The lifer: At 82 years old, Rollie Massimino toils in obscurity at the game he loves

Friday December 23rd, 2016

Rollie Massimino took an unintentional charge a couple of weeks ago. He’s 82 years old, seven months removed from brain surgery, one year past suffering a collapsed lung, yet there he was, accidentally colliding with a young basketball player who was trying to finish a fast break during practice. Fortunately, the player was a 140-pound guard, not a 240-pound forward, yet the collision still sent Massimino crashing to the floor. It opened a gash on his elbow. “Got three stritches,” he says with a laugh. “It was a pain in the neck more than anything.”

Suffice to say, this is not a conventional way for a man of Massimino’s age to be spending his time. While most of his peers are strolling fairways and watching sunsets—those lucky enough to be able to do such things, anyway—Massimino still prefers to spend his days either teaching basketball in a gym or talking about it over a plate of pasta. The legendary lifer is now in his tenth season as the head coach at Keiser University, an NAIA Division II school in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Massimino has mostly been toiling in obscurity ever since he agreed to build the program from scratch, but last week he grabbed the public’s attention when he notched his 800th career win. The achievement drew plenty of media coverage and produced a flood of congratulatory phone calls, but once the caravan moved on, Massimino went back to doing what he loves to do. Or rather, what he needs to do, even at this late stage of his life.

“He’s like an addict. Every single day he’s got to get his fill,” says Ken Gabelman, who has worked as Massimino’s assistant the nine seasons. “He just loves to be on the court with those kids, right in the middle of the action. We have to constantly be pulling him back. You’d think being who he is he would stick to what he knows, but he is always looking to learn something and try new things. He wants to get better.”

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It was never in Massimino’s plans to finish his career this far off the beaten path. He was just trying to help an old friend, Rick Smoliak, who had become the athletic director at Northwood University. (Last year, Northwood’s West Palm Beach campus was acquired by Keiser University, and the school adopted Keiser’s name.) Smoliak was looking to start men’s and women’s basketball programs, so he called to pick Massimino’s brain. It wasn’t long before Massimino, who had recently moved to south Florida ostensibly to retire, let himself get seduced by the idea of coaching again. He told Smoliak he would have to ask his wife, Mary Jane. She gave him her blessing, of course.

At the press conference announcing his hire, Massimino grandly announced that Northwood would play its very first home game against his former employer, Villanova, where Massimino famously won the 1985 NCAA championship via an epic upset over Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown. The problem was, he had neglected to pass along this information to Villanova’s current coach, Jay Wright, who learned the news as he was driving in his car and his cell phone started to buzz. Wright, who was an assistant to “Coach Mass” for five years, agreed to play the game anyway.

AP

That’s the kind of loyalty Massimino has cultivated over the years, stretching back to his days as a high school coach in New Jersey and Massachusetts from 1962 to ’69. His first college head coaching job was at Stony Brook, where he went 34–14 over two seasons. He then spent three seasons as an assistant to Chuck Daly at Penn before taking over as the head coach at Villanova in 1973. The players would frequently come to his home, where Mary Jane would cook them pasta. Area coaches had an open invitation to attend his practices and hang around to talk ball for as long as they wanted. It was a lovely time. Villanova basketball was one big, extended family, and Coach Mass was the unquestioned patriarch.

Things began to go sour after that storybook run to the title. Word around town was that Massimino’s ego was growing to an unmanageable size for a conservative, Catholic university. He finally left in 1992 to take over at UNLV in the wake of Jerry Tarkanian’s dismissal, but he had to resign two years later after it was revealed that Massimino had cut an unreported side deal with then-UNLV president Robert Maxson to increase his salary, which violated state ethics laws. That humiliation sent Massimino into basketball purgatory. He was out of the game for two years before getting hired at Cleveland State. Massimino’s teams there struggled (he posted a sub-.500 record in five of his eight seasons), but things were even worse off the court, where several of his players were arrested and the program faced allegations of academic fraud. Massimino and the school parted ways in 2003.

When he and Mary Jane settled in Florida, Massimino figured his coaching days were done. He devoted most of his time to marathon days playing golf with his buddies, Daly most of all. “We played 50 holes a day,” Massimino says. “I am not exaggerating. Fifty holes a day. We’d scream at each other the whole time, and I was always the worst one.” When the conversations with Northwood turned serious, Massimino’s pals knew they were about to lose a playing partner. “Chuck always called me ‘the lifer.’ That’s exactly what I am,” he says.

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From Northwood’s standpoint, it was a brilliant hire. Massimino didn’t just bring a proven ability to teach. He also possessed a vast network of contacts built up over his many decades in the game. Though he spends almost no time on the road recruiting (“Budgets are different here”), he has been able to bring in quality players by fielding calls and following up on tips. In his very first year, Northwood made the NAIA Division II national tournament, a 32-team, five-games-in-seven-days grind that is held each year near Branson, Mo. The Seahawks have played in the tournament in eight of his nine years. In 2012 they made it all the way to the championship game, where they lost, 63–46.

As disappointing as that result was, Massimino says he didn’t take it that hard. “I’m not as tough as I used to be,” he says. “I’m more laid back.” Those close to him would beg to differ. Massimino was treated for lung cancer five years ago, and last May he had surgery to remove a tumor in his brain. Five days every month, he takes medicine orally, which treats his cancer but also saps his strength. He still finds a way to make it into the gym most every day. “We call him the ironman,” Gabelman says. “He could be tired, he could be run down, he could be dragging, but once he gets on the court, he has more energy than all of us.”

Massimino has had to help Mary Jane battle emphysema as well. Next year, God willing, they will celebrate their 60th anniversary. When Villanova made the championship game last April, Massimino was battling a blood clot and kidney stones and thought he might not be able to get to the game in Houston. He made the trip thanks to a wealthy Villanova booster who sent him a private plane. That game represented quite the full circle moment. Massimino sat a few rows behind Villanova’s bench, and when Kris Jenkins’s game-winning three ripped through the net, the first image the home audience saw was Massimino’s elated reaction. After all those years, Rollie still made for good TV.

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He is acutely aware how lucky he is, not only to be alive and in relatively good health but to do what he loves most. His close friend, Daly, died in 2009 of pancreatic cancer. Massimino still has nearly 40 pairs of his shoes. For all his travels, Massimino still relishes the chance to cull new ideas from other coaches. The players from his ’85 team come down to visit him every year for a reunion. When he got that 800th win, it was as if every buddy he ever made in his life called at the same time, infusing him anew with zeal, gratitude and determination.

In the end, it’s the relationships with the players that drives him the most. Massimino boasts that his team just reported a 3.14 grade-point average. “And three four-point-ohs,” he adds. He requires them to stop by his office every day to check in, just like he did at his previous jobs. He invites them over to his house for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He tells them stories about his glory days. He thinks this could be the best team he has had since taking the job.

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He is asked for the thousandth time how long he will continue to do this. “That’s a real good question. I don’t know. Let me see how I feel,” he says. “I wouldn’t be coaching if I didn’t enjoy it. It keeps me young. I can yell, I can scream. I can still punch a little bit, you know what I mean?”

He may be 82, but Massimino has proven that he can still shed a little blood for this game. Truth is, he doesn’t mind the occasional collision. At least he’s still in the gym.

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