STORRS — The phrases “please” and “thank you” are generally taught during childhood, but their significance can be lost with age.
Michael Auriemma, a walk-on for St. Joseph’s under recently fired head basketball coach Phil Martelli, said “thank you” is something Martelli takes very seriously.
It was toward the end of a disappointing 2009-2010 season, Auriemma’s sophomore year at the Philadelphia school. The team was in the midst of a trying year for a bevy of reasons and had just been blown out by Charlotte, 95-58, its fifth-straight defeat.
Obviously, the team was not in a good state of mind. After the game, Martelli let his players have it.
But once the team was getting changed and preparing to leave, Martelli went up to each and every player, manager and staff member, and said two simple words: “Thank you.”
It was not the first nor the last time he did that, but Auriemma said he will never forget that his former coach was there for his team even after a crushing defeat.
“I think the premise behind it is that you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Auriemma said. “You could leave that locker room and get hit by a bus. He just always wanted to thank you for being a part of his life and being a part of the program.”
Last Tuesday, Martelli was relieved of his coaching duties at St. Joe’s.
The university sent out a three-paragraph release. The release failed to mention many of his accomplishments on the court, which included seven trips to the NCAA tournament, six trips to the NIT and a 444-328 record over 24 years as head coach at the Philadelphia school.
UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, the father of Michael, is a longtime friend of Martelli’s. In fact, Geno was the junior varsity coach of Bishop Kenrick High School in Norristown, Pa. while Martelli was the varsity coach.
“There is no exaggeration: We just wanted to be high school coaches and high school teachers,” Martelli said back in February on coaching alongside Auriemma at Bishop Kenrick. “We wanted to be as good as the people who coached us. We wanted to be as good as the people that were in Philadelphia at the time. There were a lot of legendary guys. That was what we aspired to.”
Geno Auriemma said the timing of Martelli’s firing shocked him and that he wishes the administration would have been more direct about the reason for his firing.
“It must really (stink) to have that experience — to go to college for free and have somebody that cares about you and loves you and coaches their butt off for you, but you deserve a better experience,” Auriemma said. “That means every coach with a losing record should get fired immediately because their kids are not having a positive experience.
“Why don’t you just say, ‘We’ve been forced to change coaches because we’re not winning enough games and the boosters are complaining.’ Period. Don’t give that same old crap. You could be Charles Manson, but if your team is winning 35 games every year nobody gives a damn.”
Martelli, who was 14-19 in his final season at St. Joe’s, certainly loved his players.
One of them was Bloomfield’s Chris Prescott, who was heavily recruited by schools including Clemson and Wake Forest, but ultimately chose St. Joe’s upon graduation in 2008.
The main reason was Martelli. Prescott said he will never forget the day he told his future coach that he planned on coming to Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, Prescott will also never forget the day he told Martelli that he must leave school to return home. The reason? His mother was ill and needed a heart transplant.
At the time, Martelli could not have been more understanding.
“I couldn't bear to be out so far away,” Prescott said. “It's kind of a heartbreaking story for me because I never wanted to leave and they never wanted me to leave, but it turned out well for both of us.”
The day after his mother underwent a successful heart transplant, Prescott got a call from Martelli, extending blessings and well-wishes.
Prescott and his family recently celebrated the eight-year anniversary of her full recovery.
Though the two have not really spoken since that day, Prescott said he cannot thank Martelli enough for shaping the man he is today.
The Bloomfield native is now a professional basketball player for the Panama Costa Del Este Panteras, as well as a basketball and life coach for children and adults. He trains players in Manchester, Bloomfield, Hartford, Windsor and Springfield, Mass.
“(Martelli’s) brilliant at taking potential and raising it, challenging it and growing it,” Prescott said. “So it's no surprise that people like Langston Galloway and DeAndre’ Bembry, those guys are in the NBA, on their fourth and fifth years. That's no surprise to me because I know the work ethic that we have as a program. It's a testament to him and the program he built.”