To the delight of hagiographers everywhere, St. Joseph's College won last week's Mad Monk Tournament in North Windham, Maine. The divine plan ordained that St. Joe's also finish second, third and fourth. This basketball synod brought together four scrappy St. Joseph's from the Northeast. "I could have had the winner's name engraved on the trophy months ago," mused Rick Simonds, host coach of North Windham's St. Joe's. This was a tournament where you couldn't tell the teams even with a scorecard.
All the Joes were Division III-level schools. There were the Golden Eagles from Patchogue, N.Y., the Bears from Brooklyn, the Saints from Rutland, Vt. and the Monks from North Windham, surely the only monastic order that uses a zone press.
They are probably also the only monks in a school sponsored by nuns. The Sisters of Mercy formed St. Joseph's back in 1912, though they didn't give the game of basketball their blessing until somewhat later, in 1971. Today the nuns have their own cheering section.
The Monks got their moniker serendipitously when they acquired a bunch of uniforms stitched with the name from defunct Assumption Prep in Worcester, Mass. Simonds didn't particularly like the image of the jovial butter-ball Xerox scribe conjured up by the nickname. "I thought we should have a more aggressive monk," he says. He wanted a mascot more along the lines of Rasputin. What he got was a guy inside a sackcloth robe underneath a fat papier-m�ch� head who looks like a cross between Gene Shalit and Bob's Big Boy.
The idea for the tournament came to Simonds two years ago in a sort of hoops epiphany. He was riding along Long Island's Sunrise Highway when he saw a sign for St. Joe's of Patchogue. How many other St. Joseph's in our category are there, he wondered. Enough for a tournament, he hoped. The Patchogue, Brooklyn and Rutland Joes quickly joined the flock.
The Joes played in Currier Gymnasium, a gloomy crypt christened the Chamber of Horrors because visiting teams feel as if they have come to meet the Grand Inquisitor. No Division III opponent has won there in almost four years. "They're lucky to get out with their tails singed," says the president, Dr. Anthony Santoro. During the season the Chamber has a hand-lettered sign over the entrance that quotes a line from Dante's Inferno: ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE. School officials paint it out when commencement exercises are held in the gym every spring.
Not only do the Monks' foes have to play in a cramped gym where the basic decor is black, but they also have to contend with the Bleacher Creatures. One Creature patrols the sidelines shrouded in executioner's black. He brandishes a double-edged ax against any team that seems heretical enough even to think about winning. He chants, "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat talkin' 'bout beatin' dem Monks?"
But the maddest Monk of all may be senior guard Jeff (Creecher Feature) Creech, whose younger brother George is known to teammates as Double Creecher Feature. Creecher's play bops with the same cool urgency as the late jazzman Thelonius Monk. His feet stir in a soft shuffle, his lips purse in a meditative oh. The Creatures keep a running dunk-a-meter on the 6-foot Creecher. After last week he was up to 59.
The undefeated Monks, who have led the NCAA Division III in scoring for two of the last three seasons, came in last week averaging 103 points per game. "I wasn't too worried about St. Joe's," said forward Phil Callahan, whose Saints clipped the Golden Eagles in the opener, 75-70. "It's St. Joe's I'm worried about." The Saints didn't exactly go marching into Sunday's tournament final. In fact they resembled votive candles as the Monks burned them at both ends of the court 95-56.
It hadn't taken Brooklyn Joe's coach Dan Lynch long to size up the Monks on Saturday. "We don't have a prayer," said the Bears' coach. He did have a word for the way the hosts humbled his sloppy Joes, who committed 29 turnovers. "Bush!" he growled. The Monks were ahead 71-28 at halftime and won 135-40. Lynch was so mad at Simonds that he took his team home and Sunday's consolation game had to be canceled. "This wasn't in the spirit of St. Joseph," he protested. "If the Monks want to hold this tournament next year, it's going to be without us."