Drew Nolan is 70 now and retired, but his intensity hasn’t extinguished. He still speaks the way he once played basketball — relentlessly, furiously, breathlessly, often unaware of where’s he’s headed.
There was no one else like Nolan in the Big Five of the 1960s, or in all the decades before or since. Nearly 50 years after his inimitable Temple career ended, he remains, for me, among the most enduring and enigmatic characters in Philadelphia’s basketball history.
In 1967, the Big Five was buttoned-down basketball. Omnipotent coaches like Penn’s Dick Harter and Temple’s Harry Litwack demanded fundamentals, discipline, and conformity. Individuality was as rare as a behind-the-back pass.
Then, tossed into that conservative world like a Molotov cocktail, came Drew Nolan.
Wildly entertaining and maddeningly erratic, he was a point guard without a point. He had one direction (straight-ahead), one speed (full-bore). He performed with a manic intensity, an uncontainable flair, a style that combined chaos and chutzpah.
Every game, it seemed, Nolan did something that left you amazed or aghast. He’d pick a guard’s pocket at a key moment and no-look a pass to an open Owl. Or he’d pinball fearlessly through four defenders, then throw the ball behind his back and out of bounds. For no compelling reason, he might take an off-balance shot from just beyond half-court.
One sportswriter described the volatile Nolan as “capable of brilliant stretches, but lacking in emotional consistency.” The Daily News labeled his style “psychedelic.” The Inquirer called him the “Mount Vesuvius of North Broad Street.”
His talents were electric, but there was no dimmer or off-switch. Litwack never comprehended Nolan. Neither did anyone else.
“Drew was a character,” recalled Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon, an opponent as a Villanova guard. “He’d take three dribbles around his back, not go anywhere, then fly by you. He said he wasn’t sure what hand he shot with.”
O’Hanlon recalled when Litwack drew up a detailed play designed to get Temple the last shot in a tied game.
“Drew went out and took a running, 15-foot, lefthanded hook,” O’Hanlon said. “Temple won anyway and afterward Harry asked, `Drew, what do you think the chances were of that shot going in?’ Without missing a beat, Drew said, `Fifty-fifty.’ Harry looked at him incredulously. `Fifty-fifty?’ And Drew said, `Sure, either it goes in or it doesn’t.’”
For the staid Big Five, Nolan was a harbinger of the cultural tumult approaching the Palestra. He was colorful, broke rules, shattered traditions. That didn’t always serve him well. He sat more than he should have. In high school, while his Gloucester Catholic team won a New Jersey state title, he stewed on the bench. As a Temple junior, he missed the second half of the season after a suspension he still won’t discuss.
But what made him infuriating made him unforgettable. Nolan was such a befuddling whirlwind that he’s never faded from my memory. And I’d often wondered if such an incandescent force had ever settled into a normal life.
So it was a relief to discover last week that this uncontrollable spirit had found emotional equilibrium.
“I didn’t grow up until I was 25 or 30,” said Nolan, a Merchantville resident.
After graduating from Temple in 1970, he coached basketball and soccer at Moorestown Friends and Edgewood Regional High. In the early 1980s, he took a job with the local stagehands’ union, was elected to leadership, and stayed for three decades. He’s been married 40 years, raised three children.
“I’ve had a good life,” Nolan said. “I’m still not relaxed, but I’m not hyper. You could talk to some of the guys I worked with and they’d say they liked me, respected me, but that I was a little nuts.”
Nolan grew up in Gloucester, developing his frenetic style in South Jersey’s parks and gyms.
“I always played like that,” he said. “I liked making goofy plays. I’d make a great play, but to get to that point I’d make a couple mistakes. I couldn’t jump real high and I was probably an average shooter, so playing really fast was to my advantage. It was a little hectic sometimes. It wasn’t always organized. If I played today, I’d still play that way. But I probably wouldn’t be any good.”
One of his great regrets is how he regularly frustrated Litwack, the gentlemanly coach who once said of the player who frequently sat beside him on the bench, “He’s got a great deal of speed and a great deal of ability, but he loses control.”
“When I got in there, I tried to do as much as I could to draw attention to myself,” Nolan agreed. “I wish I’d toned it down a little.”
In 1969, the Daily News’ Bill Conlin described a familiar aftermath of a play in which a wild Nolan pass scuttled a four-on-one Temple break.
“Drew Nolan caused his coach, Harry Litwack, to bestir himself from the bench. Nobody in all his years of coaching at Temple has bestirred Litwack from the bench so often as Drew Nolan.”
Temple went 56-30 in Nolan’s three seasons, but because he never fully won the coach’s trust, his statistics were modest. Lightning-quick and nearly 6-foot-2, he scored 23 points a game as a freshman and was called Temple’s best backcourt prospect since Guy Rodgers. He should have averaged more than 8.5 points a game.
“I didn’t get all I could have out of basketball,” he said. “I had ability to achieve a lot more than I achieved. I was probably about the same physical ability as players in my peer group – Dan Kelly, Fran Dunphy, Fran O’Hanlon – but not as mature. I wasn’t grown up enough to understand how lucky I was to have what I had.”
Still, what Drew Nolan had was unforgettable.
He was, as Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road, one of those who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”