ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A Thursday night, late dinner. Not too late. A roadhouse place, American fare. The place wasn’t empty, open till 10.
Phil Martelli walked up to the host … “Table for two.”
Out here, it’s more Phil than Phil Martelli. It didn’t register with the host, but everybody inside Crisler Center the next night for Michigan’s Big Ten opener against Iowa seemed to already know the name. Out here, Phil’s just not the show. They’re not chanting his name when he walks out like they always did on Hawk Hill. Martelli gets it all completely. This is the Juwan Howard Show and Martelli is one of its producers.
He has jumped into the details of the job, even the ones he hasn’t done in decades — scouting, recruiting, in addition to advising. Since it’s Martelli, throw in needling. That’s what the job is, officially associate head coach. They’ve added in a visiting pregame radio spot. That’s kind of right up his alley, Martelli said when somebody asked.
Michigan, by any definition, is big-time. It’s just not home. And we’re talking about a 65-year-old guy who never left, from Southwest Philly just over the border into Delaware County, back to the city for high school at St. Joseph’s Prep, back to the county for college at Widener, then a head coaching job up at Bishop Kenrick High, a college assistant job on Hawk Hill, then the big job there that Martelli held for 24 seasons before being let go last season.
“Have you dined with us before?” the waitress asked.
He had, Martelli told her.
“I thought I recognized ya," she said.
From the couple of times Martelli had been in there, or from television? Who knows? When Michigan surprised college hoops with decisive wins over North Carolina and Gonzaga last month at a tournament in the Bahamas, the Wolverines rose from unranked to fourth nationally. Dick Vitale made a point announcing a couple of games on ESPN how St. Joe’s had made a mistake letting Martelli go. Martelli didn’t talk about any of that at dinner, publicly or privately. He has aired his grievances. Conversation was about a new life in a different place.
He’s not anonymous out here. A man dining alone jerked his head up, just for a moment, when Martelli walked by and sat down just across. Later that night, 10:52 p.m., there was a Tweet, with a photo of Martelli at a table — “side note, was sitting next to this guy at dinner like 30 minutes ago @PhilMartelli.”
He sits instead of stands. That’s the obvious physical adjustment for Martelli during a game. He’s got the last seat closest to the scorer’s table, keeping track of timeouts.
“The first game, I was like self-conscious," Martelli said. “What do I do with my hands? Can’t sit there like this …” — he folded his arms in front of him — “... like you’re disinterested.”
Martelli never exactly hesitated telling a referee what he thought of a particular call. Now, not his job. Although maybe at a timeout he can have a little conversation, in a friendlier tone, while Howard is talking to the players. Martelli did jump up once in the Bahamas, started to yell … “Whoop, sit down," he told himself.
He’ll get his thoughts in to his boss, he said, especially since the NBA has different rules than college. Timeouts are called differently. Just little things.
“Even away from the game, in planning on going to the Bahamas," Martelli said. “Everyone was bouncing stuff around.”
He asked, “What’s your policy about going into the casino?”
This was a new issue.
“Either they can be or they can’t be," Martelli said. “The age is 18. Either they can wear Michigan gear in there or not wear Michigan gear in there.”
“I’ll think it over," Howard said.
Those kinds of things are where Martelli said he tries to bring value. The staff came together from all sorts of directions, so it’s not like Martelli is some outside invader. His role is just different. Advise, don’t decide.
“When you have really good people together, good things are going to happen," director of player personnel and development Jay Smith, a former college head coach himself, said of how it has played out. “Not bad things.”
They all know Martelli hasn’t left Philly behind. On the treadmill each morning, “he reads the Philly papers," Smith said.
On an iPad?
“No, the papers are spread out," Smith said. “They show up in a bag.”
What does he miss? (Other than the obvious, like family.)
“I love being on a team," Martelli started in. “I love being on this team. I love practice. I love the games. I love all those things. What I miss is …”
They’ve “come up with a formula,” he said, so his wife, Judy, visits usually a couple of times a month, and she got to go to the Bahamas. But it works better to visit grandkids or be home in Media close to some of those grandkids, rather than in an empty condo when your husband is working or out of town. After the Iowa game, Martelli had to drive to Pittsburgh on Saturday morning for recruiting, back Monday.
So Phil heading into that condo … “That’s it. I’m just in a condo. If I was home, I might stop somewhere … there was always something. I’m not a TV watcher. I always felt like I was connecting. Whether you call it the hustle and bustle, I miss it.”
Sleeping isn’t as good, he said. He’ll turn on cable news, keep watching CNN or MSNBC, “I’m addicted to all this political stuff,” so conk out at midnight when it could have been 10. Of the whole condo setup, “It’s nice, it’s nice. It’s not home. It’s nice.”
He makes the furnishing of the two-bedroom condo sound almost like what you’d do for a child heading out of town for a new job. His sofa and side table came from his daughter’s house after she’d moved from Springfield to Media. They bought beds in Ann Arbor, but his desk came from home. “The furniture upstairs came probably from our home in Drexel Hill," Martelli said.
His wardrobe obviously changed. Generic stuff didn’t have to switch up.
“I had to eliminate red ties, and green," Martelli said, since those belong to Ohio State and Michigan State. “They’re serious about their colors here. It’s almost like a gang.”
He passed, wearing a yellow T-shirt under a casual blue shirt at dinner.
Boxing up stuff took time, figuring out what to keep, what to lose. Martelli figured he had 400-500 photos, many in frames. He donated the frames, took the photos out.
“I’d lay the picture down — if there was a group of people in the photo, the first person’s face that would pop to me, I mailed it to them, said, ‘You do what you want with it. I’d like you to have it.’ “
One keeper in his new office is of Martelli and Jameer Nelson and John Wooden in tuxedos. Another one, over in a corner so really only Martelli can see it, was a crayoned and penciled note from his children from back when he was an assistant at St. Joe’s and didn’t get the head coaching job at Loyola, Md., how they still loved him and were 100 percent behind him. Martelli had kept it under his mouse pad when he was assistant, then framed it when he became Hawks head coach.
Meeting up with former player Fresh Kimble when Michigan played Louisville was something, Martelli said. Louisville wasn’t his scouting report, but he contributed, didn’t hold back. He said Howard actually hadn’t realized Kimble was his former player. If you think about it, why would he?
If Martelli detected a tinge of homesickness in Kimble even for a player on the No. 1 team in the country, he got it, said Kimble’s family wasn’t always just at games, but also at practices.
Martelli’s brother Steve had made it in for the Iowa game. It was an emotional experience for him, Steve made clear, thinking about their father who died last year.
“What could I do — I got popcorn," Steve Martelli said after the game. That was their dad’s favored game treat, he explained. “Except I screwed up — my dad never paid for it."
Sixers scout Rod Baker also was in for that game. He’d called Martelli the day before: Could he come to practice?
“I don’t know," Martelli said. “I’ll have to ask.”
Game day is different. He’d stay away from the office at St. Joe’s, feeling the business of the day was that game. Here, everybody comes in.
Recruiting is different. Martelli used to be the product. Now, he sells Juwan Howard, with unrestrained enthusiasm. Martelli knows recruits and their parents and their coaches will greet him with respect, but they want to meet Howard. This is all new … Martelli hadn’t put together a recruiting list in a quarter century. At St. Joe’s, most times he would skip the first page of most recruiting reports, he said, figuring the Hawks weren’t getting those top guys.
“It’s a different eye," Martelli said of finding a player who can help win a national title, since that has to be the goal.
At his first recruiting outing, Martelli said he intentionally sat by himself away from the other coaches, and didn’t look at any lists. He wanted to test himself, see if he could spot the players they should be going after.
How’d he do?
“I felt a lot better," Martelli said. “A lot better.”
You might think it’d be easier, identifying the very cream of the crop. Martelli said one-and-done isn’t necessarily the Michigan model. Top talent needs to be surrounded with four-year glue guys.
“In my wheelhouse, on the East Coast, I know there are kids there — they may not be top 40, but I just have to get them in front of Juwan and he’ll fall in love with their game," Martelli said.
What was the St. Joe’s equivalent of bringing recruits inside Michigan Stadium and its 100,000 watching a football game?
“Well, here’s what I would say," Martelli said. “The people that were in the know — let’s say it’s a restaurant and you’re taking a family to a restaurant in Manayunk. I would get greeted in a certain way. The family would then say, ‘Man, he knows a lot of people. He’s connected here.' ”
What he’s saying, everything is different but fundamentally the same.
“It still comes back to one thing: You have to forge a relationship that’s different from somebody else," Martelli said. “I don’t care if I was recruiting for Widener or St. Joe’s or Michigan, it’s relationship-driven.”
Yes, Howard is part of Michigan hoops history as a central Fab Fiver. He also had a long NBA run and was starting to make short lists for NBA head coaches.
“In terms of coaching basketball, he knew exactly what he wanted to run, what he wanted to teach," Martelli said.
In his suit jacket during the game, Martelli and the other coaches had laminated sheets, with opposing players and their photos and their tendencies on the front, plays the Wolverines would use on the back.
“All the plays," Martelli said. “Almost like a football call sheet.”
Doing scouting reports, Martelli admits to being old school. He’ll put together individual stats of teams he’s scouting, from their recent games, so he has familiarity of players going into the film work.
“It’s a lot more film than it is written word, and I’m just comfortable with the written word,” Martelli said. “The senior managers that we have … I kind of kidnapped a kid. “I said, ‘OK, you’re my intern for scouting. My handwriting’s not great …' ”
Martelli proved it, calling Luke Testani from Atlanta into his office after Michigan had beaten Iowa.
“What word is that?" Martelli asked him.
It looked like might.
“Flight," Testani said, correctly.
“We start on Oregon Monday," Martelli told him, with the Ducks in town this weekend.
Martelli makes sure he watches a couple of games of opponents he isn’t charged with scouting, he said, just so he has a familiarity to express opinions in meetings. Even if his thought isn’t incorporated, he said he always feels heard.
“He’s a terrific listener," Martelli said of Howard. “In a noisy world, he listens. His ability to listen surprised me, and his absolute total love of the gym. He loves being in the gym.”
So, yeah, Martelli tells all the people who ask if he’s happy … he’s happy. He appreciates hearing from people more than they could know. He might throw in a story about how he locked himself in the sauna in his condo complex and the phone didn’t lead anywhere and the only door he could open was to the outside pool but that had no open doors and there was another phone and he called the police and they said they could break open a door but he’d have to pay for it, so, no, he had to scale a fence and knock on his neighbor’s door to borrow a key back into the exercise area … luckily, the neighbor was home and Martelli was fully clothed. His wife laughed at the tale, he said, imagining some security guard watching all this on a screen somewhere, saying, “What is this guy up to?”
In the meantime, he got set up with the family Netflix account. “I’m dying to see The Irishman," Martelli said. “I have to see The Irishman.”
He’ll tell you how the people out here have treated him great, from his boss to the rest of the staff to the security guards who banter with him, to the waitress who thought she recognized him.
“Pulled pork sandwich, coming in for ya," she said. “Anything else I can get?”