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After 10 years, 2003-04 St. Joseph's team still memorable

TNS Regional News • Mar 10, 2014 at 3:15 PM

Ten years later, Delonte West, sporting a full beard, is in a little shop in Jinjiang, China, "just a place to get a quick cup of noodles."

It's the last place West expects to see a Chinese man flapping his arms, unmistakably mimicking the St. Joseph's Hawk.

The man at the counter had recognized West as a basketball player. West figured that's because he played for the local team this season. Wrong. Or because West had played 10 years in the NBA, which is widely shown in China? Nope.

"He started flapping his arms," West said. "I swear on my mother."

West, now 30 years old, remembers saying: "What do you know about the Hawk?"

"I know, I know," the man said.

It's proof of how much of the basketball world, and even the wider world, took notice and never forgot how the St. Joseph's Hawks pulled off their undefeated 2003-04 regular season and came within a shot of the Final Four.

"I hear it [in] every city," said Jameer Nelson, starting point guard for the Orlando Magic and Sports Illustrated cover boy that season. "Every city, somebody has a Sports Illustrated or some sort of something, maybe a basketball card with St. Joe's, or something."

Lesser-known Hawks have all experienced variations.

"I'll meet people at work or around the city who ask if I played basketball," said Dave Mallon, who manages the Anthropologie website for Urban Outfitters. He's used to the question, being 6-foot-10, and when he tells them he played for St. Joe's, he says their first question is always: "Did you play on that team?"

What was it about that team?

"We moved people," said Hawks coach Phil Martelli.

When Wichita State finished this regular season undefeated, the school became the first since the '04 Hawks to pull off the feat. The schools share some similarities. Neither has a football team, for instance. But as underdog stories go, the Hawks' still reigns.

When Sports Illustrated put Nelson on its cover, the headline was, "Meet Jameer Nelson, the little man from the little school that's beating everyone."

An out-of-town reporter showed up at practice in 2004 to write about Hawk mania. Nice place, he said, looking around the Fieldhouse; where do they play their games?

"This is it," said Ray Parrillo, who covered that team for The Inquirer.

The mania got so crazy the university had to hire a security guard because of autograph-seekers following Nelson to class. Martelli said players came to him and requested that they just eat in the hotel on the road.

Mallon, who grew up outside Buffalo, remembers thinking, "Man, the city revolves around St. Joe's basketball."

For a brief period of time it did, before an Oklahoma State three-pointer with 6.9 seconds left in the Elite Eight ended the revolution.

"We lost on Saturday, I went to Mass on a Sunday," Martelli said. "I had two grown men, one older and one slightly younger, they were in total tears, they were sobbing."

That's what Martelli meant about moving people. He remembers saying to his wife after that church scene, "Man, this is going to be harder than I thought."

There was no surefire way to shut down the Hawks that season.

"I can't think of any teams where the pieces fit that well," said Pat Carroll, the designated sharpshooter.

Nelson was national player of the year, paired with West, a selfless but good-luck-covering-him guard. For his career, Carroll made 45.5 percent of his three-pointers. Tyrone Barley was the shutdown defender. The whole rotation, starters and subs, went on to play professionally, domestically or overseas.

His players say Martelli kept a light touch even as things got crazy.

"He'd say to me, 'John Bryant, do you understand you're the starting power forward for the No. 1 team in the country?' " Bryant said. "He didn't really get too upset, unless I took a shot or something."

Bryant knew his job was to set screens. He also was a big presence in the locker room. The ethos in that room was set early by Nelson.

"Everything about Jameer, it always comes back to his character," said Mallon, a sophomore that season. "He was never into intimidating freshmen. I struggled right away, I was so skinny, it was a faster game. He would sit you down, say: 'I need you to play at my level so we can be successful.' His approach was always the same: If he can do it, you can do it. He was the perfect leader."

Martelli, national coach of the year that season, knew he didn't have to reinvent basketball at every timeout.

"Our playbook is so much thicker [now] than it was in '03-'04," Martelli said.

Over his career, West said, he played with few players in the NBA who could shoot it like Carroll. Then, he said: "I've been in the NBA 10 years, I never saw anybody defend the basketball the way Tyrone Barley did. . . . I haven't been scared to match up with anybody, except for Tyrone Barley in practice."

West pointed to the Sweet 16 win over Wake Forest. Carroll made 5 of 7 three-pointers. While scoring 13 points of his own, Barley guarded future NBA rookie of the year and seven-time all-star Chris Paul much of the game. Paul scored 12 points on just two field goals.

Almost everyone on the roster has his own place in Hawk lore. Andrew Koefer was the walk-on that Martelli was about to cut when Nelson called while Koefer was in Martelli's office. Nelson spoke up for Koefer, so Martelli kept him. Rob Hartshorn, as far as he knows, remains the only Division I cheerleader to walk on to a Division I basketball team.

"You never saw a guy walking by himself," West said. "It was four or five guys."

Since the second team wore pinnies in practice, Hartshorn gave them a name, "Pinergy." If he saw Nelson or West or some other starter on campus during the day, he'd say something like, "Pinergy's going to be a problem at 5:30!"

If John Lucas III hadn't hit his shot at the Meadowlands to send Oklahoma State to the Final Four, ending St. Joe's season at 30-2, these Hawks believe they had a legitimate shot to win it all.

"I didn't rewatch that game for years," Bryant said. "I bet a lot of my teammates would say the same thing."

"If you don't have those lows, you probably weren't playing for much," Carroll said. "You've got to have something worth losing for."

"He hit a tough shot," Bryant said of Lucas. "I haven't met him. I just can't get myself over it. I can't get myself to like him. I hear he's a great guy. I always root against him."

Dave Mallon looked at his phone: 70 text messages?

Just out of a work meeting last summer, Mallon began scrolling through reminiscences, familiar jokes, insults, comebacks. The group text began with a team photo.

Feeling nostalgic after seeing the photo, Bryant sent it to all his teammates.

"It just kind of exploded into a conversation, catching up with one another," said Bryant, now associate head coach of the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Development League. "It was like an all-day event."

"I was going in and out of the house playing with my kids, I was texting back and forth," Nelson said. "We were making jokes on each other. Next thing you know, you have 70 or 80 texts on your phone."

Since then, the texts have kept coming, like last week when Bryant's wife (also a Hawk) had a baby.

Rob Sullivan, a reserve on that team, now the Hawks' director of basketball operations, mentioned during a group text that he was on the bus with this year's Hawks, going from the airport in Buffalo to St. Bonaventure.

Immediately, the texts reflected that endless ride to Olean, N.Y., like they were all on the bus.

"Always remember that trip." "LOL."

Whatever the technology, the stories will be retold. It seems as if every halftime on Hawk Hill, a group of legends is brought out to half-court for cheers and photos. It has dawned on the '03-'04 Hawks that they will be those guys as long as they're ambulatory.

Nobody expressed any great burden from being on such a special team. Martelli said he always tries to put each season on a shelf, to move on. It took longer that year, he said, because the team was so celebrated, which brought more memories.

"I sat down with John Wooden and heard him say, 'I really admire the way your team utilized the dribble this year,' " Martelli said. "Come on."

Martelli's initial statements about turning St. Joe's into the Gonzaga of the East didn't come to fruition. It's still St. Joe's, with mid-major ups and downs. If the Hawks hear their name on selection Sunday next week, it will be for the first time since 2008. They'll be trying for their first NCAA tournament victory since that Wake Forest Sweet 16 game.

Admissions applications spiked for a time, the gym was modernized, seats added. Two assistants, Matt Brady and Monte Ross, got head-coaching jobs. Some of the players believe that season directly helped them get jobs playing overseas. Nelson and West were joined in the NBA by center Dwayne Jones, who had brief NBA stints with seven teams, most notably a 56-game 2007-08 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he was West's teammate. Jones is now playing in Qatar.

There is tremendous sadness in one regard. Several players said they weren't prepared to talk about how Barley, a captain that season, is now in Graterford Prison after being sentenced to 10 to 20 years last year for an armed robbery in West Chester. Prosecutors said Barley, deep in gambling debt, had pointed a gun at three women, then struggled with police before being captured.

"I have a broken heart over that, and that's not being dramatic," Martelli said. "It's crushing. I bet you if you asked any of the players, they would say the same thing. There's a part of you that says, 'You know what, we're not complete.' "

Hartshorn, the ex-cheerleader, has his own difficult story. He was in a car accident, hit at a stoplight. That resulted in herniated discs, a spinal fusion in November 2006, debilitating pain. He ended up with broken bones in his back, more surgery.

"It was rough," Hartshorn said, but his recovery was aided by Hawks teammates like Bryant and Brian Jesiolowski, he said, and he really did focus on what he had accomplished just to join that Hawks team.

For most of the others, concerns are less dramatic. Most have joined the working world, and if they had a full arena screaming at them once, then missing an e-mail isn't as intense, as Mellon put it. "I suppose I've learned not to dwell on mistakes," he said. "It's funny how that all plays out in life."

Nelson said he's grown more reflective about what happened. He has played in the NBA Finals with Orlando, but he will always be most associated with one team.

"We all played a part, we all had a role, we all fulfilled our roles well," Nelson said. "That's why it was so special, that's what made it so good. Everybody knew what they were supposed to do."

From halftime on Hawk Hill to a noodle shop in Jinjiang, they remember.

"We're together forever," Hartshorn said.



 Mike Jensen

The Philadelphia Inquirer


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