PHILADELPHIA -- Phil Martelli coaches with a rosary in his pants pocket, and his team plays with a chip on its shoulder.
For at least one week, Martelli and St. Joseph's University sit atop this great college basketball town. The Hawks' improbable run to a No. 19 ranking -- two spots above Villanova -- has provided one of the winter's warmest stories. St. Joe was last ranked in 1974. It plays in a 3,200-seat gym. Its talent isn't big-time either, but if it's passion you want.
For 10 so-so seasons, Martelli had been an anonymous assistant at St. Joe, which needed a new head coach two seasons ago. Would the Hawks go after a name, or would they elevate Martelli? On July 20, 1995, he packed a cell phone, drove to Valley Forge Park, sat under a tree and awaited a call that would determine the rest of his life.
"Literally, if it didn't happen here, then I was done," Martelli said. "I couldn't have stayed and been an assistant for another coach. I would have had to go do something else. As much as it would have pained me to do that, I would have had to look into some other line of work. I had never had another job outside basketball. I don't remember anything else."
Martelli cried when he got the good-news call from an administrator, and St. Joe has been awash in emotion ever since. Last season, Martelli railed at Arizona's Lute Olson and regretted a blowup at officials. Now there is sheer joy.
The Hawks' highlight film should have a laugh track instead of music. Martelli is pure Philadelphia, Rocky without the mane. He's prematurely bald and his shtick pokes more fun at Phil Martelli than anyone else. If he hadn't remained in basketball, he could have done stand-up.
Tell us, Phil, about your burning desire to coach.
"When I was in like the sixth or seventh grade, other guys would tell how they were going to play professionally," Martelli said. "I would tell them I was going to coach St. Joe. When I was growing up in Southwest Philadelphia, I would get on the trolley and go to doubleheaders at the Palestra. My parents saved a lot of baby-sitting money that way."
Martelli is the Atlantic 10 Conference Coach of the Year, but what kind of a player was he?
"I wasn't a great shooter, but I was on one of the great backcourts in Philadelphia," Martelli said. "Mo Howard [who would star at Maryland] and I averaged 28 between us my junior year at St. Joseph's Prep. The fact that he averaged 26 and I averaged two, it's still 28 combined."
Martelli wasn't so humorous over nine days in January 1996, when he became a basketball lunatic. He went off in a controversial loss at Massachusetts, then ripped Olson for ducking a trip here based on a weather forecast. The Hawks and Martelli steadied themselves, and since last February, they're 33-10.
Three starters graduated from the team that lost to Nebraska in the National Invitation Tournament final, and St. Joe was tagged for mediocrity in the A-10. The Hawks emerged as the premier team in the West Division, however, and they're one of the top seeds in the A-10 tournament, which started yesterday at the CoreStates Spectrum.
Point guard Rashid Bey shot 36.1 percent from the field last year, but is an all-conference player this season. The center is Nemanja Petrovic, who was a bust at Maryland. When the Hawks handled Massachusetts last week, 6-foot-8, 200-pound Robert Haskins often matched up with 270-pounder Lari Ketner.
The Hawks lead the A-10 in three-point shooting, but they don't have a player in the conference's top 10 in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage or steals.
"We don't have plays," Martelli said. "I'm more interested in teaching them how to play basketball. The only thing I talk to the players about is that you better have fire in your belly and a chip on your shoulder."
Pub Date: 3/06/97