If you had been on the phone call with Billy Lange, you would have been impressed. The subject was naturally dear to Lange’s heart. Speedy Morris had given Lange his first Division I coaching shot, La Salle University, at age 27.
“I’m coaching Donnie Carr, Rasual Butler, Victor Thomas, and we are doing the most basic elementary school drills,’’ Lange said over the phone in late 2017. “The first day, Speedy just said to me, ‘Assume they know nothing.’ I’ve grown to understand he wasn’t meaning anything to do with their intelligence."
The call went on, and we kept chatting about Philadelphia basketball. The 76ers assistant was engaging, sharp, in no hurry to get off the phone. We talked about how Jay Wright and John Chaney are more alike than anyone would guess in terms of focusing on the minutiae, caring first and foremost about such things as basic footwork.
The Lange on that phone call has to be the Lange who is taking over the St. Joseph’s Hawks. Taking over for Phil Martelli wasn’t going to be easy for anyone. Taking over for Phil Martelli after the way St. Joe’s let Martelli go added degrees to the difficulty.
Lange has worked for so many of the best in his business. Now, he gets to prove he is one of them. Make no mistake: Hiring Lange is as every bit as risky as hiring Jameer Nelson would have been. Hawks fans will question him. High school and AAU coaches don’t all know him since 2013 was his last time coaching in college, as Wright’s top Villanova assistant, and that is several lifetimes ago in the recruiting business.
(We’ll also suggest that considering Nelson as a candidate, which absolutely was a real thing, and not hiring him was, in a word, interesting. The school badly needs to keep Jameer in the overall fold. Thursday morning, Nelson tweeted a screenshot of some words: “The best math you can learn is how to calculate the future cost of current decisions.” )
Anyone can, and will, point to Lange’s one Division I head-coaching stint at Navy — a stint that showed program improvement, crested at second place in the Patriot League but then hit a downward turn, landing at 93-113 over seven seasons. It could not be deemed a success. Which gets us to the question of what is the definition of “sustained culture of excellence” that Lange is being tasked with developing? That was the term in the statement on Martelli’s dismissal.
Is anybody on Hawk Hill ever realistic on that front? Surely, Lange had that discussion with his new bosses. They at least need to be realistic.
The highest levels of administration at St. Joe’s simply didn’t handle Martelli’s departure correctly. Again, 24 seasons do not equal three cold paragraphs. Hawk alums who maybe even agreed with the decision saw the mechanism as rushed and even soulless.
Make no mistake: The new man knows the game. Sixers fans seem to love to point to Lange as being responsible for Sixers defensive lapses this season. My thought on that: Please. Brett Brown is the man in charge of the Sixers defense, just as Billy Lange now will be in charge of the St. Joe’s defense.
Lange will have to get his staff just right to help bridge the obvious gaps here, both to the St. Joe’s community and locally on the always important recruiting front.
He comes in recommended. Sixers assistant Jim O’Brien, a Hawk himself, helped the school on this mission, we’ve been told, and Lange was his guy. (O’Brien’s wife, Sharon, daughter of the late, greatest Jack Ramsay, is on the board of trustees.) There’s no denying O’Brien knows the game.
In addition to working for Morris and Wright, Lange played for a fantastic coach at Bishop Eustace High, his own father. He played for John Giannini at Rowan, worked under Hall of Famer Herb Magee at Philadelphia Textile before coaching the Merchant Marine Academy to an NCAA Division III Sweet 16 appearance in his second season.
Giannini points out that, in addition to coaching that Merchant Marine Academy team, Lange made regular visits to the practices at nearby Hofstra University, coached by a guy named Jay Wright. That was the beginning of that relationship.
As much as the X’s and O’s, Lange, 47, now has to prove comfortable in his own skin as Hawks head coach, and let that show publicly, since there is no denying that he mans the front door to that school. He won’t have to be Martelli. He can’t be Martelli since Martelli was an original.
Interestingly, Giannini said that was what Lange had always told his old coach when Giannini was at subsequent stops: “The advice Billy always gave me: Be the leader. Be yourself.”
We have no doubt Lange has sharp elbows. Everyone who knows him knows he’s a competitive guy. As for how players feel about him, that, no doubt, depends on the player, like with all players. Kyle Lowry, who has had a better NBA career than any other Philly player in this quarter century, was hurt when Lange left Villanova for Navy — a great and then-very-mercurial player felt that highly about Lange.
Lowry reportedly refused to speak to Lange for some years. Then they spoke and grew close again, Lange getting involved in helping Lowry with workouts. That might be the highest recommendation Lange can get.
As for another Hawks fear, suggesting St. Joe’s simply plucked somebody from the Jay Wright coaching tree is a little off here. Lange is a branch of so many strong trees, Hall of Fame trees.
The Billy Lange tree is planted now on Hawk Hill. He won’t assume his players know anything. We’ll all start from scratch.