Phil Martelli: Still Standing Strong!

It was December 7, 2013… I remember it like it was last night…

Jay Wright brought his undefeated and 14th ranked Wildcats down Lancaster Ave. for a “Holy War” matchup with the Saint Joseph’s University Hawks. For the first 20 minutes, it was a fairly even game. Villanova entered the locker room at halftime leading 39-35. I looked forward to a typically tight Big 5 finish.

Then it happened… Whoaaaa… I have no idea what Wright said to his troops during the intermission. But… Daaaaaaaymn it worked!

I have always imagined it had to be something along the lines of Ray Rhodes’ legendary motivational speech to his Eagles team. If you are an Eagles fan of a certain age, you know the speech, Rhodes told his squad to think of the other team as burglars coming into their homes to beat their kids and rape their wives.

Had to be something along those lines… I was a witness…

Nova came out of the locker room, the buzzer sounded…

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James Bell, 25 points and 14 rebounds on 12/07/2013

 

The Wildcats made the Hawks go into the bushes and get a switch. “And… you betta NOT bring back a lil’ one…” Then they told ‘em to take off their pants. They proceeded to whoop dat ass UNMERCIFULLY for 20 minutes straight. It was the kind of whoopin’ that left huge welts on the upper thigh and gluteus maximus for days… If you from ’round da way, it was an “extension cord” type of ass whoopin’…

Final score Villanova 98, St. Joseph’s 68… Drubbed by thirty! JayVaughn Pinkston had 27 and 8. James Bell finished with 25 and 14. It was UGLY! In front of a standing room only packed Hagan Arena…

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JayVaughn Pinkston, 27 points and 8 rebounds on 12/07/2013

The air was thick with tension, disappointment and frustration as the lashes were administered… Whoop… Whoop… Whoop… They NEVER let up…

Remember how you felt sorry for your homie as you sat outside the window and listened to his Momma whoop dat ass for the dumb shit y’all did… That’s how it felt for 4,200 Hawk fans that night…

One young man, however, decided to take it a step further… He crossed a line… He came over to the family section directly behind the St. Joseph’s bench and proceeded to belt out a rhythmic chant at the top of his lungs…

“FIRE PHIL… FIRE PHIL… FIRE PHIL… FIRE PHIL… FIRE PHIL… FIRE PHIL…”

This went on for 1 minute, then 2 minutes, then 4 minutes…

It became apparent that this young man was not going to cease.

Finally, Phil’s lovely wife Judy, grandchild in her arms decided to stand about 3 feet directly in front of this young man and stare through his soul. If looks could kill, this young man died a thousand deaths.

I truly feared she might revert to her Immaculata playing days and elbow the young man in his orbital socket…

Awkward, uncomfortable, vexatious, exasperating… I cannot find the words to describe the feeling I had standing proximate to these two die hard Hawk supporters…

In some ways, I understood the positions of both parties… The fan was humiliated… The Hawks did not put up a fight… As Buddy Ryan would say, they “lifted their skirt.” For the first time in my three decades of following St. Joseph’s basketball, the Hawk, while not dead, was on life support.

I had high hopes for that particular Hawk squad. Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic were All-League level players and DeAndre Bembry was the ultimate glue guy as a freshman. I too was EXTREMELY disappointed…

But, to relentlessly call for a man to be fired within a few feet of his wife, daughter, father and grandchildren was bit much for me…

I needed to talk with someone… Someone that could provide some perspective…

What the FUCK was goin’ on?

The next day, I called Rashid Bey… Phil’s first truly great player at St. Joseph’s, Bey is a 2-time Big 5 MVP Award winner and Big Hall of Famer. He led the Hawks to a Sweet 16 appearance in the 1997 NCAA Tournament.

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Rashid Bey, Big 5 Hall of Famer

“What up Sheed?”

I described what I had witnessed the night before… In great detail, I spelled out the ass whoopin’… I complained about the tactless display by the understandably frustrated fan… I sympathized with Judy enduring a relentless call for her husband’s termination…

“What the FUCK Rashid?”

In response, he very calmly said to me… “I think Phil is gonna go on a run with this team… watch.”

I thought… “Huh? Sheed is bugging”

Fast forward to March 16, 2014, I was at the team hotel with Langston, Ron, Halil and Phil… I was in the room when their name was called and they found out they would play UConn in the NCAA tournament. Just as his former player predicted, Phil went on a run with that team and they won the A-10 Championship a couple hours earlier at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, NY.

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2014 A10 Champions, St. Joseph’s University Hawks

I say all of that to say…There’s something about the connection Martelli has with really good players he coaches. It was there with Bey and Myers… It was there with O’Connor and Crenshaw… It was there with Nelson, West and Carroll… Bey had premonition that it would emerge with Galloway.

He was right…

It would emerge two years later with Bembry and Miles… Another run… Another A-10 Championship…

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2016 A10 Champions, St. Joseph’s University Hawks

Martelli has a gift… He is able to get really good players to believe in themselves… Over and over we have seen his guys become enormously confident in themselves and lift their teammates…

Once they reach this point, Phil is a master at knowing when to step aside and let them go. Typically, these players are highly skilled guards and wings. Once they are on the same page, Phil truly gets out of their way. It becomes and absolute pleasure to watch them play the right way without him riding them day in and day out.

Oh… He will always FORCEFULLY redirect the supporting players that miss an assignment or give less than full effort. But when St. Joseph’s is really good, Martelli has really talented guys he can trust… These 2 or 3 guys rarely miss an assignment and they always give maximum effort. They lead by example.

It’s a joy to watch Martelli at this point in his coaching career. He has led Saint Joseph’s to seven NCAA Tournaments and six NITs.  He has been named Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year 4 times (1997, 2001, 2004, 2005). He was Naismith College Coach of the Year (2004) and Associated Press Coach of the Year (2004). But, that’s not the stuff most remember…

He came in rumbling Steve Lappas, Speedy Morris and John Chaney. He’s squared off against their successors. His friendly rivalry with Bruiser spanned Flint’s tenure with UMass and Drexel. He’s seen Billy Hahn, Glen Miller, Jerome Allen and John Giannini come and go.

This will be the final year he faces his dear friend Fran Dunphy.

This past off season, the pages of Big 5 history were turned yet again. Ashley Howard took the reigns at La Salle and Aaron McKie was formally installed as the Head Coach in Waiting at Temple.

These changes sparked a lot of discussion about the recruiting landscape in Philadelphia. Martelli heard the whispers. Those Coach of the year Trophies really didn’t seem to matter that much…

“Could he still relate to the high school kids? Could he compete with Aaron and Ashley in the living rooms of recruits?”

Martelli grabbed his smartphone and let everybody know exactly how he felt… “I’m still the O.G! I’m still here!”

While he was congratulatory toward McKie and Howard, he called every AAU and High School coach in the area and let them know he intended to continue competing aggressively in his hometown. He was yielding no ground…

That call made me smile…

A few months later, Ryan Daly (Archbishop Carroll) is on his roster. Hakim Hart (Roman Catholic) and Jameer Nelson (Haverford) have committed to attend SJU.

On the floor, silky-smooth, super shooting wing Charlie Brown (George Washington) and point guard Fresh Kimble (Neumann-Goretti) are combining with the uber-cerebral forward Pierfrancesco Oliva to lead the way for the 2018-2019 Hawks.

They played their first game last night. A good win over a tough, experienced, athletic Old Dominion team. I know it’s only one game… BUT… It’s pretty obvious Fresh, Charlie and Oliva are good players beginning to believe in themselves… All three have missed a season due to injury. They are hungry… They want to win…

Oh… I saw Martelli carrying two of his precious grandchildren last night… The mood in the room was just a tad lighter than that dreadful night 5 years ago…

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Martelli and 5 of his grandchildren after win over ODU

I’m bout to call Rashid… Tell you what he says…

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One response

  1. That article was heartwarming and should be mandatory reading for all of Phil’s critics as well as supporters. Very well done, researched, and with a touch of admiration and respect.

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