The Grands

The Grands
"Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children".
--- from the writings of Roots author Alex Haley

Thursday, April 7, 2016

On Memories, Basketball Titles, and Paste-Covered Toothbrushes

The marvelous six-game journey the Villanova Wildcats made through March Madness to capture the 2016 NCAA college basketball title obviously created many new memories for younger Wildcat fans. But it brought back many memories for older fans, too. Here are a few of mine.
As a graduate of the Villanova Class of 1973, I followed Villanova's tournament games this year with FAN-atical Philly Main Line fervor. I alternated between heights of ecstasy and depths of despair on each free throw, lead change, or shift in momentum.

(OK ... I realize those above two sentences are cliche-ridden and hyperbolic, but I assure you I really did watch this particular tournament with intense interest and emotion).

Rich, laughing next to Karen with me behind them.
Graduation party on the VU football field, May 1973.
Why is Rich wearing that big bowtie?
During the less frenetic moments of timeouts and after every game, I thought of my great friend from my Villanova years, Rich Nocella.

South Philly Richie, my Boston pahk-yah-cah roommate Steve Fererra, myself, and the fourth member of our VU freshmen quartet, the ever-flamboyant Philly suburbanite Russell Mitchell, created enough memories in our short time together to fill a series of hilarious books, whose total weight could rival that of a slimmed-down Charles Barkley leaping wildly in a celebration of a Villanova victory.

By the beginning of our junior year, however, only Rich and I were left at Villanova. Steve had transferred to the University of Massachusetts and Russell had dropped out and left campus on a long journey to find himself.

Now Richie was just an average college student. But he got straight A's in all things sports. His father had been taking him to the famed Philly Palestra to see Big 5 basketball games since he was little. At Bishop Neumann High School in Philadelphia, Rich had been a solid pitcher on the baseball team. He put together an intramural basketball team at Villanova that was good enough to win the campus league title. And, as one of VU's most outgoing personalities, he knew every important athlete on campus.

Therefore in 1971, when Villanova won its way to its first Final Four, Richie headed to Houston to see the games. Since I was playing in a rock band and had a job that weekend, I didn't go with him, despite his insisting that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Villanova beat favored Western Kentucky, but lost in the finals to one of those John Wooden-led UCLA juggernauts. The game was tainted and Villanova's name was stricken from the record books because star player Howard Porter (who, in my crowning athletic achievement at Villanova, once borrowed a dime from me for a phone call in Bartley Hall) had signed a professional contract before the games.

Rich, between my roommate Steve and me with my son, Michael
who is now an economic professor at the University of Chicago.
Why is Richie wearing that wooden basket on his head?
After graduation, Richie and I never again had the type of daily contact that only four years of college closeness can offer. But we kept in touch, since I lived in South Jersey and he lived in the Philly suburbs. He came to our wedding and we went to his, where he married his high school sweetheart, Karen. He came to see our son when he was born and we visited when both his son and then his daughter were born. Some nights, in a wistful, alcohol-fueled state, I would call him or he would call me, and we would talk about times both old and new. It was a pattern that would continue for decades. And when we did get together from time to time, it was if the intervening years had never happened and we were simply students back on campus.

Over the years, Rich had two careers - the first as a teacher who eventually became athletic director at a prestigious Main Line private school.  After many years, he left education to become a financial analyst and advisor, not surprisingly doing extremely well and even representing a few Villanova athletes who turned professional.

(Journalistic Disclaimer Here: Despite his insistent requests, I never accepted any financial advice from Richie. After all, I had seen him in a woeful impersonation of Mick Jagger singing, or maybe make that screeching,  "Jumping Jack Flash" drunkenly at 4 a.m. in 1971, using a toothpaste-stained, blue toothbrush as a microphone. Plus, I knew Karen, skeptical of her husband's abilities, managed the money at home).

Rich, Karen & the late Russ Mitchell
at my 40th birthday party, which was
24 years ago. Where did the time go?
In 1985, Villanova, led by its roly-poly, pasta-eating coach Rollie Massimino, had, as an 8th-seed, shockingly made the Final Four for the second time. The chances of Villanova winning the national title were remote. But after a semi-final victory, the Wildcats found themselves facing a heavily favored Georgetown team that had already beaten them twice during the regular season. Improbable as it still seems, when the final buzzer sounded, Villanova was the 66-64 winner in what most sportswriters and basketball experts acknowledge was the most perfectly played Final Four game by any one team in tournament history. The pictures of Villanova forward Dwayne McClain lying on the floor tightly clutching the basketball at game's end and the ensuing explosion of Villanova joy have become iconic views, played over and over as if to prove the impossible victory actually happened.

Once again, Richie was at that game. Once again, I wasn't. Whenever we would get together from time to time after that, he would always regale the group with a special story or two about that day and its aftermath. And, of course, those stories would be the kind that only Richie could tell.

But in 2010, those stories abruptly ended. I received a tearful call from Richie's son, explaining that his father had died in the night. I was stunned. I guess I thought with his vibrancy, exuberance, and love of life, Richie, like his beloved 1985 Villanova basketball team, would somehow beat the odds and live forever. Or at least long enough to entertain enraptured elderly audiences with his engaging stories in some expensive old-folks home on the Main Line.

Even though it would make no difference, being a former journalist I wanted to know the details. Rich and Karen had just returned from a trip to Europe. Rich told Karen he was going in to his office to check on a few things. After a couple of hours passed, Karen became concerned. She called some of Richie's friends. She phoned a few of his business associates. Finally, fearing the worst, she summoned the courage and went to her husband's office. There she found Rich, slumped in his chair, an uncradled telephone lying next to him on the floor. He had suffered a fatal heart attack as he was apparently attempting to make a call.

His funeral was something to behold. The chapel at the private Hill Top School where he once taught was packed. Presiding over the ceremony was no less a personage than the President of Villanova. During the eulogy, the president spoke more as the friend of Richie's he was in real life than a devout Catholic priest or the dignified head of a major American university.

He told several stories, that while seeming strange coming from a priest, were perfectly fitting for Richie and the way he had lived his life.  And perhaps even more improbable than the Villanova victory over Georgetown, a sanitized version of our fabled tale of the paste-stained toothbrush and the late-night (well actually early morning) caterwauled "Jumping Jack Flash" was among those stories. It was one of the most appropriate funeral services I have ever attended. Richie would have loved it.

This year Villanova, as its has so frequently under the guidance of Rollie Massamino's protege Jay Wright, was once again selected for the tournament field of 68 teams. This was a talented, well-coached team with senior leadership, but it was also a team of uncertainty. For a few weeks, it had gained the first number one national ranking in Villanova's history. But it had also lost to underdog Seton Hall in the Big East championship game and had been struggling mightily in recent tournaments.

For Villanova, the Road to the Final Four (as always, thanks for that phrase CBS) began with an 86-56 victory over UNC Asheville, followed by an 87-68 defeat of Iowa. Villanova was in the Sweet Sixteen. A 92-69 win over Miami led to an Elite 8 showdown with the nation's top-ranked team, Kansas. Kansas fell 64 to 59. Villanova was in the Final Four, facing an Oklahoma team in Houston that had the nation's best offensive player and had beaten the Wildcats by 30 points in December. But, in one of the few times that criminally overused word "awesome" could actually apply, Villanova crushed the Sooners 95 to 51, recording the largest margin of victory ever in a Final Four game.

That left only the tradition-proud, Roy Williams-led University of North Carolina standing between Villanova and a second national title.

I don't think I need to recount the entire game here, exciting as it was. Talking about the incredible last 4.7 seconds will suffice. With that amount of time on the clock, North Carolina's smooth senior guard Marcus Paige made one of the most awkward 3-point shots ever attempted to tie the game at 71.

Villanova had less than five seconds to travel the length of the court and then find the basket for a win. All indications pointed to overtime. But if there's one certainty in sports, it's that sometimes the most uncertain things can, and do, happen.

Junior forward Kris Jenkins inbounded the ball to senior point guard and team leader Ryan Arcidiacono. Arcidiacono dribbled furiously up the court. He knew when he made it past half court, he would have about a second to decide whether to take the final shot himself or pass it off to one of his teammates. Everyone's role was clearly defined. It was a designed last-second play called Nova. The starters had run it forever as part of practice. Ironically, it reportedly had never worked there, but this was what the Wildcats were going with. Jenkins, unguarded, trailed Arcidiacono up the court. Now along side him, Jenkins was calling for the ball. "Arch, Arch," he screamed. Arcidiacono tossed him the ball. Jenkins elevated, released and .............

Now although many claim they do, I have absolutely no idea what happens when a person dies. But if there is any way a part of a deceased person's life force can return to Earth, then I'm certain the spirit of Richie Nocella was in the building that night. I mean he obviously knew the way since he had already travelled with Villanova to a Final Four once before in Houston 45 years earlier.

I don't want to take anything away from the masterful coaching job of Jay Wright and his assistants. Or Arcidiacono's court sense or Jenkins' sweet stroke or the contributions of all the other Wildcat players that got Villanova in position for that final shot.

But there is a part of me that believes this: If Richie Nocella's spirit did find its way to the court on that crazy, heart-pounding Monday night, it wouldn't surprise me if it deftly grabbed the ball immediately after it left Jenkins' fingers and guided it directly into the hoop just as the clock showed 0:00.

Now I know some might call that cheating.  Maybe even lodge a protest claiming unfair Divine Intervention. But it's definitely something Richie Nocella would do, especially if it could help the team and the 'Nova nation.

And besides, if spirits can tell stories, it would give him one more great - maybe even the greatest of all  - Villanova tale to tell. Or at least the greatest that didn't involve the early 1970s, four drunk freshmen, Mick Jagger, and a paste-covered toothbrush.

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