Martelli the Magnificent With his Hawks at 23-4, St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli is laughing all the way to the NCAAs

March 05, 2001
March 05, 2001

Table of Contents
March 5, 2001

Perry Reese Jr. [bonus Piece]

Martelli the Magnificent With his Hawks at 23-4, St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli is laughing all the way to the NCAAs

At the Atlantic 10's basketball media day last November, a TV
reporter stuck a microphone in the face of a coach and asked him
what he thought about the presidential election recount, which at
that point seemed to be going George W. Bush's way. We can guess
the response, right? "Well, I think both candidates are fine
Americans, and the country will be in great shape with either of
them, and I'd rather not tell you my personal choice..." That
isn't how St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli responded. He said,
"My guy is catching up to that little dweeb."

This is an article from the March 5, 2001 issue Original Layout

After the Bush-bashing comment was aired, Martelli took some
heat, in the form of a few dozen e-mails and phone calls from
irate alumni and fans who believed that the coach shouldn't be
calling a presidential candidate--especially their preferred
candidate--a dweeb. Martelli was able to make it up to Bush,
however, by having the Texan on HawkTalk, Martelli's weekly foray
into guerilla theater that was recently named by The Sporting
News as the nation's best coach's TV show. Actually, his guest
was a man wearing a giant Bush mask. "Great to meet you, Coach
Martucci," said the ersatz Bush, who also told Martelli that
politics differs from basketball in that "you get to keep
counting until you win."

How does Martelli feel about Bush now? "Still a dweeb," says
Martelli. "Look, the reporter asked me what I felt, and I told
him. I just don't like Bush, and I don't think he's the right
person for minority Americans." He spreads his hands imploringly.
"Hey, whaddya you gonna do?"

Most of the questions Martelli has gotten lately are about his
Hawks, who are ranked No. 18 in this week's AP poll and,
following a 90-70 win at Duquesne on Sunday, had a 23-4 record.
Barring an implosion in the Atlantic 10 tournament, Martelli will
be taking his Philly Guy shtick to his second NCAA tournament in
his six seasons as coach at St. Joe's. Word has filtered out
about this 46-year-old, dark-eyed, full-browed, bald coach who
takes his basketball, but not himself, seriously.

The best indication of that is HawkTalk, which has a
lighthearted, so-bad-it's-good Weltanschauung that brands it the
polar opposite of almost every other example of the dreary
coach-show genre. "Our Number 1 rule is no retakes," says
Martelli. "Whatever we say the first time is what gets on the
air." The most celebrated spot on the show is Martelli the
Magnificent, a takeoff on Johnny Carson's Carnac the Great. Just
seeing Martelli in his big genie's hat is enough to draw laughs.
The material is groaningly dreadful, which is why it's good.

A few years back Martelli had a famous falling out with Arizona
coach Lute Olson after Olson bailed out of a game against the
Hawks in Philadelphia following a snowstorm that turned out to be
no big deal by game day. Martelli the Magnificent got even by
correctly divining the question for this answer: "A Japanese
pitcher, a bad mistake and Lute Olson." The question was, "What
is Nomo, a no-no and a no-show?"

Martelli the Magnificent appears about every fourth show, but
the coach offers a weekly monologue, which he plans in the car
on his way to the studio. A recent subject was Billy C, who,
surprisingly, wasn't former Philadelphia 76ers star Billy
Cunningham but America's former president. "What are they trying
to impeach this guy again for?" Martelli said. "He doesn't even
have a job."

Over the years HawkTalk's guests have included the team bus
driver, the guy who cleans St. Joe's Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse,
sidekick Joe Lunardi's three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who
sat on stage and ate snacks throughout the show's 30 minutes, and
various members of Martelli's family. One of his five sisters,
Patti Anne, hasn't been on, though she did call his radio show
two weeks ago to detail how Martelli's nephews had fared in a CYO
basketball game.

The reading of viewer mail is another HawkTalk highlight.
Martelli's secretary, a very nervous Clare Ariano--"This is
television, Clare, so you've got to speak," Martelli said to
her--did the honors on a recent show. One letter was from "an
anonymous Hawk supporter" who wanted to know why Phil's son,
Phil Jr., a nonscholarship player, rarely gets into games. Phil
looked into the camera and addressed his wife: "Look, Judy, we
can discuss this over the dinner table." Phil and Judy, who met,
predictably enough, at a summer basketball camp, have been
married for 24 years. Ariano then opened an envelope from "a
Katherine Harris of Florida," who enclosed her resume and
applied for the job of scoreboard operator at the Fieldhouse.
"That's a hire right there," said Martelli.

HawkTalk's one bow to coach-show tradition is a few minutes of
taped highlights, which Martelli runs through without trying to
sound like he invented the game. "Jameer goes to the foul line
and makes a couple of big ones," he says of point guard Jameer
Nelson. "That was a big shot by Marvin right there," he says as
shooting guard Marvin O'Connor nails a jumper. He doesn't use
last names, so you had better be familiar with St. Joe's roster.
That's about the extent of the players' involvement in HawkTalk.
There's no accompanying "our fine student-athletes" on leafy
walks across campus, no righteous conversations about the
players' post-college ambitions. "I'd rather have on the team
managers," says Martelli, "because they're goofier." The St.
Joe's players are not even part of HawkTalk's considerable cult
audience. "Never seen the show," says O'Connor. "What time's it

On the court, however, the Hawks almost never tune out Martelli.
Four seasons after making a surprise visit to the Sweet 16, St.
Joseph's is good enough to get there again. Its solid eight-man
rotation includes a backcourt that's among the best in the
country. O'Connor, a Philly native who began his career at
Villanova but made the 10-mile transfer from the Main Line to
City Line partly because Martelli "has a lot of kid in him," was
scoring 21.1 points a game through Sunday and is equally adept at
bombing from long range and leaking out in transition. Nelson, a
freshman who grew so close to Martelli during recruiting that, he
says, "I used to call up to see how he was doing," has the court
vision and maturity of a senior. Though 6'10" forward Bill
Phillips is a versatile shooter and rebounder, the Hawks are a
little thin inside, and how far they go in the postseason might
depend on the off-the-bench play of the rapidly developing 7'1"
Alexandre Sazonov, who grew up in Moscow but moved to the Philly
area and played at the same high school (Cardinal O'Hara) where
Martelli began coaching 25 years ago.

The Hawks run an aggressive penetrate-and-kick-it-out offense,
which is nothing like what Martelli saw as a young coach in the
Philadelphia Catholic League. "It's the slowest basketball in
America," says Martelli. "I'm on the bench one night, and the
other coach actually calls out: 'Run 287 brown, left option.' I
yell, 'Is that a play or an SAT question?'"

When a St. Joe's game slows down, though, the Hawks know enough
to give the ball to Nelson (12.2 points, 6.3 assists) and let him
work the seams. The best thing about playing for Martelli, his
players say, is his sincerity. "He's a real person, somebody who
cares about you," says Nelson. Adds O'Connor, "He will come up to
me and say, 'What do you think?' That means a lot to a player."

An excursion deep into the NCAAs would mean a lot to St.
Joseph's, which will be making only its second NCAA appearance
in 14 years. "But look, I couldn't be happier whatever happens,"
Martelli says. "My family and the friends I've known forever are
all around me. I get a Snapple at the 7-Eleven, and the counter
guy wants to talk about my team. I stop for gas, and the
attendant comes out to talk about my team. Only a couple hundred
jobs are like this, and I got one of them." He smiles. "And I'm
the only one with the Number 1 show."

--Jack McCallum

On Martelli's TV show a fake George Bush told him politics
differs from basketball in that "you keep counting till you win."