Phil Martelli

Massimino showed Big 5 coaches the impact that can be made on players

Massimino showed Big 5 coaches the impact that can be made on players

The Palestra was nearly empty. It was an October scrimmage pitting an NAIA team vs. an Ivy League team. And the opposing coach was over 80 years old.

But much to Penn head coach Steve Donahue's amazement and delight, that opposing coach — Rollie Massimino — was still doing Rollie things.

He was up on his feet, yelling at his Keiser University players, having fun, even playfully punching a Penn player in the arm at one point after he hit a few three-pointers right in front of him during the exhibition game last October between Keiser and the host Quakers.

"He really had great passion and enthusiasm," Donahue said. "To be 82 and coaching like he did last year, I marvel at that. Coaching has changed so dramatically. Guys do it for different reasons. It was pretty apparent Rollie did it for the relationships with the young people and helping them get better. I think that's who Rollie was."

Rollie Massimino, the legendary Villanova head coach and basketball lifer who went on to run the UNLV, Cleveland State and Keiser programs, died Wednesday after battling cancer and other health problem for years.

And while his death hit the Villanova family hard — particularly his protege Jay Wright, who gave an emotional interview about what Massimino meant to him — it also struck a chord with the rest of the Big 5 coaches who came to know him well and appreciated what he meant for basketball in the city.

"He was an icon in Philadelphia college coaching," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "We all felt a tie to him. He was good to everybody. Once he knew what you were doing and what you were asking, he was gonna put his whole heart and soul into it.

"It didn't matter if you were a Villanova guy or you weren't. You were a basketball guy and that's all that mattered to him."

Like everyone, Dunphy has vivid memories of Massimino guiding Villanova on their stunning run to the 1985 national championship. An assistant at American University at the time (in a few months, he'd begin a 30-plus-year coaching run in the Big 5 at La Salle), he marveled at what he saw, calling it "wonderful to watch" and saying the 'Cats play "pretty much the perfect game."

Then a graduate assistant at the University of North Texas, La Salle head coach John Giannini watched in awe from his dorm lounge, saying that "I don't think college basketball fans anywhere will ever forget that."

And Donahue, who graduated from Ursinus a year earlier, remembers what the '85 championship meant for the Philadelphia — as well as the next generation of the city's coaches.

"The city needed a champion," the Penn head coach said. "It wasn't just Villanova. At the time, I was really proud that Villanova was our team. In '85, I just remember thinking this was just an incredible achievement and the city getting behind it was really remarkable.

"And I just think he made guys like myself and other people really start looking at coaching and how much you can have an impact on kids."

For young coaches like Donahue, Massimino was the perfect person to try emulate. He wasn't flashy and didn't necessarily look the part, but he focused on the important things like building relationships, having players over to his house for bowls of spaghetti, and generally treating a program like a family.

"Rollie was who he was," Donohue said. "And there was something really refreshing in that — that you could achieve greatness in coaching being yourself."

"He was a throwback, no question," Dunphy added. "He was a coach's coach."

Dunphy first met Massimino in the early 1970s when Massimino was an assistant at Penn for a season under Chuck Daly. Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli came to know him well not long after when his wife, Judy, was an assistant coach at Villanova, and Massimino showed him what kind of person he is.

"He reached out to us when our daughter Elizabeth had a serious surgery at the age of 3, and throughout my career at Saint Joseph's," Martelli said. "He has been a presence both on the sidelines at Villanova and in the Philadelphia basketball world."

That relationship continued for four decades with Massimino making a stop at Martelli's camp in Avalon, N.J., this past August, taking a photo with Martelli that the St. Joe's coach said he'll "treasure for the rest of my life." Martelli and the rest of the Big 5 coaches also honored him with a special ceremony during their Coaches vs. Cancer gala in April 2016.

"That was great," Dunphy said. "He was struggling at that point physically but he'd never let you know, never entered his thought process. He was always gonna fight it."

Perhaps the best part was that Rollie was still himself in his final years, a fierce competitor on the court and a warm friend off of it. He was still the guy who once shared a wonderful dinner with Giannini during the European Championships in Sicily, bonding over Italian food and their shared Italian heritage. And he was still the guy, too, that met Donahue for the first time by approaching him at a restaurant in Havertown and pretending to give him a hard time at the request of a former player who knew them both.

"Rollie was like that — he would play the practical joke, he would have fun," Donahue said. "He was just someone who loved to be around people. Even in the last couple years of his life, he still wanted to be around people. He wanted to coach. Every day was fun for him and exciting. That's why I think he coached, literally, until the day he died."

Coaching as long as he did certainly came with sacrifices, of course. Giannini remembers a time when Massimino called him to set up an exhibition vs. La Salle while getting a blood transfusion.

"I just thought about the level of toughness it takes to be working when you're getting that kind of treatment," the La Salle coach said. "I also thought about the kind of love of basketball it takes. I think it's inspirational that, as recently as the last few months, he was still doing what he loves."

That's just one reason why Massimino will be so missed — around the country certainly but especially in the Philadelphia area's tight-knit basketball community.

"One word that's overused is the word legend," Giannini said. "But someone who changes hundreds of lives and someone who succeeds at the highest level and someone who makes history I think qualifies as a legend. Coach Massimino is definitely a legend."

"He loved coaching and he loved working with kids," Dunphy added. "And he loved the relationships with the players. It didn't matter if it was Villanova or UNLV or Cleveland State or Keiser University. Him coaching was what life was all about. And I don't know if I've ever seen anybody fight this disease as hard as he did."

Phil Martelli, Jr. joins dad on Saint Joseph's basketball staff

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AP Images

Phil Martelli, Jr. joins dad on Saint Joseph's basketball staff

What's in a name? Well, when you're a basketball coach named Martelli, you've definitely got something good going for you.

Saint Joseph's announced Thursday afternoon that Phil Martelli, Jr., the eldest son of longtime Hawks head coach Phil Martelli, will return to City Line Avenue as the director of basketball operations for his dad's team starting this season. Martelli Jr. was a four-year player for St. Joe's from 1999 to 2003 when the Hawks made a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances and won a trio of Atlantic 10 regular-season crowns.

Most recently, the younger Martelli was an assistant last season for the Sixers' G-League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers. 

Before that, he started as a 22-year-old full-time assistant at Central Connecticut State in 2002 (making him the youngest coach in Division I basketball). Martelli, Jr. then made stops at Manhattan, Niagara and Delaware — the Blue Hens recorded their best season in recent memory just four seasons ago in 2013-14, when they won the Colonial Athletic Association's regular-season and conference titles before appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years.

The Hawks' A-10 pairings are already set for the 2017-18 season, but St. Joe's has yet to announce its full nonconference slate for the year.

Frustrations grow for Phil Martelli, St. Joe's in 9th straight loss

Frustrations grow for Phil Martelli, St. Joe's in 9th straight loss

BOX SCORE

St. Joe's could not solve Rhode Island's high-intensity defense Wednesday night, falling, 68-49, at Hagan Arena (see Instant Replay).

Before the first media timeout, the Hawks already had four turnovers. Even coach Phil Martelli can admit it comes down to skill and depth -- both areas the Hawks lack in.

"We came out and turned the ball over," Martelli said. "That's not sluggish, that's skill. We turned the ball over four times by the first media timeout. It has nothing to do with being sluggish, it has everything to do with the skill of running, passing and dribbling the ball.

"I'm not killing anybody, but on the first play of the game, our guy dribbled the ball off his foot into the backcourt. We threw at least three passes into the crowd."

St. Joe's finished with 13 turnovers.

Its troubles began in the first half as it fell behind, 36-20, thanks to a 12-2 run by the Rams late in the stanza. The Hawks never held a lead in the game. 

"They're a great defensive team," Brendan Casper said. "They pressure the ball, they overplay the wings and they make it difficult for you to get into an offense. I think we struggled with that today. We couldn't initiate the first pass and we were slow. We couldn't get the ball out on the break, I don't know how many fast-break points we had but I feel like we were slow in the break.

"So credit to them for a great defense, but also we didn't run offense. We missed foul shots. When we got looks, they didn't always drop, but they're one of the best teams in the Atlantic 10."

Casper started for Nick Robinson, who played only eight minutes because of a foot injury. The fourth different starting point guard for the Hawks was right about St. Joe's being lost at the free throw line, where it went 9 for 20 (45 percent).

However, it wasn't just the charity stripe. The Hawks struggled in the paint, an area they were outscored, 34-20, while the bench was outscored, 27-9. St. Joe's also shot just 2 for 9 from beyond the arc.

This is the ninth straight loss for the Hawks. They have not lost that many in a row since January 2011.

"I find the closest brick wall and run straight into it," Martelli said. "As many times as I can. Because that's what I'm doing, that's what it feels like. All I can do it ask them to fill up their tank, and to show up.

"All I can do is come up with a plan. Tonight's plan: zone. We played one possession of man-to-man. And people will say, 'You just waved the white flag.' Well, give me an option here. What if we had foul trouble? We would have been down to volunteers to play, so we couldn't afford foul trouble."

Martelli has been without his starting point guard Lamarr Kimble, who injured his foot on Feb. 11 against UMass, and leading scorer Shavar Newkirk, who tore his ACL earlier this season.

Freshman Charlie Brown still believes in his point guards not named Kimble.

"We have Nick and Brendan, who get our offense started," Brown. "When it comes down to it, we need to be scoring more."

With a pair of triples Wednesday, Brown set the Hawks' freshman record for threes in a season at 66. He hit his first one two minutes into the contest and waited until there were 45 seconds left in the game to enter the record books.

"It's a great feeling," Brown said. "I thank my teammates, first of all. They allow me to get open and take my shots and I really thank them for that."

Records aside, this was still another Hawks loss because of a young team with players that have not fully matured yet.

"Call it the way it is," Martelli said. "That was participation. That wasn't a competition.

"I think they gave me what they have, it's just their games are light. Team with the better players won and team with the more manly players won."

Honored
Prior to the start of the game, Casper and Javon Baumann were honored for senior night.

Martelli spoke highly of each and mentioned they have contributed to rich history of St. Joe's basketball.

"They have two [A-10] championships," Martelli said. "They have two championships in four years and Javon already graduated in 3½ years. Brendan is a remarkable athletic honor-roll student. They are leaving as champions. They get a tattoo for this [season's] record, too, but they have two Atlantic 10 rings. Job well done."

Casper left the game to a thunderous applause late in the second half.

"There are definitely a lot of emotions in your last home game," Casper said. "Especially getting the start at point guard … you want to go out and play well in your last game."