PHILADELPHIA -- Under the cover of scouting Jameer Nelson, John Nash had come a long, long way to witness the most improbable night in Hawk Hill history. But long before St. Joe's cut down the nets and properly celebrated its team's perfection, it was a non-scholarship student capturing the gaze of the Portland Trail Blazers general manager.
As the marvelous little gymnasium on the campus of Saint Joseph's University stretched its arms and wiped the sleep out of its eyes Tuesday night, a solitary figure pushed his mop across the hardwood floor. The kid mopping the court had two clothes pins holding tight a wet towel, a $5 invention inspired, Nash learned, when the prospect of purchasing a $300 industrial mop at a chain store just seemed too great an excess.
"And that's St. Joe's," Nash said. "Always doing more with less."
Twenty-seven and counting, a basketball season for the ages at Saint Joseph's, a night that inspired coach Phil Martelli to grab a microphone for a ceremony and insisted to the student body and alumns that they were going to have a terrific time late Tuesday night. They were going to cut down the nets, and cut a cake, because, "What you have seen may never be repeated in college basketball."
Wherever you turn these days, you'll hear Martelli defending Saint Joseph's. Defending this season. Defending his players. It's a shame.
Everyone should be celebrating the magical season on Hawk Hill, but people are too fast to tear it down as unworthy of a No. 1 seed, or of Final Four consideration. Through it all, Martelli is a Philadelphia street fighter, content to trade body blows with the disbelievers. Ultimately, the nation is doing him and his Hawks a favor, reminding them that they'll always be the underdog, that they'll always be against the odds.
Truth be told, 27-0 is just the beginning. And, whatever happens now, just understand: they aren't settling for 27-0. This is the beauty of everything. They're daring to be historic on Hawk Hill.
Before they cut down the nets, Martelli insisted this would be practice for Dayton (the Atlantic 10 tournament) and East Rutherford (the East Regional finals) and San Antonio (the Final Four). But the big boys are waiting, maybe even the Connecticut Huskies as a No. 2 seed in the East Regional. Just a chance for St. Joe's to stand tall in the face of the size and strength people seem so sure will collapse its perfect season.
But to think St. Joe's can't get to the Alamodome is preposterous. These aren't the old days of college basketball, where two or three NBA players were needed on a roster to deliver a regional ticket. For goodness sakes, Marquette, Indiana and Wisconsin have made it the past three years. And March has never been so much about great guards controlling the game, and the Hawks have the best of them all.
Nine more games, they screamed on Hawk Hill. Nine more games. Martelli promises to stay on the frontlines of smacking back at the disbelievers, defending the honor of St. Joe's season against the clowns so eager to dismiss it. He is standing tallest on a college basketball landscape of cheaters and con men and corrupt administrations, his Hawks representing something good and right in college basketball.
"There isn't anyone, anywhere," Martelli boomed into a microphone late Tuesday night, "who doesn't know about St. Joe's now."
And when the night was over, Martelli retreated back to his tiny cubicle office in the Fieldhouse, a cubby fit for an adjunct in the English department. Twenty-seven and oh, and they're chasing everything at St. Joe's now. And, somehow, they're still standing. They're still unbowed and undefeated.
One alumnus had come a long way to see the punctuation to the perfection at home, out of the 1960's at St. Joe's, out of Jack Ramsay and the height of the Big Five, and at a time before the BCS-football schools wanted to own college basketball too.
"It's kind of gratifying to know that this can still happen at a little school in Philly," he said. "... St. Joe's is the place where David is really beating Goliath."
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.