Honoring Coach Rollie Massimino: “I Never Sank a Basket”


Honoring Coach Rollie Massimino: “I Never Sank a Basket”

Greg Marotta

I was coming out of the ticket office in the old fieldhouse, just “fieldhouse” as it was called then, before they named it for Jake. I was wearing my Memphis State Tigers jacket and I turned when I heard him.

“Hey ‘goomb’,” hold on a second,” he said.  “Nice jacket, pretty good basketball team, too.”

“If the big guy doesn’t go 21 for 22, we probably win it all,” I said.

“Damn straight,” he added. “Don’t sweat it, we’re gonna win a Final Four here, I guarantee.”

He went on to formally introduce himself, telling me about his North Jersey roots and his Italian ancestry and even his brother’s shoe store. Then, with a coach’s innate instincts, he leaned in and told me exactly what I so desperately needed to hear.

“Get yourself healthy. I talked to the coaches about you—they love you and you’re a player.”

That was my introduction to Rollie Massimino. We both arrived at Villanova the very same time, something he never neglected to remind me of all these years later. He was the guy who fought to get the job as Head Basketball Coach and I was the red-shirted, touted transfer, nursing a torn hamstring, who was going to help dig the football program out from under its doldrums.

“If you need anything, you let me know,” he said, laying the foundation for what would become a four-decade-plus friendship. 

That’s the Rollie Massimino I love and cherish, one who was faced with the daunting challenge of re-building a basketball program but who had the time to embrace a limping, seventeen year old football player who wasn’t even eligible to play for one year.

When I suffered my first ACL injury, I happened to end up sharing a hospital room with one of Rollie’s guys from the old neighborhood. His was the first face I saw when I came out of reconstructive surgery. Later, when my parents brought some food from home, Rollie happily made himself a prosciutto sandwich as he soothed their concerns.

“I’ll take care of him, don’t you worry,” he told my mom. “And his doctor’s Italian, what’s better than that?”

“I wish he was the football coach,” my mother confessed.

(I have often opined that had Rollie indeed been the football coach Villanova would be a perennial top twenty FBS team today. He was that good a leader. But that is a case to be made at a different time than today.)

There would be more knee surgeries for me and more talks between us. He often grabbed me by the water fountain outside the tiny basketball offices when I was rehabbing in the adjacent, dingy weight room. It was almost like he knew where to find me when he needed to lift my spirits. And there were visits to his local Italian club where he fed me and other football players with vowels at the end of their last names. I wore the same shoe size as he did, and he kept me supplied with overflow pairs that were gifted to him by his brother. And of course, there were “spags”—we always had time for pasta. We remained close to the day he left us and he never ended a call without telling me he loved me.

Rollie’s record as a basketball coach speaks for itself.  

Our friendship, born of our shared North Jersey and Italian roots, and cemented by his kindness, speaks for the man.  

 I shall love and miss him forever.