At the Atlantic 10's basketball media day last November, a TV reporter stuck a microphone in the face of a coach and asked him what he thought about the presidential election recount, which at that point seemed to be going George W. Bush's way. We can guess the response, right? "Well, I think both candidates are fine Americans, and the country will be in great shape with either of them, and I'd rather not tell you my personal choice...." That isn't how St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli responded. He said, "My guy is catching up to that little dweeb."
After the Bush-bashing comment was aired, Martelli took some heat, in the form of a few dozen e-mails and phone calls from irate alumni and fans who believed that the coach shouldn't be calling a presidential candidate—especially their preferred candidate—a dweeb. Martelli was able to make it up to Bush, however, by having the Texan on HawkTalk, Martelli's weekly foray into guerilla theater that was recently named by The Sporting News as the nation's best coach's TV show. Actually, his guest was a man wearing a giant Bush mask. "Great to meet you, Coach Martucci," said the ersatz Bush, who also told Martelli that politics differs from basketball in that "you get to keep counting until you win."
How does Martelli feel about Bush now? "Still a dweeb," says Martelli. "Look, the reporter asked me what I felt, and I told him. I just don't like Bush, and I don't think he's the right person for minority Americans." He spreads his hands imploringly. "Hey, whaddya you gonna do?"
Most of the questions Martelli has gotten lately are about his Hawks, who are ranked No. 18 in this week's AP poll and, following a 90-70 win at Duquesne on Sunday, had a 23-4 record. Barring an implosion in the Atlantic 10 tournament, Martelli will be taking his Philly Guy shtick to his second NCAA tournament in his six seasons as coach at St. Joe's. Word has filtered out about this 46-year-old, dark-eyed, full-browed, bald coach who takes his basketball, but not himself, seriously.
The best indication of that is HawkTalk, which has a light-hearted, so-bad-it's-good Weltanschauung that brands it the polar opposite of almost every other example of the dreary coach-show genre. "Our Number 1 rule is no retakes," says Martelli. "Whatever we say the first time is what gets on the air." The most celebrated spot on the show is Martelli the Magnificent, a takeoff on Johnny Carson's Carnac the Great. Just seeing Martelli in his big genie's hat is enough to draw laughs. The material is groaningly dreadful, which is why it's good.
A few years back Martelli had a famous falling out with Arizona coach Lute Olson after Olson bailed out of a game against the Hawks in Philadelphia following a snowstorm that turned out to be no big deal by game day. Martelli the Magnificent got even by correctly divining the question for this answer: "A Japanese pitcher, a bad mistake and Lute Olson." The question was, "What is Nomo, a no-no and a no-show?"
Martelli the Magnificent appears about every fourth show, but the coach offers a weekly monologue, which he plans in the car on his way to the studio. A recent subject was Billy C, who, surprisingly, wasn't former Philadelphia 76ers star Billy Cunningham but America's former president. "What are they trying to impeach this guy again for?" Martelli said. "He doesn't even have a job."
Over the years HawkTalk's guests have included the team bus driver, the guy who cleans St. Joe's Alumni Memorial Field-house, sidekick Joe Lunardi's three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who sat on stage and ate snacks throughout the show's 30 minutes, and various members of Martelli's family. One of his five sisters, Patti Anne, hasn't been on, though she did call his radio show two weeks ago to detail how Martelli's nephews had fared in a CYO basketball game.
The reading of viewer mail is another HawkTalk highlight. Martelli's secretary, a very nervous Clare Ariano—"This is television, Clare, so you've got to speak," Martelli said to her—did the honors on a recent show. One letter was from "an anonymous Hawk supporter" who wanted to know why Phil's son, Phil Jr., a nonscholarship player, rarely gets into games. Phil looked into the camera and addressed his wife: "Look, Judy, we can discuss this over the dinner table." Phil and Judy, who met, predictably enough, at a summer basketball camp, have been married for 24 years. Ariano then opened an envelope from "a Katherine Harris of Florida," who enclosed her resume and applied for the job of scoreboard operator at the Fieldhouse. "That's a hire right there," said Martelli.
HawkTalk's one bow to coach-show tradition is a few minutes of taped highlights, which Martelli runs through without trying to sound like he invented the game. "Jameer goes to the foul line and makes a couple of big ones," he says of point guard Jameer Nelson. "That was a big shot by Marvin right there," he says as shooting guard Marvin O'Connor nails a jumper. He doesn't use last names, so you had better be familiar with St. Joe's roster. That's about the extent of the players' involvement in HawkTalk. There's no accompanying "our fine student-athletes" on leafy walks across campus, no righteous conversations about the players' post-college ambitions. "I'd rather have on the team managers," says Martelli, "because they're goofier." The St. Joe's players are not even part of HawkTalk's considerable cult audience. "Never seen the show," says O'Connor. "What time's it on?"