Perfection doesn't come easily

Updated: February 11, 2004, 2:01 PM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

On Phil Martelli's walk across campus to tape his television show on Tuesday afternoon -- undisputedly the best in the history of those otherwise, dry and unwatchable weekly productions -- three young female undergrads passed him on the way to class.

Phil Martelli
Phil Martelli hasn't let his program become held up by scandal in its pursuit of perfection.
"Good luck tomorrow, Phil," one of them said.

Would they do that at Duke? Good luck, Mike.

How about Texas Tech? Good luck, Bob.

"That's what I love here," Martelli says by phone from his office. "It didn't have to be, 'Hey coach.' Just Phil. Hey Phil!"

Whatever the polls say, whatever the historic cover of Sports Illustrated means this week, he is still the neighborhood coach of the neighborhood team on Hawk Hill. St. Joe's is still winning with Philly kids who go to class every day and graduate every year. College basketball has changed dramatically since the 1960's, when St. Joe's was a national power. St. Joe's never did. They're still playing at the Field House, 3,200 seats of sheer bedlam born out of the last, great college basketball city in America. They still have the most magnificent mascot of all, flapping his wings from layup line to the final buzzer, from Jack Ramsay to Jim Lynam, Jim Boyle to Phil Martelli.

There are no athletic dorms, no flat-screen television in the locker room, no coach leveraging his bosses for raises with job offers. Nowhere does St. Joe's resemble big-time college basketball, except on the floor, except on game nights.

College basketball needs the two schools chasing perfection this season -- St. Joe's and Stanford. In the past year when colleges everywhere were convicted of selling souls for basketball glory, these two schools sell something rarer and rarer on the college landscape: balance and perspective.

For the good of college basketball, this isn't Memphis and Missouri running the table, but St. Joe's and Stanford.

"If people really understood our story, really know what we we've done here, this would brighten everyone's day," Martelli says. "We don't have 52 cards in our deck."

Stanford has a small national pool of recruits it can court, its rigid academic standards making it harder to keep up with the Arizonas and UCLAs of the Pac-10. Stanford coach Mike Montgomery always finds a way, always sells the smartest kids on the idea that they can compete for national championships without sacrificing the value of a near-Ivy League degree. The Cardinal can still recruit the nation, though. Stanford still has a cachet to get itself in living rooms that Martelli wouldn't waste his time trying. It should be hard for Stanford to be ranked in the nation's top five. It should be impossible for St. Joe's.

"There are avid people who follow our program, with great passion for the game, but I don't think they even completely understand the uniqueness and just the extraordinary level that we've gone through the past four years," Martelli says. "I can't even worry about the casual fan. They think we have everything that the two teams we're mentioned with now in the polls -- Duke and Stanford.

"When I'm driving by myself, I'm so focused on today, there's just no time to pause and say, 'What does 20-0 really mean.' If someone comes into my office and looks around, they'll laugh. 'Is that your office?' We don't spend much time complaining about what we don't have here. What do we do have, let's see how we can sell that. Because we do have a lot to sell."

The Hawks are still a mom and pop store of college basketball's elite right now, the inspiration of a magnificent coach, and the superstar point guard, Jameer Nelson, out of nearby Chester, Pa., who went from a solid freshman recruit to a clear senior favorite for the Wooden Award.

As much as anything, St. Joe's is the school where smart high school coaches send kids because they know they'll be taken care of, because they know they'll go to class and graduate, and because they know they'll never lose their loyal, principled coach to bright lights and bigger stages. Maybe most of all, they know their kids will be coached. This isn't true everywhere -- even in the Top 20. It's true here, with Martelli.

Martelli doesn't get All-Atlantic 10 and All-American players at St. Joe's.

He makes them.

"There's this attitude of, 'We can do this,' Martelli says. "I don't think St. Joseph's is a Cinderella. We have this chip on our shoulder and we're saying, 'Why don't you come knock it off?' Maybe Jack Ramsay translated it differently to his players, but maybe it's just being Philadelphia bred with that same atittude. There's this drive for Jameer Nelson for being told he was too small, for Delonte West for picking St. Joe's because we're the biggest school recruiting him. We have several guys who only had one scholarship offer.

"If you got underneath all the layers here, they all have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder -- and they play with that."

Maybe this isn't Cinderella, but they're still the underdog. They've always been there, but they've come out of nowhere. Again. Everything changed in college basketball, and maybe, there's something comforting to remember that there are still a few amazing places, like St. Joseph's, that never did.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for the Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.

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