Updated: Thursday, December 21, 2017, 3:33 PM
There he was, the Guru, as he doesn’t mind being called, across from Temple’s bench at McGonigle Hall, usual spot, rumply presence as ordinary as a pregame layup line. This was early on a Sunday afternoon. For this man, early might mean late. What time was it for him?
“Still yesterday,” said a man now into his fifth decade of covering women’s college basketball.
The next night after Temple hosted Villanova, Mel Greenberg’s blanket coverage continued over on Hawk Hill. He sat at his usual spot as St. Joseph’s hosted Penn, the evening tip-off time more appropriate for Greenberg’s body clock. His day would just bleed into the next, after a 3:15 a.m. departure from the press room, an Uber ride to an all-night diner, that sunrise beating him home again.
This man didn’t invent women’s hoops — he’s the Guru because he just invented writing about it in a big-time way, and helped a million writers along the way, and invented the weekly poll that starting in 1976 went to newspapers across the country with a little notation at the bottom, copyright Mel Greenberg, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Greenberg, now 70, retired from the paper in 2010, which meant he had more time to actually attend basketball games. The Guru probably writes more now about women’s hoops than ever, occasionally still for the Inquirer, always on his own site, Womhoops Guru, a go-to spot for a sport, including the WNBA and now even a college summer league in Hatboro. When Geno Auriemma won his 1,000th Tuesday night, Greenberg was in Connecticut, just up and back on the train, a quick trip, especially since Dawn Staley has her defending NCAA champs in Philly this week.
You enter Mel’s world, you get immersed in women’s hoops from the jump, with a Mel-centric twist on the proceedings. You’ll hear about Dawn and Geno and the rest of the characters who all called Mel before they were famous. You’ll understand Vivian is Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers coach who knew how to reach Mel back when she was putting Cheyney on the map with John Chaney. (Chaney himself, then Cheyney’s men’s coach, once called Mel to lobby for Cheyney’s women to be included in his poll).
You’ll hear more, though. If you’re a journalism student at St. Joseph’s in a hallway after a game, you’ll learn about a freak snowstorm above Delaware, a phone call that told Mel his flight to Carolina was cancelled. This, he’ll tell you, was when Temple was going down to Raleigh for the 2007 NCAA tournament … he could get on Southwest to get to Cleveland the next week — he was going to the Final Four after that. So anyhow, he got down there, Temple almost beats Duke, then he’s sitting there thinking God if they do that, Vivian (and Rutgers) has a chance to get to the Final Four. He convinced the office to stay down there because it’s stupid to come back up and then go to Greensboro …
That’s the way Mel tells the story, but get this part right — he gets the story, and usually the story behind the story, and also the story that caused the story. The presence in the hallway of Brendan Prunty, a St. Joe’s grad who used to cover Rutgers for the Newark Star-Ledger, caused the instant recollection. Prunty remembers how one call to Greenberg provided an entire big-picture window, like the first national TV game between Tennessee and UConn, how Summitt took the game and a loss, then she said afterward, deadpan, “For the good of the game.”
Sure, Cheryl Reeve stopped her press conference when Minnesota won the WNBA title this year to note Mel’s presence in the room. Reeve’s won four WNBA titles now, but did anybody else in the room cover her own playing days at La Salle?
The Guru likes to converse across generations with current players — “as long as I don’t mention Kennedy’s funeral, we can have a nice conversation.”
Creating the women’s basketball poll
He didn’t see women’s hoops in his future when he was at Northeast High, or even at Temple, where he became a honcho of the men’s basketball student booster group they called the Loyalists. (“Sort of like the DAC Pack,” Greenberg said, referring to Drexel’s student crazies). Anyhow, he knew a manager for the men’s team, who said he should be a manager too, could be a great link between the club and the team. That’s how Greenberg ended up with a ring celebrating Temple’s 1969 NIT title, back when the NIT really meant something. (His first plane trip ever, there was a guy in his row attached to another guy with handcuffs, so Owls coach Harry Litwack told the kid to sit anywhere, which is how Mel ended up in first class eating steak while the players sat in the back eating chicken).
At the same time, journalism seemed like a good class since he could skip a foreign language and when he got out, class of ’69, he answered a copy boy ad and started at the newspaper a few days later. He was busy working nights, not paying attention really at all to the world of women’s basketball, when this new sports editor showed up from the New York Times. Immaculata had won a couple of titles already, and a big rival was Queens College from New York, so the New York Times guy, who was actually from Tennessee, said to the clerk who was always around, “What do you think about a women’s poll?”
Give Greenberg points for not rearranging history, for telling you his answer straight. He told the new sports editor: “I think you’re nuts.”
The new man asked, what did he mean?
“There are only four teams,” Greenberg knew enough to say. “Immaculata. Queens. Delta State. Montclair.”
This editor, Jay Searcy, already ahead of his time, had written regularly at the Times about women’s sports. He was not ready to take Mel’s reservations for an answer.
“How are you going to get scores?” Greenberg asked.
That, he was told, was for him to figure out.
He took that to mean he was doing it, and wrote to what was then the sport’s governing body, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, looking for a seal of approval. He received back a position paper. The line Greenberg remembers from it: “Women’s athletics should not engage in newspaper games like polls that will lead to the evils of men’s athletics.”
For Mel and his boss, that was better than a seal of approval. Let’s do it.
“Our side was, polls will get you into the world,” Greenberg said.
It also got Mel out into this world, grabbing dinner, for instance, after games with St. Joe’s coach Jim Foster — “Foster was a visionary. He would talk about what can be — Big Five doubleheaders, that sort of thing.”
Approval for the poll, in his memory, was immediate. Greenberg remembers covering a Widener men’s game and most of Immaculata’s team was there because one of the Mighty Macs was dating Widener’s point guard, guy by the name of Phil Martelli. The Mighty Macs told Mel they liked the poll.
One of Greenberg’s big moves wasn’t just getting coaches to vote, but figuring out he should be the one to give them the data they needed to vote. Summitt down at Tennessee liked what he was doing but said she was too busy to vote herself, until she realized, with some prodding from Mel, that calling up this recording Mel put out once a week — they just had to dial into a number at the Inquirer — gave Summitt a wrapup about her whole sport.
The Guru, by the way, stayed ahead of his trade on technology. The IT guys at the paper would run new gadgets by him, see if he’d already tested them. No surprise more recently he was a quick convert to Uber. He used to have a decent deal with a rental car agency, but they stopped thinking it was such a good deal. So Uber it is. How much does he figure he pays Uber a month? “Maybe $350,’’ he said. “A lot cheaper than renting and I’m not paying for gas.” Also cheaper than owning a car, he said.
His nocturnal routine, long established, includes regular stops in Chinatown or Mayfair or a diner in Voorhees if he’s across the bridge, all stops rated not just on menu or hours but easy access to wall outlets. Along the way, his stature in the sport kept growing, to the point the legendary Philadelphia writer Bob Vetrone Sr. once told him, “You know Mel, one day they’re going to make you an honorary woman.”
When Greenberg was inducted in 2007 into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, he said in his speech, “It looks like he was right.” For most writers, the highest honor from a sport’s hall of fame is an award for distinguished service. Mel has that, too, from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. But Mel was inducted into the women’s hall right along with the legendary players and coaches. Since Pat Summitt made the mistake of once saying she owed part of her salary to Mel, he called her with a reminder and said she had to throw a party for him since the induction ceremony was in Knoxville. (Despite her stern reputation, behind the scenes Mel always found Summitt easy to work with. She threw the party).
The Associated Press does the poll now, but Mel gave them all his data from his nearly two decades doing it, and he knows for certain he created some jobs around the country, since a poll meant schools tried to get in the poll, and then media came around when they made the top 20 for the first time, which meant schools needed someone in the sports information office worrying about women’s basketball.
He’ll tell you the whole thing himself
We could tell you how the rest of the Carolina trip turned out, with the crazy ending to the Duke-Rutgers game, but why spoil it? He’ll tell you the whole thing himself if he thinks of it.
In the meantime, the Temple-Villanova game was just ending. so the Guru was one-finger tapping on his computer, updating Twitter with the news from McGonigle, and also, right at the buzzer, how it impacts the race for the Big Five title. He wandered over to the winning hallway, and since it was still yesterday for Mel, he said, “I’ll go over to the funeral” — his shorthand for finding the losing team. Just because they lost doesn’t mean there’s not a story over there somewhere, to hear or to tell.