Rollie Massimino was facing his first real throng of inquisitors since he had made his grand decision, and there would be no escaping the question now, even if it were posed by one of the 120 preteens gathered before him last Friday at a basketball camp in Hanover, N.H. Massimino is the rumpled couch of a coach who led Villanova to its stirring 1985 NCAA basketball championship. After finishing up his spiel on defense and desire, he acknowledged an 11-year-old whose hand had popped up.
"Why'd you turn down the New Jersey Nets job?" the boy asked.
"In life," Massimino replied, "there are certain things that are very nice. And there are certain things that are nicer."
The very nice thing in this case was a fabulous offer from the Nets to become their new coach, at a reported $350,000 a season, guaranteed for four years, and then stay on in some front-office capacity for six more years, at up to $100,000 per. Having just led the Wildcats to their 66-64 upset of Georgetown in his 12th year at Villanova, Massimino, a 50-year-old native of Newark, considered the pros his next logical challenge. Ten-year, $2 million deals don't come down the pike too often in the when-in-doubt-fire-the-coach world of the NBA.
June 30, 1985
But there are indeed nicer things, and they were brought into sharp focus the night of Wednesday, June 19, the eve of Massimino's day of decision. The 'Nova coach was being roasted at a Philadelphia fund-raiser to benefit leukemia research. Friends like 76ers general manager Pat Williams, former Sixer coach Billy Cunningham and North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano basted Rollie in a predictable marinade of waistline and wardrobe jokes. But they also made presumptuous allusions to his move to the NBA, which, everyone assumed, was certain. "Have you ever been to Lovetron?" Cunningham teased, referring to the imaginary extraterrestrial home of the Nets' eccentric center Darryl Dawkins.
Throughout the evening, Massimino protested that he hadn't yet decided to take the job, even though he had already initialed a memorandum of understanding with Nets president Bernie Mann. But the feeling was clear. "The way people were talking," said Harold Jensen, a Villanova guard, "it seemed like a farewell party."
The levity was quickly forgotten, though, when the roast ended. Each Wildcat player approached the dais and wrapped Massimino in a hug. Valvano had told the most meaningful story of the evening—of how, on "the biggest night of Rollie's professional life," the night he had won the NCAA championship, Massimino had taken the time to phone Valvano with condolences over his father's death from a heart attack. "It just shows," Valvano said, "that he puts people before business."
And that, of course, was why Massimino would decide to stay at Villanova. The coach was touched that his players had trooped over to his house the previous Monday, en masse and unannounced, to let him know they didn't want him to go. "We had a good cry," Massimino says. But he was even more profoundly affected by Jake Nevin, the octogenarian, talismanic trainer with Lou Gehrig's disease, to whom the Cats dedicated their title. At the roast, Nevin had pulled Massimino aside and whispered, "I'd never have let you win the championship if I'd known you were gonna leave us."
"That remark," Massimino says, "I'll never forget."
In an all-night session with Valvano and Cunningham at Cunningham's home, Massimino made up his mind then headed for his office in the Cat House, where he had called a team meeting for 7:30 a.m. Nevin, spotted in the hallway at about 7:25, was the first to hear of Massimino's decision. Nevin, who hadn't caught a wink all night himself, broke down. Then Massimino shoehorned Nevin, along with 12 players, four assistants and three managers, into his office and said, "Fellas, I'm staying."
There was a disbelieving pause for a couple of seconds, and then great rejoicing. Center Chuck Everson said it was "like winning the national championship all over again." Massimino interrupted it just once—to extract a promise from his players that they'd paint his house.
Massimino's lawyer, Jerold Levien, told The New York Times later that day that more worldly matters—disagreements over fringe benefits in the deal—"turned the tide" in talks with the Nets. But Massimino discounts their importance. "I just hope and pray that people understand that this was something I had to do," he says. "In no way should it be seen as a negative against the Nets."
Indeed, Massimino wasn't so much turning anyone down as he was embracing the Villanova community. He has a solid power base on the school's board of trustees, and his team is poised to move into a new 6,800-seat field house before the end of 1985. "Rollie's a dominant personality and an absolute workaholic," says Dick Weiss, the esteemed college basketball writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. "He can be emperor for life on the Main Line."
Even without the Nets' largess, he'll have a bank account to fit the title. Massimino earns at least $100,000 a year from his camp, radio show, sneaker deal and appearances. And when he signs a new multiyear pact with the university this week (a handshake agreement has sufficed for the past three years), he'll likely be in the $150,000-per-year league. Meanwhile, the Nets will have to find some other coach to replace Stan Albeck, whom they had let go to the Chicago Bulls earlier in the week. They canceled Thursday's press conference and tried to assume a stoic stance.
A culinary postscript to the whole affair: Massimino shared pizza with his players on that Monday night. He had chicken cacciatore at a Rotary luncheon on Wednesday. And the fateful roast featured platefuls of spaghetti and fettuccine. Somehow, you knew that what the Nets had cooked up for their Thursday press conference, shrimp and Chinese flank steak, was all wrong.