At a time when my buddies were fascinated by girls and fin-tailed cars, basketball was my only passion. It was 1959, and I was a hotshot high school hoopster in Philadelphia. One night as I was taking in a college game at the old brick-and-steel Palestra in West Philly, I saw my future: I would someday play for Harry Litwack's Temple Owls in the Big Five league. I had to, I needed to. It came to me in a flash. Temple's 5'11" All-America guard Bill (Pickles) Kennedy had just swiped the ball from a St. Joe player. Pickles crossed over on a dribble and went by one defender. He dashed the length of the court, snaked down the lane and flipped a shot over two more Hawks. The ball fell softly through the hoop, and suddenly I was willing to sacrifice all to play, someday, for Harry Litwack's team.
You see, Litwack had the reputation of being a "little man's coach." In the four previous years he had twice taken Temple to the NCAA Final Four, in 1956 and 1958, winning national coach of the year honors both times. He had done it with the help of a group of great little guards: Hal Lear, Guy Rodgers and the aforementioned Pickles Kennedy.
I, too, at 5'8", was a little guard.
And so it was that I found my way to Temple. The first time I met the legendary Litwack, better known as the Chief, he said to me, "C'mon, I'll buy you something to eat." He didn't take me to Bookbinders, that's for sure. Instead, Litwack escorted me to Mike's Broad Tower, a 12-stool on-campus eatery that served up burgers, shakes, fries and cherry Cokes. It was located right next to Temple's South Hall basketball court, and the Chief recruited all his players there. That means all of them—including the great Rodgers, who, the story goes, was treated to a burger and shake. Then the Chief gave Rodgers a token so he could get back home on public transportation.
February 11, 1991
"Give the kid what he wants," Litwack told Mike, the owner, as I hopped up on a Broad Tower stool. The Chief stood at the end of the counter, puffing hard on a big-as-a-broomstick panatela. A corona of smoke wreathed his head. I knew as I looked at him that Litwack was no slick Madison Avenue guy who would put extra spin on a pitch in order to wow a recruit. No, he would speak honestly and candidly—blowing cigar smoke in my face all the while—and promise me nothing but a solid education. No money, no cars, no playmates, not even playing time.
That was O.K. with me. I would earn my playing time.
And I did. By junior year, I was in the starting lineup.
I remember a winter night—Feb. 15, 1964, to be precise. We were to play La Salle for the Middle Atlantic Conference championship and entry into the NCAA tournament. The game was supremely important to the Chief because he hadn't been to the NCAAs since '58.
La Salle was favored, and no wonder. The Explorers glittered with stars: Frank Corace, Curt Fromal, George Sutor, Walter Sampson. But the Chief wasn't worried. In the locker room before the game, he stood calmly by the door, his hands folded across his chest, puffing away on that ubiquitous cigar. "Block out, take good shots and get a hand in their face," he told us simply. It wasn't Litwack's style to sputter Rockne-like language and send us out flying. We felt that if we listened to his calm instruction and did as he said, we would win. "Play as a team," he said. "Stick to the fundamentals. Know your strengths and weaknesses." He stressed the latter. If you didn't recognize what you could and could not do on the court, there would be consequences. Elmer Snethen, a player hardly known for his accurate shooting, once forgot about the consequences. He launched a shot from deep—and I mean deep—in the corner, an alltime brick. "Jesus Christmas!" shouted the Chief, leaping off the bench. In the locker room at half, Litwack stood on a bench and said to us sternly, "If you're not a bunter, don't bunt." Snethen didn't get it. He whispered, "What's he mean?" Bob Harrington, our senior co-captain, shot a darting look at him and said, "Don't shoot."
So on this winter night in 1964, we were all concentrating on what we should and shouldn't do. And we were concentrating on the consequences. The Chief clapped his hands, softly, and sent us out onto the Palestra court with these words: "Let's go out and play with some ginger."
Apparently, we did play with ginger. With less than eight minutes to go in the game, and with more than 9,000 Temple and La Salle fans rocking the rafters of the old building, I popped a pass to our 6'8" center, Jim Williams, in the low post. Williams was double-teamed. He pump-faked a jumper, lifting both defenders. He took one dribble, went back up and hammered it home. We never looked back. Temple 63, La Salle 57. At game's end I heaved the ball high into the Palestra air, and then looked at Litwack. On his flushed face was a broad smile.
After the game, as I was leaving the locker room, I noticed Litwack talking to a reporter. The Chief had the game ball burrowed in his stubby arms. When Harrington, who had gutted out the game on a severely sprained ankle, came out, Litwack immediately picked his way through the thick crowd of supporters. The Chief handed Harrington the game ball. "You deserve this," Litwack said. Harrington, near tears, hugged the Chief.
Looking beyond basketball to his "family," as the Chief liked to call his players, was a hallmark of Litwack's. Each season, on the October day before our first practice, he would call us to midcourt. "Basketball is for four years," he would preach. "Education is for life." He believed that. He sold us on it. I came to realize that if you needed something and asked Harry Litwack, it was a done deal.
Sometimes, you didn't even have to ask. One day not long after the La Salle victory—almost immediately after we had been bounced by Connecticut from the NCAA tournament, in fact—I was passing the BT, as the Broad Tower was called on campus. I peered in. Litwack was standing, as usual, at the end of the counter, coffee in one hand, The Wall Street Journal in the other. My glance, however, quickly fell upon the rare beauty behind the counter: statuesque, with the face of a model and dark hair falling over her shoulders. I checked in for a cherry Coke. I found out she was the owner's daughter, helping out between classes.
I begged myself to ask her out. But my shyness—my fear—wouldn't let me.
Several days later I happened to be in the BT, and Mike, the owner, slipped me a piece of paper with a phone number on it. "Call my daughter," he said. "Coach Litwack told me you were a fine fellow."
I graduated from Temple in 1965 and saw the Chief only occasionally after that. He coached a while longer, although he was getting up there in age and the game itself was changing—more one-on-one stuff, which was b-ball heresy to him. The Chief's last buzz on the national scene was a big one, in 1969, when he directed a Cinderella team to the NIT championship. Temple was the last team picked for the tournament yet staged four straight upsets to claim the crown, beating Boston College 89-76 in the final.
In 1973, after 41 years of coaching at Temple—21 as head coach, 20 as freshman coach—the Chief retired at the age of 65. I sat behind the Temple bench during his final game at the Palestra. It was against Villanova, coached by Litwack's longtime foe and friend, Jack Kraft. As the two teams were warming up, Kraft walked over to the Chief, put his arm around him and said, "Harry, the game will miss you more than you know." Then just before tip-off, the P.A. announcer reminded the standing-room crowd that it was the Chief's final game in the old building. The applause began softly, then climbed and climbed. Litwack seemed oblivious to it. Finally, Don Casey, his assistant and soon to be his successor, clued him in. "Chief, the applause is for you."
Litwack was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1976 and is still Temple's winningest hoop coach, with a record of 373-193.
I saw the Chief this past summer at the Melrose Country Club in Cheltenham, Pa. I hadn't seen him in several years. He is 83 and still full of life. As we worked our way through bagels buried in cream cheese, I was happy to see that all the compassion and dignity I had long associated with the Chief had been retained. "If you don't have anything good to say about someone, don't say anything," he instructed me, as if I were still one of his players. I wasn't surprised at the tone. His philosophy had always been simple and direct. What more was there to life than getting a scholarship, going to class, playing the game, having religion, getting a job, putting money in the bank and going home to your family? That's all there was. That's the way he felt. That's the way he was and is.
When I left him last summer, I sat in my car for a moment and reflected on the years when I had played for the Chief. Jack Kerouac had tantalized me back then, and Jack Kennedy's assassination had touched us all deeply. The Chief had opened the doors to dusty old South Hall and had led a little guard and a bunch of others to a championship and to the fulfillment of some basketball dreams. He had opened other doors as well. I guess I thank him most for getting me a date with the beauty behind the counter in the Broad Tower.
I married her.
B.G. Kelley, a free-lance writer, lives in Philadelphia. This is his first piece for SI.