters, West Catholic High School and Philadelphia University, among others. He holds a  slew of Coach of the Year awards. The Philadelphia Sports Writers Association named him a “Living Legend” in 2012.

On Jefferson University’s East Falls campus, the Rams play home games on the Herb Magee Court, where his retired number 4 is on display. You have to pass a bust of Magee  to get there—as well as an overstuffed trophy case dedicated to him and his teams.

Ed Malloy, one of Coach Magee’s former players and now an NBA referee, was a camper at the gym where the Shot Doctor was talking and shooting baskets in 1982. “I don’t remember what he was saying,” Malloy recalls. “I just remember watching and thinking, ‘Is this guy ever going to miss?’”

You’re a small person by NBA standards. What made you think you could be a successful basketball player?
I grew up in West Philly. The only thing I ever wanted to do was to make the team at West Catholic High School. Back in the day, that was the place. I went to St. Francis de Sales Elementary School. My only thought the whole time was, “Soon, I’m going to be at West.”

I was a little skinny guy, so I figured the only way I could do this was to become a guy who could really shoot. I knew by watching college teams, high school teams, and the Philadelphia Warriors that the most important aspect of the game is shooting, so I taught myself how to do it. I’d go to Warrior games and watch how Tom Gola and Paul Arizin, guys who later became my friends, released the ball. I would then go practice—and by “practice” I mean I’d shoot 600–700 shots a day. We’d sneak into St. Francis’ gym—it was a dungeon, but it was a gym—and we’d just shoot constantly. That’s all I did. 

When you were drafted by the Boston Celtics, why did you decide to go into coaching basketball instead of playing?
I got a letter from the Boston Celtics telling me to report to training camp. The week before, I broke two fingers on my right hand. They were all splinted. I couldn’t go to tryouts without being able to shoot, because that’s what I did. I wasn’t a rebounder and wasn’t going to play defense. So my Textile coach, Bucky Harris, notified the Celtics that I wouldn’t be coming. I don’t think it broke their heart because I was the 62nd draft pick.
Then at the same time, Bucky arranged a job for me at Textile. My job was JV basketball coach, an assistant to him, and I was also coaching the cross country team and the tennis team, and teaching phys ed classes. As it turned out, if I’d made the Celtics, I probably would have made the same amount, which was like $5,000. The honor of being drafted is huge, but I wish I’d been able to go just to see how I could have competed.

You’ve had offers to coach Division I and pro teams, but you’ve turned them all down. Why?
All the jobs would have involved moving, and I didn’t want to leave the area. My family is here, and my friends are here. Coaching here in Philadelphia is the same as coaching at Penn State or Boston College, so to me, the lure would have been simply money. I don’t have a lot, but I have enough.

What do you enjoy about coaching?
Working with young kids and helping them not only with their game but teaching them about life. Just now, I had a meeting with the team before we started practice. We lost a game the other night that we had a chance of winning. I was explaining that when they get older and come back to watch Jefferson play, they won’t talk about how many points they scored or other individual achievements. What they’ll talk about will be how much fun they had and how well their team did. What they’ll remember is being on a winning team and the pride they felt playing in the NCAA tournament or winning a conference championship. What players remember is always about the team.

You’ve been through four name changes: Philadelphia Textile Institute, Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, Philadelphia University, and now Jefferson. What do you make of it?
Actually, there were five name changes. After we won the NCAA national championship in 1970, President Burt Hayward changed the name to Magee College of Textiles and Science for a day. They also named every building on campus after one of the players on the team, which was great. Then we had a motorcade down to City Hall, where Mayor Tate gave us all replicas of the Liberty Bell. 

How’s the team look this year?
We put together a team this year that we thought was going to be a powerhouse. Then we got a couple bad breaks. We had two kids injured, both out for the year. Another kid left just before school started because he invented this coffee drink and was hired by some entrepreneur to work on new innovations. I’ve lost players to torn ACLs and rotator cuffs, but I’ve never lost one to coffee. It really set us back. Fortunately for us, it’s our turn to host the conference playoffs. We’re getting better as the season progresses, and I like our chances now. 

Is there anything you’d like to say to Jefferson’s medical students and alumni?
Welcome aboard. I know you’ve never had an athletic program before, and I can’t imagine how much work you have to do. I have a lot of pride in what we’ve been able to accomplish over the years, and I hope you would have the same amount of pride. I know it would be tough to come from downtown to watch us play, but we have a great basketball team, and I’d like to see that happen sometime—maybe on a Saturday.

—Peter Nichols