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Remembering Massimino, Harold Jensen recalls more than a game

A star of the 1985 NCAA title game recalls the coach who got him there.

Villanova’s Harold Jensen (32) defends Bruce Dalrymple of Georgia Tech during an NCAA Tournament game in March 1986 in Baton Rouge, La.
Villanova’s Harold Jensen (32) defends Bruce Dalrymple of Georgia Tech during an NCAA Tournament game in March 1986 in Baton Rouge, La.Read moreBILL HABER / AP

When the guys got together, they would talk about the old days, the big games. Of course, they would talk about the biggest game of all.

"Other times, I would talk to him one-on-one — and I would try to every couple of months. It was more about life," said Harold Jensen, remembering his Villanova coach, Rollie Massimino. "It became more of a grown-up conversation, in a sense."

The names Rollie Massimino and Harold Jensen will always be linked right to the 1985 NCAA Tournament title game. Massimino's death Wednesday at age 82 won't change that. A historic upset over Georgetown, one of the signature games in basketball history. Jensen, a sophomore who quickly came off the bench and made all five shots he tried in scoring 14 points in 34 minutes, including a 16-footer that gave Villanova a two-point lead with 2½ minutes left.

This week wasn't the time to reminisce about how the ball bounced in 1985, though. Jensen and many of his teammates got a text Wednesday from Chuck Everson with the news of the death of their coach. Their text chain filled with memories, even videos. Jensen, at work, had to close the door for a bit and let some tears flow.

His memories of Massimino spoke to the human side of his frenetic coach.

"My challenges there started out kind of struggling as a freshman, wanting to play, wanting to contribute, being somewhat frustrated by the ups and downs of getting used to college basketball at that level," Jensen said over the phone early Wednesday evening. "He just had a way of helping you, and me in particular, understand where my challenges were, mostly mentally, and putting it into perspective, and then giving me the belief. Helping me to believe that I would perform and be confident when I was on the floor. He just had an amazing gift for that."

And if, as Jensen says, Massimino knew "who needed the fire, who needed the hug," and if Jensen himself was a bit difficult, since he needed both, Massimino could figure that out. Jensen had a high school pedigree that his coach used for comic impact, calling him High School Harry, telling him to go back to Connecticut. After practice, they'd go back to the office and talk and cry and ultimately hug.

"His life had incredible meaning and impact, and it was full," said Jensen, who lives in Wayne. "You can't look back and say, 'Boy, he missed the boat; he didn't really accomplish anything.' It was so full, and to me, it was so full beyond being a coach. He touched so many guys along the way."

They'd gather in Florida every January, and Jensen would get an enormous kick out of seeing his coach still coaching, working with his NAIA players at Northwood, now Keiser. Jensen walked in the gym one time and saw Massimino in a defensive stance, his arm around a player. He just smiled. It took him right back.

"To me, that's a life well-lived," Jensen said. "He did what was his passion, and he was able to do it his whole life. Some people play tennis because they say it's a life sport. To him, basketball was a life sport. It was his way to express himself."

Jensen spoke to Massimino a couple of weeks ago, and the last time he saw his old coach was just a month back, at an alumni reunion on the Main Line, which included a trip to a watering hole in Ardmore.

"About 40 or 50 guys there — it was really to toast him in a sense, and to thank him," Jensen said. "He told some stories and some jokes. He was really with it that day. I think being around the guys really energized him."

His guys. They never left him. That part of it, Jensen will tell you, was bigger than one game for the ages.