Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Auriemma Enters the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame

By Mel Greenberg

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. _
Five national championships. Numerous interviews. Broadcasts stints as a color analyst for WNBA games.

Considering the thousands of public speaking engagements Geno Auriemma has handled while building the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team into a national force in the past two decades, there hasn’t been much to rattle the personable native of Italy who grew up outside of Philadelphia.

Yet after making his acceptance speech at Friday night’s Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Auriemma readily admitted to friends that he had less than his usual nerves of steel before taking the podium here.

His remarks recalled the Southern Cal playing legend Cheryl Miller expressing something similar after her induction in 1995 several months after Connecticut had won its first NCAA women’s championship.

“NCAA title games. TV broadcasts. The Olympics. None of that stuff ever bothered me beforehand,” Miller said at the time. “But tonight, I was really nervous about my speech – and nothing ever makes me nervous.”

Auriemma admitted his uneasiness at the start of his speech to the sellout crowd, including 43 of his current and former players, at the Basketball Hall of Fame who heard him and the five other inductees _ former NBA stars Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins, and Joe Dumars, Italian coach “Alessandro Gamba, and former Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt.

“I’m really, really nervous tonight,” Auriemma began a speech that lasted about 12 minutes, the same length of his acceptance speech in June when he was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. “I’m usually not nervous.

“And I’m going to keep this short because, well, when you see who’s following me (Barkley), you’ll know why,” Auriemma quipped.

“Part of this whole thing, I think, everyone’s mentioned the class that’s going in. I’d like to close my eyes and I’d like to take something from everybody in this class. I really would,” he continued.

“I’d like to have Dave’s vision and wake up and see what he sees every day. And I would like to have Dominique’s ability to do things most human beings can’t do. And I’d like to have Sandro’s style. He’s got that Italian style, you know. And I would love to have Joe’s class and dignity and inner strength he portrays. And I would like to have Charles’ money _ that he lost over his lifetime.

“And after all is said and done, I’d like to wake up and be Jerry Colangelo or somebody like that,” Auriemma said.

“But when I was growing up, basketball to me was not something I could aspire to be as a player. Things kept getting in the way when I wanted to be a good player,” he noted. “My ability, number one.

“But I never lost the love of the game that I acquired when I got to high school. And I was living in Philadelphia at a time when so many coaches were living in the area.

“And the person I always associated as being the father of those coaches and the person all the coaches wanted to emulate was someone who I thought really epitomized the teacher-coach, the faculty member. The person who was the teacher before he became the coach as opposed to today when coaches are entrepreneurs before they coached,” Auriemma continued.

“And that person was someone I always wanted to be like when I grew up. And someone I’m fortunate enough now to call one of my friends, who’s brought me into the St. Joe’s family and made me a Hawk by association. It’s someone I admired all my life and will continue to admire as long as I live. _ Jack Ramsay (who presented Auriemma Friday night).

“It is very humbling when you’re standing up here trying to think about the things that got you to this point. You know, as Joe (Dumars) said, we’re a reflection of our families and where we grew up, and the way we were raised and experiences that we had as children, and the people we associated with, including all my friends, I can’t name them all, but the guys I grew up with, who allowed me to play.

“Those who drove me around. I didn’t have a car so I was a real good teammate. If you drove me to the game, I’ll pass you the ball, because I didn’t have a way to get to the games. So I had lots of guys who really took me under their wing.

“My high school coach Bud Gardler allowed me to play on the team (at Bishop Kenrick). I’ve said that if I could be part of a team the rest of my life, than I’m going to be a lucky guy. I tried to do that all my life, be part of a team.

“And I was fortunate enough to work with people that allowed me to do what I love to do, and that’s teach and coach. From Jim Foster (then at Bishop McDevitt and St. Joe’s) first, and then Phil Martelli (then at Kenrick), Debbie Ryan (at Virginia), and then I was able to go and do my own thing at Connecticut.

“And Connecticut’s been the only place where I’ve ever been a head coach. Connecticut’s the only place where I’ve been able to grow as a person, as a teacher, as a coach, make mistakes early on, make mistakes in the middle, make some mistakes even now at the end.

“But through and through I’ve never lost sight of the fact that it is just a game and it is a bunch of people who get together and try to accomplish something that, individually, you can’t do by yourself.

“And, again, my players, there’s a bunch of them here, I don’t know how many, but they’re all back there, and part of me being up here – I was saying something to someone the other day. When one of my players became an all-American or something, I always thought, I think I had something to do with that.

“And whenever they became player of the year, or got some kind of award, I think I had something to do with that. And it made me feel, really, really good when I watched them get an award.

“Well, right now, at this moment, at this point in time, this is your opportunity to sit there and look up here and say to yourselves, `You know what? If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be there.’

“And I’ve been extremely fortunate enough to have athletic directors who really valued what we were trying to do and supported us – college presidents who loved what we brought to the table and wanted to maximize it as much as possible. And through it all, it was no master plan _ I don’t think anybody has a plan, I think it’s more who you surround yourself with, how are we today? Well, we’re pretty good. How can we be better tomorrow? Let’s do that. How can we better the next day? Let’s do that.

“And then you look up, and you’re here. If you’re a player, it’s because you had great teammates and great coaches. It’s no secret that Joe’s backcourt mate is in the Hall of Fame and his coach is in the Hall of Fame.

“It’s not a secret than when you’re a great player, you probably played with other great players. And if you’re a coach, you probably coached great players. And that’s how we set ourselves up by the people we surrounded ourselves with.

“My assistants through the years – going way back to (former St. Joseph’s player) Ellen Clark, Meghan Pattyson, Wendy Davis and all those people that came to the office every day and wanted us to get better.

“And the ones I have now who have been with me for such a long time, Tonya Cardoza, Jamelle Elliott, Chris Dailey, Jack Eiseman _ they’ve been together for a long time.

“You know as a head coach, you’re probably only as good as your players and your assistants. They’ve been there from the beginning and allowed me to do what I wanted to do. And then we go and do it. And sometimes, I don’t know what they’re doing, but they do the right thing. And they tell me what they did.

“And then there’s my family who I’m very, very proud of, and I probably don’t get a chance to say how my children – you know it isn’t easy living in Connecticut when you’re father is who I am. And when we lose or when things don’t go a certain way.

“And for my daughters, Jenna, who is in graduate school, now, and Alyssa, who’s going to be on Broadway some day. And my son, who loves the game of basketball more than anybody I know. He’ll tell you he’s a lot better than I ever was and he’s right.

“And I’m really proud of the way they’ve grown up and the way they’ve handled the whole UConn thing. And my wife Kathy is responsible for that because she’s taught them the right way to be. And she’s probably been the one person who has been a constant in my life, and the other ones are my brother and my sister.

“But in the end, you’re the product of your parents. And my father’s not here, but my mother is. And Sandro was talking about the war. And Sandro was talking about being 12 years old and having bullets flying around. And my mother was 11.

“Sandro, you should talk to my mother, because your English is really good. And when you talk to her, you’ll see why your English is really good. Her Italian is really good. But your English is really good.

“And when you’re 11 or 12 years old and you have to hide from the Germans, move to the hills, then come back to your town because you’re going to get killed. And you’re an adult by the age of 10 or 11.

“So when my players tell me how hard it is, I just laugh. They don’t know what hard is. They don’t know what living under those conditions is like. But because she lived under those conditions, she made sure that the compassion and the passion and the love and the way we embraced people, she made sure she gave me that.

“She gave me a lot. She made my clothes. And you haven’t lived until you’ve gone to school wearing clothes that your mother made. Or, you know, you have sandwiches in aluminum foil which drip oil and sausages and peppers.

“So, she gave me a lot of stuff every once in a while as well.

“But when I left Philadelphia for the first time, she told me two things – Work hard and make a lot of friends.

Aureimma then had emotion creep into his voice as he concluded his speech.

“And all I ever wanted from anything – this game, from friends and acquaintances was respect of how I do things and how I represent my family, my school, my program.

“And this is the ultimate sign of respect and I want to thank all of you that made it possible.”

-- Mel

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