It’s hard to build a legend these days. Everything is immediate and documented, with video and photos accompanying just about anything notable, and plenty that’s less so. This nips myth in the bud. There is no longer the endless reshaping of narrative through an endless game of telephone among people who were there to the people who wish they had been. Little details are forgotten. Bigger details are exaggerated. Things are completely made up. Like Kyle Lowry punching Mark Zoller in the balls.
This constant surveillance wasn’t the standard in the earlier part of the century. In the 2003 championship game for the Philadelphia Catholic League, a high school basketball legend was born.
St. Joseph’s Prep was playing against Cardinal Dougherty for the title. Dougherty was favored, with an absurdly stacked lineup that included future Villanova stars Kyle Lowry, Bilal Benn and Shane Clark. DeSean White, who would go on to play at Providence, was also in the starting lineup. The Catholic League has been known to churn out Division 1 athletes, but having four major conference players on one roster solidified them as one of the most talented teams ever assembled in the league’s history.
Prep was less stacked, but still had plenty of talent in their starting lineup with John Griffin, who would go on to play for the Bucknell team that upset Kansas in the 2005 NCAA Tournament, and Chris Clark, who was headed to Temple University. But the standout for Prep was Mark Zoller, MVP of the Catholic League, future Penn basketball star, and eventual Big 5 Hall of Fame inductee.
Zoller put forth a Herculean effort in the title game, scoring 31 points on 11-of-16 shooting. Prep had a comfortable lead for much of the game, but Dougherty came roaring back to bring it within five with under a minute. That’s when The Punch happened.
Dougherty was applying a frantic full-court press to force a turnover. Zoller, the outlet man, received the ball at half court. Lowry, who in those days and at that level displayed nearly superhuman speed, flew towards him. A few seconds later, Lowry had fouled out with 29 points, and the title for Prep was sealed.
What happened in those few seconds is a matter of controversy.
“He rabbit punched him in the balls,” says Corey O’Rourke, who was a sophomore guard for Prep during that 2003 season.
Even as legend, this made no sense. Dougherty was within two scores and had plenty of time left on the clock. Even for someone who was notorious in Philly basketball circles for endlessly flirting with the line between gritty and dirty, Lowry wouldn’t have done something that reckless. John Griffin, now a coach at St. Joseph’s University, says that wasn’t how it would’ve gone. “I’ve known Kyle a long time. He’s as competitive as they come, self-made guy. He didn’t hit him below the belt.”
The truth? “He got me square in the face,” Zoller remembers. “It was kind of a closed hand, like a DB trying to punch the ball out, but he missed and, for lack of a better term, punched me in the face.”
Zoller, now a senior account manager at Lincoln Financial Group in Philadelphia, doesn’t think it was intentional. He compares Lowry’s game back then to that of Draymond Green, another player who fits the undersized and underskilled profile who compensates with a willingness to do anything to win. Those guys always come close to the line of dirty play, sometimes stepping over it, but Zoller is convinced that Lowry was just trying to get the ball.
“He was going for the steal,” Zoller says. “I had just had the ball by my head and brought it down. It was definitely aggressive, but it wasn’t malicious, I don’t think. Other people think it was intentional.”
Lowry has always had this reputation, dating back to the Philadelphia AAU circuit. Undersized and quick, but with the same relative frame and strength as he sports today, he had a tendency to get under people’s skin. Box outs that were a half second early or swipes at the ball that ended up with hard slaps to the forearm when the referee had no angle to call it—Lowry used every advantage he could find. That tendency is still on display, with Lowry being involved in numerous scuffles in these playoffs that usually started with a box out or close out that bordered on legality.
“I was always a taller guy,” Griffin says. “Sixth, seventh, eighth grade. Bigger than other guys. Kyle was always the smallest guy on the floor, so to get on the court, he had to do everything he could. He had to be the toughest guy in the gym … To this day, he’s everything that people like me in this business would call the prototype Philly guard.”
Still, a rabbit punch to the genitals during a crucial late-game comeback always seemed too good to be true. It was too perfect, like the entirety of Lowry’s Philadelphia legend—underhyped, overaggressive, recklessly fascinating—boiled down into one play seen through the mists of memory.
“I always thought it was the balls,” O’Rourke says when told of Zoller’s firsthand recollection. “That’s weird.”
Perhaps within the legend is a lesson in what we project onto others and how it colors our perception of events. For Zoller, a man in the heat of battle, it was two competitors doing their best to win a championship. For other observers—those who ultimately fueled the legend—it was Lowry doing what Lowry was known for: throwing cheap shots at the other team’s best player in hopes of knocking them off their game.
Lowry, ever the competitor, never apologized for the punch or even spoke of the incident in Zoller’s hearing. So, how did it feel to watch Lowry reach the pinnacle of basketball achievement against the Warriors, playing perhaps the best game of his career in the series-clinching Game 6?
“It’s actually cool, you know, like that Philly hoops connection,” Zoller says. “I actually grew up playing with Kyle, we were teammates in the Eastern Invitational before my senior year, his junior year … If we see each other to this day, it’s kind of a head nod, what’s up, how you doing, nothing crazy. We don’t run in the same circles, though.
“I mean, he’s a gold medalist, now an NBA Champion. If you would’ve told me 15 years ago that’s where he’d be today, I’d have said no way. He was a great player, but still.”
Zoller isn’t bitter. The two were rivals in high school, and continued to be rivals in college as they both played for Big 5 schools in the Philadelphia area. Of course, it helps that his recollection of the event is relatively innocuous: a tough player making a tough play to try and win a game for his team. If the legend was true and Zoller had been punched directly in the balls, odds are pretty good he would feel a little less kinship. Still, Zoller’s got some bragging rights that not even Lowry’s NBA title can erase.
“I’ll take 1-0 in the Catholic League Championship game. I can hold that over his head, at least,” Zoller says. “I’m sure he’s still pretty pissed about that.”
Casey Taylor is a writer living and working in Pittsburgh. If you’d like to praise him, yell at him, or offer him an unfathomably lucrative writing opportunity, you can email him here or follow him on Twitter.