St. Joseph's Martelli moving on from personal, team setbacks

Phil Martelli said he has done a lot of analyzing of St. Joseph's season while dealing with a series of personal traumas.
Phil Martelli said he has done a lot of analyzing of St. Joseph's season while dealing with a series of personal traumas. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: May 20, 2013

St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli recently ran into a longtime acquaintance, a businessman. The man asked, "How's everything going?"

For a moment, Martelli said, he thought about giving an honest assessment, realizing this guy didn't know any details of what Martelli had been hit with lately.

Instead, the Hawks coach left it at, "Everything's great."

The reality?

"I feel like I've been invited by God to play cards, but he's only given me three cards," Martelli said, sitting in his office on Hawk Hill.

In a span of several weeks just after the Hawks lost in the first round of the NIT, the 58-year-old coach lost his sister, unexpectedly. He found out his sister-in-law, suffering from cancer, needed to go into hospice. She has since died. Martelli's mother fell and broke her hip.

This part you probably heard about: His son resigned as an assistant coach at Rutgers, part of the Mike Rice scandal, after a practice tape had reportedly shown Jimmy Martelli shoving a player.

"The breath's taken out of you - bang, bang, bang, bang," Phil Martelli said.

He is able, he said, to separate these traumas from the fortunes of his basketball team. For instance, somebody recently talking to him had included Hawks player C.J. Aiken's leaving school after his junior season as part of all this. Martelli said that's a very big deal in the life of C.J. Aiken, no question, but for the coach it's like "a pimple, you know what I mean?" when dealing with death and other trauma.

He isn't setting aside his own duties, he said. He's done a lot of analyzing of this past season.

"I think that's a separate box," Martelli said. "And I don't want anybody thinking - obviously there was angst and disappointment with 18 wins. I don't want anyone saying, 'Yeah, but look at the real-life stuff.' It's just a different box."

In agreeing to talk, Martelli made it clear he wasn't going to say much about his son Jimmy, or about Rice, Martelli's former St. Joe's assistant who was fired at Rutgers when videotape surfaced of Rice's practice behavior, including throwing balls at the heads of players and shouting homophobic slurs.

Asked about Rice, Martelli simply said, "I can't. I'm not comfortable saying anything."

As a coach, Martelli said what he saw on those tapes was wrong. He left it at that. (His own Hawks practices are open to the public.)

Of his son, Martelli said, "He realizes he's got to make amends. But I love him. He's my son. And I wholeheartedly support him, and he knows that."

At the time he resigned, Jimmy Martelli released this statement, still the only thing he's said publicly: "I am sickened that as an assistant coach I contributed in any way to an unacceptable culture. . . . I hope that coaches on all levels will learn something important from these events. For my actions, I am deeply sorry and I apologize to the players from the bottom of my heart."

Phil Martelli is the new president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He officially took office at a meeting at the Final Four, on April 7. Except he wasn't there for the installation. He had buried his sister the day before.

Family crises

Just before St. Joseph's faced St. John's in the NIT on March 19, "my sister was on the phone with my secretary, asking if I'd leave tickets for my nephew," said Martelli, the oldest of seven children.

That night, the night of the game, she wasn't feeling well and went to a hospital in Chester County. Next stop was the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

"I was told Wednesday that there were abnormalities in her heart, they were working through it," Martelli said.

He visited several times, then got a phone call at 4 a.m. that Saturday, to get to the hospital.

His brother-in-law asked, "What do you want to do about Mom and Dad?"

"This is it?" Martelli remembers asking.

It was, he was told. He drove to get his parents.

"My mother was really shook up. My father said, 'It's going to be all right,' " Martelli said. "I had to tell him, 'No, they don't bring you to the hospital at 4 o'clock in the morning if everything is going to be all right.' "

Pattiann Phillips died at 3 o'clock that afternoon, her brother said.

"Basically, for no other description, her heart stopped beating," Martelli said. "If the normal heart works at 75 percent capacity, my sister's heart was working at 5 percent. Systems started to fail. It wasn't a heart attack, it wasn't a stroke. She was 53, with a 9-year-old."

The days after were a blur. Mostly because it was Easter week, the family waited until the following Saturday for a funeral service.

"In the middle of that, my mother, walking up some stairs, fell and broke her hip," Martelli said. "She was operated on, on Good Friday."

Her recovery, he said, is the "shining light in this whole thing. She's doing great. She's encouraged by her therapy. She's getting around. She's getting out. I wouldn't have bet on that."

Just after Easter, Martelli said, "that's when everything broke with my son." Then the next week, his wife's brother's wife, suffering from pancreatic cancer, was told it was "a matter of time." Nora Marra died April 29 in her home outside Chicago.

"She was 52 years old, with a 14-year-old," Martelli said. "When she was 14, her mother passed away from cancer at 52."

Season gone bad

Martelli is not oblivious to the fact that St. Joe's fans weren't satisfied with last season, when the Hawks were picked to win the Atlantic Ten and ended up tied for eighth, finishing 18-14 overall. He knows some alumni knives were sharpened.

The alternative, he said, is apathy.

"We can't win if you're apathetic," Martelli said.

He said he doesn't know if he can turn anyone's minds with words - "we've got to get better," he said. "I don't begrudge anyone their opinion. Here's my only thing - the greatest angst over winning or losing a game is felt by myself and my players and my staff."

He's looked at everything, he said, back to how practices in September were structured. He's studied film and rechecked statistics. He doesn't believe being picked to win the league was too much of a burden. It certainly didn't look that way when the Hawks beat Notre Dame the second game of the season.

There were missteps. Carl Jones starting the season with a three-game suspension could have cost the Hawks the Florida State game. The rotation certainly had to be adjusted. Halil Kanacevic's obscene gesture to the crowd late at Villanova did in the Hawks that night and may very well have cost them the next game against Fairfield with Kanacevic sitting out.

The game that really rocked their internal equilibrium, Martelli said, was an 80-51 dismantling at Creighton on Dec. 1, the sixth game of the season.

"I think we felt pretty good about ourselves as a group," Martelli said. "We went to Creighton. We got walloped. I think we never adjusted to that fact."

From an X-and-O point of view, he does believe the parts didn't exactly fit. "The pieces of the puzzle look nice, but the puzzle, it doesn't exactly fit together," he said.

The fact is, most successful recent college teams in this town, including the ones on Hawk Hill, have had more guard talent, frequently with three-guard lineups. It just never quite worked with big men Aiken, Kanacevic, and Ronald Roberts on the court together, despite their talents. Martelli also asks other questions.

"Should we have initiated offense through two guards?" he asked.

To be clear, his own expectations weren't met, he said.

"I always try to look at the high end, and that's a mistake," Martelli said, referring to the potential of a player. "I look at the high end for every guy, and that's not realistic."

Moving forward

Friends have looked at him recently, and suggested he take a little time off, just get away for five or six days. He hasn't done that?

"I haven't," Martelli said. "I can't."

Small kindnesses have kept him getting up and walking in the right direction, he said. Also, his son Phil's two children, age 3 and 1, are living in his house right now. (Phil Jr. is an assistant coach at Delaware.) The grandkids have no idea how much they're helping him each day, Martelli said.

The other day, he fulfilled a pledge because the university's senior class had fulfilled its own pledge, hitting a certain percentage of giving for a senior gift.

That meant Martelli showed up at the Schuylkill, at the St. Joseph's boathouse, and jumped in the murky river.

He marked the venture as a success.

"I didn't drown," Martelli said.


Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @jensenoffcampus.

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