- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

PHILADELPHIA — Practice was in full swing, Jameer Nelson leading a three-on-one fastbreak with Delonte West charging up the wing. A perfect picture of what makes Saint Joseph’s run so well.

Just beyond the baseline, three little girls in frilly dresses crayoned their coloring books. Near midcourt, two dads parked baby strollers. Over in a corner, some tots tossed a tennis ball off the wall, occasionally dodging loose rebounds.

Hey, is this any way for a top-ranked team to hold a scrimmage? Piling players into a van, taking them to a high school gym and letting anyone wander in?

“I like to think we’re a little unique, a little unusual,” coach Phil Martelli said. “We do things a bit differently.”

Sure would be hard to imagine Bob Knight, Jim Calhoun or Coach K doing it like this.

Then again, it’s hard to argue with the results on Hawk Hill: a 27-0 record, the first No.1 ranking in school history and a chance to become the first team to enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten since UNLV in 1991.

Pretty nifty for the Jesuit university with only 3,400 undergrads, no athletic dorms and a cramped, cinderblock home court that looks more like an intramural gym.

Tucked in west Philadelphia, the campus sits across the street from a Dollarland store and is bounded by Overbrook Avenue — as in Overbrook High, where Wilt Chamberlain rose to fame. The NBA, however, has not drafted anyone from Saint Joseph’s since 1987.

“It’s not a big school. There’s not a lot going on. It’s mainly known for academics,” said Nelson, considered by many the best college player in the country. “I’m getting all I deserve here. I can’t ask for more. I’m not greedy. I would love to play in a 15,000-seat gym, but that doesn’t matter to me. That 3,500 seems like 35,000.”

And when the Atlantic 10 needed Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse for its women’s tournament, Martelli gladly moved his workout.

“The whole thing, it’s like a movie,” athletic director Don DiJulia said.

But which movie — “Hoosiers,” where the tiny school overcomes all odds to win, or that Philly classic “Rocky,” where the sentimental favorite loses in the end?

What it lacks in size, on and off the court, Saint Joseph’s makes up for with unbridled passion.

Then there’s the Hawk, of course. The mascot starts flapping its wings in warmups and does not stop — even for the national anthem — until the final buzzer, about 3,700 times a game.

Three years ago, Sarah Brennan was inside the costume when a Drexel cheerleader deliberately knocked her down. Bruised and lying on her side, she kept flapping one arm.

“My beak hit the floor and cracked. But we’re just relentless,” she said last week. And then she repeated the battle cry of all Saint Joseph’s fans: “The Hawk will never die!”

Still, this is no Duke or Stanford. No Dean Dome, Rupp Arena or Pauley Pavilion is in sight.

“We don’t have everything they have,” Martelli said. “But the locker room doesn’t play the game. The coach’s office doesn’t play the game. We are what we are.”

Usually, that’s unflappable. In January, though, Martelli snapped and called a St. Bonaventure fan a “nitwit.” When he got home, the coach wrote her an apology.

Martelli has a soft side, too. Robert Hartshorn found out firsthand.

A cheerleader for his first two seasons, Hartshorn was working three jobs — at the U.S. Postal Service, as a beer vendor at Veterans Stadium and in construction — when he decided to try to fulfill his late grandmother’s wish of seeing him play college ball.

After tryouts, Martelli called Hartshorn into his cluttered office. He made it sound as if Hartshorn would be cut, then told him, “You’re going to be with us.”

Said Hartshorn later: “I’ll never forget that feeling of what he did for me.”

Picked No.17 in the preseason poll, the Hawks beat Gonzaga in their opener and kept winning. Their next game is tomorrow night in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament, against the St. Bonaventure-Xavier winner.

With a team that sometimes plays four guards and was outrebounded 984-904 this season, the Hawks have plenty of doubters. How far they go depends on Nelson and West, along with their opponents’ inside game.

A half-mile from campus, a KFC restaurant urges them on with a sign that reads, “Go Hawks, 27-0.” Yet a few blocks closer, a McDonald’s runs an Allen Iverson promotion.

This is a city driven by pro sports and filled with fans accustomed to failure. Interest in these Hawks didn’t really pick up until the Eagles lost the NFC Championship game.

Phillies outfielder Doug Glanville went to Penn, a rival school. He’s switching his allegiance this month.

“If we aren’t in it, we kind of root for the other teams to represent Philly well. So everybody is supporting Saint Joe’s,” he said. “It’s an amazing story.”

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