At a time when my buddies were fascinated by girls and fin-tailed cars, basketball was my only passion. It was 1959, and I was a hotshot high school hoopster in Philadelphia. One night as I was taking in a college game at the old brick-and-steel Palestra in West Philly, I saw my future: I would someday play for Harry Litwack's Temple Owls in the Big Five league. I had to, I needed to. It came to me in a flash. Temple's 5'11" All-America guard Bill (Pickles) Kennedy had just swiped the ball from a St. Joe player. Pickles crossed over on a dribble and went by one defender. He dashed the length of the court, snaked down the lane and flipped a shot over two more Hawks. The ball fell softly through the hoop, and suddenly I was willing to sacrifice all to play, someday, for Harry Litwack's team.
You see, Litwack had the reputation of being a "little man's coach." In the four previous years he had twice taken Temple to the NCAA Final Four, in 1956 and 1958, winning national coach of the year honors both times. He had done it with the help of a group of great little guards: Hal Lear, Guy Rodgers and the aforementioned Pickles Kennedy.
I, too, at 5'8", was a little guard.
And so it was that I found my way to Temple. The first time I met the legendary Litwack, better known as the Chief, he said to me, "C'mon, I'll buy you something to eat." He didn't take me to Bookbinders, that's for sure. Instead, Litwack escorted me to Mike's Broad Tower, a 12-stool on-campus eatery that served up burgers, shakes, fries and cherry Cokes. It was located right next to Temple's South Hall basketball court, and the Chief recruited all his players there. That means all of them—including the great Rodgers, who, the story goes, was treated to a burger and shake. Then the Chief gave Rodgers a token so he could get back home on public transportation.
"Give the kid what he wants," Litwack told Mike, the owner, as I hopped up on a Broad Tower stool. The Chief stood at the end of the counter, puffing hard on a big-as-a-broomstick panatela. A corona of smoke wreathed his head. I knew as I looked at him that Litwack was no slick Madison Avenue guy who would put extra spin on a pitch in order to wow a recruit. No, he would speak honestly and candidly—blowing cigar smoke in my face all the while—and promise me nothing but a solid education. No money, no cars, no playmates, not even playing time.
That was O.K. with me. I would earn my playing time.
And I did. By junior year, I was in the starting lineup.
I remember a winter night—Feb. 15, 1964, to be precise. We were to play La Salle for the Middle Atlantic Conference championship and entry into the NCAA tournament. The game was supremely important to the Chief because he hadn't been to the NCAAs since '58.
La Salle was favored, and no wonder. The Explorers glittered with stars: Frank Corace, Curt Fromal, George Sutor, Walter Sampson. But the Chief wasn't worried. In the locker room before the game, he stood calmly by the door, his hands folded across his chest, puffing away on that ubiquitous cigar. "Block out, take good shots and get a hand in their face," he told us simply. It wasn't Litwack's style to sputter Rockne-like language and send us out flying. We felt that if we listened to his calm instruction and did as he said, we would win. "Play as a team," he said. "Stick to the fundamentals. Know your strengths and weaknesses." He stressed the latter. If you didn't recognize what you could and could not do on the court, there would be consequences. Elmer Snethen, a player hardly known for his accurate shooting, once forgot about the consequences. He launched a shot from deep—and I mean deep—in the corner, an alltime brick. "Jesus Christmas!" shouted the Chief, leaping off the bench. In the locker room at half, Litwack stood on a bench and said to us sternly, "If you're not a bunter, don't bunt." Snethen didn't get it. He whispered, "What's he mean?" Bob Harrington, our senior co-captain, shot a darting look at him and said, "Don't shoot."
So on this winter night in 1964, we were all concentrating on what we should and shouldn't do. And we were concentrating on the consequences. The Chief clapped his hands, softly, and sent us out onto the Palestra court with these words: "Let's go out and play with some ginger."