The three men inducted into the Big 5 Hall of Fame yesterday were about much more than their numbers, which were considerable.
They coached in the Big 5 for more than a half-century combined, and won more than a thousand games. But that wasn’t really it, either.
This was about the lives they influenced, the lessons they taught and the beliefs they instilled.
John Chaney, Rollie Massimino and Speedy Morris had a way of making players believe in them and believe in themselves.
The stories started early yesterday at the Palestra and never stopped. In fact, Chaney may still be talking.
Morris, the Philly everyman who coached at La Salle, went first.
“Ever since I was a kid, basketball was my game,” Morris said.
He just wasn’t very good at it.
“I was the 15th man on a 15-man team at Roman,” Morris said. “My teammates used to call me ‘The Judge’ because I was always on the bench. I finally got in one time, drove in from the top of the key, drove down the lane and got called for 3 seconds.”
He got his start coaching St. John’s CYO in 1959. From there to Roman, Penn Charter, the La Salle women and men and, these days, St. Joseph’s Prep.
Morris’ first basketball coaching hero was Saint Joseph’s legend Jack Ramsay. His CYO teams employed the tactics Ramsay made famous in his seminal book, “Pressure Basketball.”
Morris recited the starting fives from each of his favorite Big 5 teams as he was learning to coach (1961 St. Joe’s, 1962 Villanova, 1969 La Salle, 1969 Temple, 1971 Penn). He understands the history because he lived it.
He relayed the story of how, after his successful run at Roman ended badly, now Sixers president/general manager Ed Stefanski, then the coach at Monsignor Bonner, reached out to him, made him an assistant, and paved the way to yesterday.
Massimino, the passionate tactician at Villanova, went second. He told the story of how Chuck Daly told him to meet him at the Newark Airport so he could hire him as an assistant at Penn, which led to Villanova, which led to the 1985 national championship. Only, with a young family of five, he had to take a big loss in salary and was not sure it was right call at the time.
“Without the Big 5, I don’t know where my career would have gone,” Massimino said. “Today, I’m being inducted with two people who I dearly respect and have spent an awful lot of time with.”
Massimino is still coaching at Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Fla. His team is still winning.
Massimino told a great story about the wonderful old official, Steve Honzo.
“Steve used to get a tan in some salon and come with his nice shiny hair,” Massimino said. “One day, I told him, ‘Steve, that was a terrible call, but will you give me a technical for what I’m thinking?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Well, I think you stink.’ ’
Massimino did not mention the night his team played the perfect game against Georgetown. He didn’t have to. It is part of his legacy, the only Big 5 era coach to win the national championship.
“Basketball is a game played for fantastic stakes,” Massimino said. “Each and every day, you’re competing against experts. And, if you want to win, you’ve got to be the master of the game. To me, that’s what coaching legends are all about here in Philadelphia.”
Chaney, the Temple preacher with a unique view on everything, went off on a 32-minute stream of consciousness riff that Saint Joseph’s athletic director Don DiJulia unofficially determined covered 49 topics, none of which, as far as could be determined, had much to do with Owls basketball, which he took higher and farther than anybody except him imagined it could be taken.
“I don’t think I’ll be long,” Chaney began.
He wasn’t, by his standards.
Chaney is retired now. Plays seven holes of golf when he can. Plays pinochle with his friends. Gives away most of his good clothes. Tells stories like nobody tells stories.
Chaney went from Herb Magee to Villanova’s 2009 Final Four, the Celtics at Convention Hall, the bag of peanuts he used to get outside the Palestra when he would sneak into Big 5 games, Paul Arizin, the Eastern League, Thomas Jefferson, the jump stop, AIDS, Chuck Bednarik, Red Grange, baseball pitchers and the need for so many of them, Jim Konstanty, ice hockey (don’t ask), Wilt, how Kobe Bryant should have gone to La<TH>Salle to play for Speedy, how he was more Italian than Rollie because he was from South Philly, where’s Steve Bilsky (the Penn AD apparently left somewhere during the first half) and his first high school game against Southern.
The tangents had tangents. Nobody knew where he was going or how he got there. And nobody cared.
This was a day to celebrate 55 years of the Big 5 and three men who lived it, loved it and will forever be a part of it.