NEW YORK (AP) — There are always good arguments to be waged when a school’s best basketball team is the topic. Not at Fordham.
The 1970-71 version of the Rams has no equal when it comes to which team was the best to ever play at Rose Hill. What makes it so special about that team was it had a rookie coach — Richard “Digger” Phelps — and no size, starting four guards with a 6-foot-5 center.
All that team did was finish 26-3, losing to Villanova in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament, and along the way this undersized team got New York to fall in love with them.
“It was a hard-hat, blue-collar team. You have the hard hats of New York rooting for you, you are a special kind of team,” Phelps said Monday night at a 40th reunion of the team in a Manhattan hotel. “There wasn’t a real star, everybody took a turn at being the big player. They electrified the city. They just owned the Garden.”
That the Rams did for consecutive Thursday nights in February.
On Feb. 18, the Rams, who had moved into the Top 20 at No. 18 beat 14th-ranked Notre Dame 94-88 in the first college basketball sellout at the “new” Madison Square Garden. Seven days later, the Rams, now ranked 11th, lost 85-80 in overtime to No. 2 Marquette.
“Incredible. Just incredible,” then-sophomore guard Ken Charles said of that week. “What made that team was the camaraderie. We didn’t have buses, we went to the Garden in cars. I remember on the way to the Notre Dame game we were listening to Howard Cosell interviewing (Notre Dame coach) Johnny Dee and Cosell was saying ‘Come on, Johnny, all of New York knows you’re going to win, you know you’re going to win.’ Johnny Dee said ‘I’m not sure we’re going to win, Fordham’s a tough team.’ And we’re sitting in the car going ‘OK, yeah.’”
George Zambetti, a reserve forward for the Rams who went on to become an orthopedic surgeon and has been Fordham’s team doctor for almost three decades, said things really changed during the Notre Dame game.
“All the other schools were rooting for us,” he said. “When we had Manhattan students rooting for us against Notre Dame and Marquette after their games in the doubleheader. That was something.”
Tom Sullivan, the starting center who went on to become an assistant to teammate P.J. Carlesimo at Seton Hall and then head coach at Maryland-Baltimore County, had a unique perspective of that incredible week.
“It was unreal. You start off at the beginning of the year telling your friends if you want to go to the game I can definitely get you a ticket. Then you couldn’t get a ticket and if you walked into Digger’s office he said ‘Don’t ask me about tickets,’” Sullivan said. “It was hard if you were on the Fordham team for you to buy a beer in New York so we loved it. It took a life of its own, wherever you went, people knew you. We were New York players playing New York-style basketball.”
Phelps left after the season to take over the program at Notre Dame, where he stayed for 20 seasons.
“I can still hear the bass drum and trumpet, that was our band when I started at Fordham,” said Phelps, who started a second career as an analyst for ESPN. “It was a great story about a great bunch of kids.”
The entire roster was at the reunion except for Stephen Cain, who passed away, and Carlesimo, who is an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, who had a game Monday night.
A seldom-used reserve on the 1970-71 team, Carlesimo was the subject of many a story Monday night and Zambetti easily summed up his contribution.
“P.J. kept things light,” Zambetti said with a laugh, “yeah, he definitely kept things light.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.