Jensen: Knowing 'Hockey' as Rosemont's Bob Hughes does is a Philly hoops thing

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Rosemont men's basketball coach Bob Hughes (right) with his friend Tom "Hockey" McKenna.

His cellphone rings, Rosemont College men's basketball coach Bob Hughes barely has to look at his caller ID. Certain times, he knows. The ID says, HOCKEY. The conversation won't involve ice.

"What up, boy?" Tom "Hockey" McKenna will say before another tour of Philly hoops starts over the phone.

The name Hockey is sort of a Rorschach test. If you hear it and think hoops, you're probably from Philadelphia, or worked here once, or hang out at Roman Catholic High, where McKenna has done stats for decades, or you get around the summer hoop scene, or maybe end up in a car with McKenna, driving on Roosevelt Boulevard - just drop him off on Cottman so he can go to a diner, even if you're in the express lane.

The friendship between Hughes and McKenna is a pure Philly thing. Hughes is a former St. Joseph's Hawks manager who has proven himself on the Division III coaching level. McKenna, a lifelong Northeast Philly man.

"He was a legend by the time I came around," Hughes said. "When I was manager of the St. Joe's teams in the early 2000s, he kind of hung around a little bit, he'd be around. Then obviously with Roman he was always there."

Hughes doesn't toss the word legend around lightly.

"I'll never forget the first couple of times I saw him back in the day, he kept score of everything, he had a running mental note," Hughes said. "He could keep track of all of it. Even in the summer league games, the events, Hoop Group events, he's there at summer league games where there's no track of the score, there's no history, and he's keeping score, he's going 'Number 237, ninth point, fourth rebound.' "

Hughes knows he isn't the only coach who gets calls from McKenna. He just knows how many he gets.

"There are some days I get six," Hughes said. "I get at least one a day."

Occasionally none?

"There's never a day with none," Hughes said, his wedding day included.

He usually looks forward to the conversation.

"They always start the same," Hughes said. "It's one of three things. It's either, where are you going? Who you going to see? Did I see X, Y, or Z team or player?"

A fourth is a slight variation.

"He's got a player for me. 'Oh boy, oh, do I got a kid for you, he's good for you, he'd be great for Rosemont!' I'm just sitting there, "OK, who is it?' "

What's McKenna's batting average on such pronouncements?

"Honestly, his batting average with kids that are good for us is very high," Hughes said. "But kids that I don't know about is very low. I mean, usually he's telling me and I'm like, 'Yeah Hock, I've had him up to campus already,' or like, 'he already committed to West Chester, yeah, he'd be good for us.' "

But even that conversation is inevitably worthwhile.

"He loves to think about where guys belong," Hughes said. "Like we'll have a 20-minute conversation about, could he play for Holy Family? . . . Yeah, but could he play for Herb [Magee]? He could play for Cabrini but he couldn't play for Arcadia. He knows not just the coaches but he knows the styles, he knows the types of guys that coaches want. It is really amazing that he can do it."

Sunday night calls can be the longest.

"The Sunday night calls, you can set a watch to," Hughes said. "It's about 9:15, every single Sunday night."

That's also the time Hughes may not pick up.

"My wife and I are watching Game of Thrones and she just gives me the look - she knows exactly who it is. I say, 'OK, all right, I won't.' "

Wherever they start, the conversations stray.

I'll tell you what boy, no way you're going to see me walking around in a Philly U T-Shirt, R.C. would kill me.

You can't recruit that kid, that kid a Cabrini kid.

I can't go to no Jersey games - they don't like me in Jersey.

There was the time in January when Hughes asked if McKenna was going to make it to Rosemont's game.

"What time?"

"Three."

"Yeah, I'll be there."

"You're going to have to keep score."

"No way, I'm going to the Neumann game."

McKenna has his tics - his quirks have quirks - and his loyalties. R.C. is R.C. Kehoe, Holy Family's coach and a Roman grad. Hockey might pop up at the Palestra for Penn-Princeton wearing a Princeton shirt, sitting behind the Tigers bench. He's even been known to switch jerseys and seating positions at halftime. The connections are always personal, probably from the summer, maybe from a car ride. McKenna also did stats for years for Ted Silary when Silary covered high schools for the Daily News. If an Inquirer guy showed up - "what you doing here?"

"I first met him in the mid-90s - I was working an AAU event, he was there keeping the score," Hughes said. "I was 15, 16 years old at the time. I went to Malvern Prep, was a manager there. I'm sitting there, all of a sudden this guy comes over and he just starts barking orders, and he's barking orders in Hockey speak, and I'm like, who is this guy and what is he trying to tell me?"

Camera icon BEN GLUCKMAN
Bob Hughes talks to his players during a timeout.

The friendship began, Hughes said, when he got into coaching out of St. Joe's, began working Hoop Group summer events.

"Once he found out I was working the events, I became his ride," Hughes said. "When I was driving to Pittsburgh and West Virginia and up to Boston for big events, I'd get a phone call a couple of days before, 'Yo, Barn, can I get a ride?' "

Hughes' nickname is Barney, given to him by St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli back when he was a manager class of '03. (Think Barney Rubble.)

McKenna's nickname?

"I know it had something to do with him working games, he slung beer at the Vet and the Spectrum," Hughes said of Hockey, who also answers to Puck.

Whether on the phone or in the in the car, "He gets me laughing more than any other person that I speak to," Hughes said. "It's not what he says, it's the way he goes about it. He has such a profound wonder when it comes to basketball. He loves everything about basketball and almost everyone involved in basketball. I just don't think you get that - so many guys, I've got coaching friends, we rip into this guy or we say I can't stand this guy. With him, it's never like that. He wants everybody to succeed. He just has a genuine interest in seeing you be successful."

Tell McKenna about this story and he'll simply say, "Write about Barney." (But he'll smile for the camera.)

Hughes had been JV coach at St. Joe's, then an assistant at Drew and Washington College, before taking over at Rosemont, where he's been head coach for the past five years. This season, Rosemont went 16-11 and 13-5 in the Colonial States Athletic Conference. Rosemont didn't win the league, finishing tied for third, but was the only team to beat league champ Neumann University.

The only time the calls stopped coming between McKenna and Hughes was for a spell last year when McKenna was in the hospital, seriously ill.

"It started with a liver problem, became a kidney problem, which became an intestinal problem, all complications," Hughes said. "He gets regular checkups now. From that perspective, he is in a much better place. He's gotten the support he needs, not just from his family."

Again, Hughes isn't the only coach who gets calls. At a small college basketball luncheon earlier this year, Neumann coach Jim Rullo's cellphone rang. Hughes happened to be sitting next to Rullo and saw the caller ID. HOCKEY. Hughes answered Rullo's phone. McKenna recognized the voice and just started talking like he had intended to call Hughes.

"First game I ever coached vs. Eastern, first game as a head coach, he found his way to Rosemont," Hughes said. "The security guy is like, 'Excuse me, can I help you?' He's like, "I got to see Barney, Barney's playing, I got to get there.' He walks in the gym, he just walks over and sits on the bench. Someone comes over, 'Excuse me, can I help you?' He says, 'Go talk to Barney.' "

The real beauty of the friendship, Hughes said, "Obviously, he comes from the outskirts of the game - and not that I'm from the outskirts outskirts, obviously the St. Joe's thing comes in handy. But I wasn't a player. I didn't play the game. I was a manager."

Hughes also gets that within hoop circles he's way less famous than the guy who calls him every day.

"I think in this game, it makes room for personalities," Hughes said, "and he's about as big a personality as you can get."

The truth is, Hughes is honored by the friendship, since he knows that in Philadelphia basketball, Hockey isn't an outsider. He's the ultimate insider. 

If you know Hockey, you're into hoops. 

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