There is no general agreement on what constitutes a hall of famer — except those gathered inside a banquet hall in Drexel Hill one evening earlier this month all knew one as soon as they spotted him.
That didn’t mean they couldn’t give Chris DiJulia a hard time about being inducted into the St. Joseph’s University women’s basketball Hall of Fame.
“Where’s the bag of balls that came in second?’’ Hawks men’s coach Phil Martelli asked DiJulia as soon as he got in the door of the Drexelbrook banquet facility. DiJulia threw back his head and laughed. For decades, giving and receiving a hard time, mixing it in with the sports news of the day and maybe some fundamental encouragement at the right moment — it’s all been DiJulia’s stock in trade.
Forget the wheelchair for a second, or the diagnosis at birth of cerebral palsy. The son of retiring St. Joseph’s athletic director Don DiJulia has a fan base of his own, built from an ability, inherited from his father, of always being there.
Realizing Chris was always right there, former Hawks women’s coach Jim Foster, in charge from 1978-91, announced early in his tenure that DiJulia was a member of the coaching staff. So it has been.
“He was very respectful of his position,’’ Foster said over the phone the morning after the banquet, returning a message from New Zealand, where he had been giving a clinic. Asked how much Chris used to insert himself into coaching matters, Foster said, “It was always about effort. That was the thing he keyed on and looked at. He hates losing. If you didn’t give the proper effort, he was beside himself.”
For this banquet, Hawks women’s coach Cindy Griffin — who deserves credit for the inspired Hall of Fame choice — looked around the room and noted all the former players and assorted others and why they were there. All those years, Chris DiJulia had been showing up for them.
Jim Brown, the school’s long-time associate athletic director, sitting at Table 9, mentioned how he recently had run into Charles Barkley when the former Sixer was buying a hoagie in Ardmore. (Really.) Brown worked for the Sixers when Barkley was there, so they knew each other, and Barkley, knowing where Brown now worked, asked how Chris DiJulia was doing.
“That guy can talk some [smack],’’ Barkley said.
In Barkley’s Sixers days, the team practiced at St. Joe’s.
“Their shouting matches were legendary,’’ Don DiJulia said of Barkley and his son.
Sitting next to the 48-year-old DiJulia at his family table was Tom Brennan, former head men’s coach at Yale and Vermont. Brennan met Chris through his father three decades ago, and they became fast friends. Chris often visited Vermont, even becoming a regular on Brennan’s morning radio show in Burlington. An eight-hour drive to see his man DiJules go in the Hall of Fame? You couldn’t keep Brennan away.
Asked for a story or two about Chris from the old days, Brennan provided several, then kept coming over as he thought of another one. Like the time Chris’ mom had decided Chris needed a job, and Brennan was the right guy to tell him.
“I can’t do that; he’s my boy,’’ Brennan remembers saying. “You don’t tell your friend to get a job.”
Except Pat DiJulia kept after him, telling him Chris respected Brennan so much, he’d listen to him. All right, he’d bring it up. He brought it up. Chris DiJulia listened.
“You finished?’’ he asked.
“Yeah,’’ Brennan remembers saying.
“Let me tell you something: Rooting for you is a full-time job,’’ Chris said.
Chuck and Janine Sack made it to the banquet. Chuck, now the athletic director at Neumann University, had been a men’s team manager and the Hawk itself. Janine had been the women’s team manager. Their friendship with Chris grew over the years. When Neumann won an NCAA Division II ice hockey championship, “like the second text I got was from Chris,’’ Chuck Sack said.
Griffin, the Hawks coach, talked about how she can always count on hearing from DiJulia “precisely two hours before each game,’’ telling her he’ll be there. (Or he can’t, because the Eagles are playing.)
Making it look easy doesn’t make it easy. His sister once drove Chris to Vermont in a blizzard to see Brennan’s team. His feeding tube fell out just before the game, which meant a trip to the emergency room. They were back in the gym around tip-off.
“He does keep in touch with a large posse, for sure,’’ Don DiJulia said. “How he does it is amazing. To think of other people when they hit a high moment — he’ll go to his computer; he can make it walk and talk. He can email and text. I can’t even begin to guess how many communications he sends out in a day. Whatever rattled the brain, it certainly didn’t affect his thought process and his sense of humor.”
As for getting around, his father said, “He has a lot of courage. He’d be on a street corner, waiting for buses. Now, because of paratransit, he can take it all over. He has his usual three or four stops penciled in — the Palestra, Citizens Bank Park, St. Joe’s, Villanova. I’ve met him on the curb at Temple.”
From New Zealand, Foster sent a video to be included in the tribute. He’d gotten local basketball players, 10 men and women, to perform a Haka, a traditional Maori dance ritual, an invitation for “friendly” war before a game.
At the banquet, St. Joe’s senior Avery Marz, who suffered a stroke the day she moved into St. Joe’s as a freshman but came back to play this season, her last, was awarded the Chris DiJulia award for most inspiring Hawks player, chosen by the man himself.
“This is probably the most passionate he’s been” about choosing the award, Hawks assistant Stephanie McCaffrey said of the Marz selection. “This is the first time Chris said, he’s inspired by THEM.”
Former Daily News sportswriter Kevin Mulligan, now a Catholic priest and pastor of a Montgomery County parish, made it to the banquet early and began the video that lauded/roasted DiJulia, remembering his own trips with him. Former St. Joe’s and Sixers coach Jim Lynam talked on the video about how he had a “little personal Hall of Fame for the special, special people in my life. You’ve been a member for like the last 35, 40 years.”
In his own speech, made in another video, DiJulia offered thanks for the prestigious award, remembering how he first came to Hawk Hill when he was 8: “I wouldn’t be standing here today without my family.” He couldn’t resist the laugh line, emphasizing the standing as he sat in his wheelchair. He talked about being the all-time youngest coach in Division I basketball, thinking of his 40 years as a Hawk, how it all seems like yesterday.
“Here’s to another 40 great years,’’ DiJulia said at the end of the video, suddenly holding a microphone for his last lines. “Go Hawks. I’m out.”
He dropped the mic. The video ended. The room loved it.
“It gets deep,’’ Foster said over the phone about his relationship with DiJulia. “His toughness speaks for itself. He wasn’t given a good prognosis at birth in terms of length of life. He certainly blew that out of the water. His passion — why wouldn’t you want that around you?”