Philadelphia calls itself “The City That Loves You Back.” Tonight, Jim Phelan will prove the nickname has no statute of limitations when he returns for enshrinement into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame’s seventh class. The induction at the Society Hill Sheraton will situate the 81-year-old former basketball coach only a few miles from where he spent the first fifth of his life.
As one of 16 honorees, Phelan will be joining his 12th Hall of Fame. The night will lend him additional athletic immortality and give him even more cause to recall his sporting origins.
“South Philadelphia was the start of athletics for me, basically,” Phelan said via phone from his Emmitsburg, Md. home. “It was a great place to grow up.”
He did this maturing on the 1700 blocks of Ritner Street and Snyder Avenue. Hoops held his interest at St. Monica School, 1724 Ritner St., beginning in the fifth grade and gave him a lifelong friend in Paul Arizin, a member of the Philadelphia Hall’s 2004 charter group and The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s 1978 class.
“Paul lived only a few houses from me, so we had many good times together,” Phelan said of Arizin, who died in 2006.
The two continued together at Olney’s La Salle College High School, where the younger Phelan earned All-Catholic honors in 1946 and ’47, the latter campaign also including All-City distinction. He played four seasons for then-La Salle College, earning three All-Philadelphia selections. As a senior, he experienced his first taste of coaching.
“The school gave me a team to coach, and I had Tom Gola when he was a freshman. Wow, was he impressive!” Phelan said of the former Philadelphia Warriors star who joined the Naismith Hall of Fame in ’76 and the Philadelphia Hall with Arizin.
A stint in the Marine Corps, which included service in the Korean War, and a spell with the Warriors ended Phelan’s playing days, setting him up for a nearly half-century assignment as the head coach at Mount St. Mary’s University, a Catholic institution also in Emmitsburg.
“I like to say that I took a one-year contact and made it last for 49 years,” Phelan said with a chuckle.
Beginning in ’54 and ending in 2003, he guided the Mountaineers to 830 wins, a total that puts him in fifth place on the all-time list. Nobody, however, can top his 1,354 games coached. Though a small school with 1,600 undergraduates, “The Mount” boasts a decent basketball pedigree due entirely to Phelan.
His tenure witnessed the school’s capturing the NCAA College Division II Basketball Championship in 1962. Add only 15 NCAA Division II Tournament appearances, four Final Fours and another championship game to the ’62 success and Phelan’s legacy would have been secure. However, more numbers highlight his professional success.
He won the Division II Coach of the Year Award in ’62 and ’81 and received District II Coach of the Year honors in ’81, ’85 and ’86.
“I had great teams, especially in the ’80s,” Phelan said, lacking any trace of ego over his accomplishments.
The program moved to Division I in ’87, joining the Northeast Conference two years later. He won the league’s Coach of the Year award in ’93 and ’96 and captured two conference championships, securing automatic bids to the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, in ’95 and ’99. Phelan recalls the ’95 loss, a 113-67 setback to the Kentucky Wildcats in Memphis, Tenn. with humor.
“We were up 5-2, and I was praying for an earthquake,” the coach, who donned bow ties throughout his sideline strolls in honor of a college coach, said.
Early last decade, a doctor diagnosed him with prostate cancer, but its clearing kept him fixing his ties and instructing young men. He stepped down March 1, 2003 and has taken advantage of every golfing opportunity that retirement has afforded him.
He learned of his selection to the Philadelphia Hall of Fame in a recent phone call.
“The news struck me. It is nice to receive such distinction,” he said of the evening, which will include a dinner reception, a silent auction and a museum exhibit from the Hall’s collection of artifacts.
The honor comes three months after his joining The Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in Quantico, Va., and two years after entering The National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Mo.
Well-traveled, Phelan enjoys reflecting on his South Philadelphia beginnings.
“I left my junior year of high school, when my mother and I moved to (Delaware County’s) Drexelbrook. The area is dear to me. It has such memorable places,” he said.
He recalls sneaking into the 1937 Army-Navy clash at Municipal Stadium, which closed in ’89, and watching the Eagles practice as a fourth grader at League Island Park, which, in ’84, became Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, Broad Street and Pattison Avenue.
“The neighborhood was so interesting, half-Irish, half-Italian. Everyone was a character,” he said.
Short distances from Baltimore and the nation’s capital, Phelan continues to enjoy big city experiences. For tonight’s ceremony, he will have the company of, among others, wife Dottie and daughter Lynne Robinson, Mount St. Mary’s director of athletics.
Eager to fraternize with the honorees, Phelan has only one worry, how to convey his appreciation in the two to four minutes he will have.
Whatever he says when he faces the crowd, he will sport a bow tie.
“Oh, I will definitely wear one. The mystery is which one I will choose,” Phelan said.
Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at email@example.com or ext. 124.