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Martelli finds joy in Buffalo return

BUFFALO -- Ten years ago, Phil Martelli sat on the same dais in the same place in the same arena in the same town, and it was good.

So good, so unbelievably good.

His Saint Joseph’s team, from the tiny little school with the bandbox gym and the pint-sized point guard, was a No. 1 seed as it rolled into Buffalo for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The Hawks were the big show in town and Martelli, quotable, likeable and funny, was the pied piper leading the carnival.

And then as fast as it came, it was gone. The media circus pulled up the stakes on their tents and moved on to the next thing. Jameer Nelson and Delonte West went to the NBA, and St. Joe’s crashed to reality. The years stretched on and the NCAAs came calling just once, a quick first-round hook in 2008.

Yet Martelli was still there, still quotable, still likeable and still funny. Only no one wanted to listen.

“You look around and it’s like ‘Where did everybody go?’" he said. “You don’t even have a beat writer anymore."

So Martelli fought to get it back.

Which was entirely the problem -- he fought. The same coach who once tilted at windmills instead started desperately reaching for them. The same coach everyone loved to quote became the bully who refused to allow a player to transfer to another school.

As the losses mounted, the criticism followed -- that Martelli had lost his edge, that he failed to capitalize on that storybook 2004 run and, most of all, that maybe it was time he left Hawk Hill.

“The longer you are in a place in this day and age, you look at guys like Phil and [Jim] Boeheim, and people wonder if they have that proverbial fire," St. Joe’s athletic director Don DiJulia said. “And it’s not an invalid question. So we talked about that."

Turns out, Martelli still had the fire, but his poor channeling of it was giving him indigestion.

This year he finaly stopped fighting.

And now here is St. Joe’s, back in Buffalo, back in the NCAA tournament.

The circumstances are a little different. The Hawks are an under-the-radar No. 10 seed, not a bullseye-in-the-back 1. Yet Martelli is as happy now as he was then, and it is not just a newfound joy born on Selection Sunday. He has been different all season, lighter and easier, a more "efficient" coach in his terms, a happier one in everyone else’s.

“I kept asking, ‘Where’s Phil Martelli?’ DiJulia said. “This is Phil Martelli.’’

Life takes a toll on a body, and coaches are the same as the rest of us. They want to succeed at their jobs and make people proud, but their failures and insufficiencies play out in public, not behind the closed door of an office annual review.

Nobody wanted 2004 again more than Martelli, and no one suffered more when it didn’t return.

“People stopped making eye contact with you," he said. “It was, ‘Look at how disappointed I’ve made people. Look how I’ve let them down."

As if the professional failures weren’t enough, Martelli’s misery was compounded with personal tragedy, a Job-like one-two punch that made 2013 almost cruel.

His son Jimmy was embroiled in the Mike Rice fiasco, caught on tape alongside the Rutgers coach berating players. He lost his job and his reputation. His father, like any father, felt the sting of the shame.

In March, Martelli’s sister died suddenly from a heart issue. A month later, his sister-in-law lost her battle with pancreatic cancer.

It is easy to say that after hitting rock bottom Martelli simply gained needed perspective and changed. The truth is others changed him first.

It started at home with two of his grandchildren. They, along with their parents, are living with Martelli and his, wife, Judy, while their dad, Phil Jr., works as an assistant down Interstate 95 at Delaware.

They call him Tug -- short for "the unnamed grandfather," which is how Judy signed holiday cards until her children came up with a name for the new grandpop. The acronym stuck.

“Play hide-and-seek on a game day?" Judy Martelli said. “He’d never do that 18 years ago. Now it’s 'why not?'"

The kids are as much a part of this run as anyone. During the A-10 Tourney, 4-year-old Phillip, dressed in suit and tie, was caught on TV mimicking Tug down to his every arm cross. A new media darling, Phillip spent Wednesday talking on a Philadelphia radio show, making an appearance on "CBS This Morning," and posing for photo ops at his daycare with his friends' parents before flying to Buffalo.

Asked how many suits he packed, Phillip held up two fingers.

“Because there are two games," he said.

The boy tickles his grandfather to no end, but the real joy for Phil Martelli is on the court.

When rock bottom came friends and even people at St. Joe’s suggested Martelli take time off, but he refused.

“This is what I do," he said. “This isn’t who I am, but it’s what I do."

What’s more, he wanted to do it this season with this team.

These Hawks are not unlike the 2004 Hawks. There is no national player of the year here, no first-round draft picks, but there are similarly selfless and egoless players, guys who want to win now and couldn't care less about what might happen later.

Martelli simply liked them and wanted to be around them.

“I didn’t want to let them down," he said. “I didn’t want to go into a shell and say, ‘Oh woe is me,’ or ‘people should leave me alone. Don’t they remember?’ I didn’t want to do that."

And so suddenly it was back -- the patience and the joy, the media and the attention, all of it like he remembered.

This isn’t a fairy tale, so it wasn’t instantaneous. The Hawks used a 30-point uppercut from their rival Villanova to come to their senses.

But since then, they’ve won 20 of their last 25, including a three-game run to the Atlantic 10 tournament championship that wrapped up their NCAA berth.

When the game ended, Martelli couldn’t contain himself. He cried uncontrollably until Judy caught him in a hug that was equal parts cathartic and redemptive.

And it was good, so unbelievably good.