First off, a pronunciation lesson about Rollie Massimino, whose wonderful basketball life ended Wednesday after a long struggle with cancer.

Most basketball fans pronounce Rollie Massimino's first name as "raw-lee."

That's wrong.

It's "roll-lee," as in dinner roll, as in a variation of his given name, Roland.

In the early winter of 1985-86, I enjoyed my first blessing of witnessing Rollie in all his glory. He was fresh off one of the greatest victories in basketball history, a still-hard-to-believe upset win by his Villanova Wildcats over the magnificent and intimidating Hoyas of Georgetown. Villanova came close to playing a perfect game, shooting 79 percent from the field, and still struggled to a 66-64 victory. The struggle illustrates the immense might of the Hoyas of the Patrick Ewing era.

On that winter night, I was covering Syracuse University vs. Villanova at Nova's cozy on-campus gymnasium. I was sitting on the same side of the court as Rollie. He was just a few yards away.

Syracuse was jammed with talent, with future first-round picks Pearl Washington and Rony Seikaly leading a dunking, running, dominating team. Villanova was depleted by graduation, allowing Syracuse to put on quite a show.

But nothing like The Rollie Show. I've sat courtside for hundreds,  and hundreds, of college basketball games. Never have I seen a coach who could match Rollie for his theatrical skills.

He danced along the sidelines. He shouted at the outer limits of his lung power at refs. Syracuse's sky-walkers were repeatedly dunking, and Rollie kept begging for technical fouls for hanging on the rim. He stomped. He covered his eyes. He often looked on the edge of tears. In his distress, he was hilarious. He lost that night, but he sure was entertaining.

Massimino never matched his victory over the Hoyas, but he never quit trying. He bounced from Villanova to UNLV and then to Cleveland State and, finally, to Keiser, where he led the program to NAIA national prominence.

He wasn't slick. He said what was on his mind. He struggled at times with his university bosses. His final years were spent far from the big arenas where he once delivered his best performances, but his work as a senior citizen is impressive and inspiring.

He cherished the chance to teach young men to play the game the right way, the Rollie way. While he worked in obscurity, Massimino showed, that for him, it wasn't all about money or acclaim.

He loved basketball.

As we wave goodbye to an American original, we'll also remember his greatest hour.

His win over Georgetown is unforgettable.

But so is his sideline act.

 

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