Monday, December 10, 2012

Tall Tales - A Guest TigerBlog By Howard Levy

Howard Levy walked in Jadwin Gym Saturday afternoon wearing a Georgetown sweatshirt and a pair of gray sweatpants that left TigerBlog wondering where he gets sweats that long and how tough they must be to find.

Levy is the nearly 7-foot tall former Tiger center who holds the school record for career field goal percentage and then spent time as an assistant coach here under three different head coaches. In all, he went to two NCAA tournaments as a player and four as an assistant coach.

These days, he's the head men's coach at Mercer County College. And an all-time TigerBlog favorite.

TB's opinion is shared by Princeton fans, to whom Levy is universally well-liked and respected. Maybe more than any other Princeton player that TB can think of other than current Tiger assistant Brian Earl, Howard was also the biggest target for Penn fans, who hated everything about him. 

TB should know, as he was one of them at the time.

In keeping with TigerBlog's policy of turning things over to those who have something to say, today the floor belongs to Howard Levy, who reminisced about his time in the Palestra while taking his Mercer team there this past weekend to take on Penn's junior varsity.

As an aside, TB remembers vividly every incident Levy touches on:

As I pull the van up 33rd street, the memories start flooding back.

Will Roger Gordon be waiting for us outside? Is "the truck" still there for my ritual cup of coffee? (No and no, but Roger came to the game and spoke to my team afterwards.)

On this night, no one is heckling me or the Mercer County College men’s basketball team as we walk toward the Palestra for a game against Penn’s JV. We enter and walk past the Princeton-Penn exhibit; one of my players makes a crack about the all time series being 123-103 in Penn's favor.

On the court Penn’s varsity is practicing. I didn't realize that Ira Bowman was an assistant there; I have gotten to know him a bit since I've been at Mercer and he's a nice guy. I'm happy for him and Jerome [Allen, Penn’s head coach] as I know how special it is to coach at your alma mater with your friends. 

My first time at the Palestra was in 1981 as a Penn recruit to see a Tuesday night Penn-Princeton game with my dad and a couple of Suffern High teammates. We sat in the student section and put newspapers over our faces when the Princeton team was introduced. When I chose Princeton a couple of months later, my dad admitted he was rooting for Princeton all along.

Next was freshman year, sitting in the same dingy locker room that I sat in this weekend, with the same rug and chairs as far as I can tell.

The prelim game that night, Villanova-St. Joes, was in double overtime, but no one cared. All we heard was the constant refrain of "Princeton Sucks, Princeton Sucks." We lost that one, my only loss there as a player -- sophomore year we beat them at the Spectrum, then returned to the Palestra to beat Penn twice, not to mention win two NCAA tournament games there in 1983 (vs. North Carolina A & T) and 1984 (vs. Univ. of San Diego).

I remember the streamers and the Princeton response - throwing orange and black marshmallows on the floor after our first basket. What a great feeling it was to delay those streamers for a few minutes with some good defense.

I was involved in two "fights" there.

In our 1983 victory, I was the third man to jump into a scuffle between our John Smyth and Penn’s Bruce Lefkowitz. The fourth man in was a Penn bruiser named Rick Maloney. Rick and I took our recruiting trips to Penn on the same weekend, and he put me in a full nelson, and in a calm voice said, “Howie, you need to relax.”

The following year, Neil Bernstein, Penn's center at the time, accidentally fell on me, and as I shoved him off, I was met by the entire Penn team. That day I earned the respect of some Penn football players in the stands, who years later became my friends, and they vividly remembered me standing up to their team. I think that's why we became friends.

Lefkowitz and Bernstein became my teammates in the 1985 Maccabiah Games, where we won a gold medal, and to the chagrin of some of my Princeton teammates, we remain friends to this day.

The NCAA games were memorable for several reasons, most notably two victories and Moon Mullin's 38 point explosion against San Diego. I remember the N.C. A&T band, sounding like Earth Wind and Fire, and thinking I could not possibly jump any higher in layup lines, until the next year when I saw the USD cheerleaders and jumped even higher. USD's best player at the time was Mike Whitmarsh, who became famous as an Olympic gold medalist in volleyball and a top beach volleyball player and who tragically died a couple of years ago. Another player on that team was Al Moscatel, who subsequently transferred to the University of Washington and was another of my Maccabiah teammates and lifelong friends.

Coming back as a coach was a bonus.

Penn gave our 1998 team a tough game, taking us to overtime during our 27-2 season. The following year was the comeback from 27 points down with 15 minutes left. I remember walking into the locker room at halftime down by 24 and saying to then-head coach Bill Carmody, "Let's not lose the next game because of this one."

Actually we did lose the next game, costing us the title that season, but it didn't happen the way I anticipated. A good friend of mine, who is in the sports marketing business and has been to every major sporting event imaginable, still calls the comeback game against Penn the greatest sporting event he has ever seen live.

My worst moment was our loss to Yale there in the playoff game in 2002. I remember the coaches lost track of time, and we remained in the locker room until seconds before tipoff - my fault.  Our victory over Penn in the final game of the 2004 season in John Thompson's last Ivy game as Princeton coach was a terrific victory. 

As for our game this weekend, we played well and turned a three-point halftime deficit into a 56-41 victory in front of a few fans and family members.

Even without heckling fans chanting "Shave Your Back" (unfortunately that one I'll never forget), it's a special feeling to chalk up a win over the Quakers at this great old gym.

As we walked out, one of my players remarked, "We got number 104 for you, Coach." 


Anonymous said...

And thanks to Howie, not only for his play as an undergrad, but for all the coaching he has done at Princeton. Good luck to him this season.

CAZ said...

Good thing you opted for Princeton over Penn - if it was you, Lefkowitz & Bernstein it would have been "The Law Firm" instead of "The Twin Towers of Tel Aviv".

Nice job, coach :-)

Anonymous said...

This was a fantastic post by a guest writer. TB, please keep developing your stable of contributors. The best part of this blog, besides your terrific conversational syntax and writing voice, are the stories and anecdotes from your decades of experience in and immediately adjacent to the Orange Bubble. Adding guest writers geometrically increases the inventory of illuminating and entertaining stories.

Howie, thanks for your years of service, first in shorts and then in a business suit, and in particular being a strand of constancy through several coaching administrations. Continued good luck with the Vikings.

Anonymous said...

great blog posting, Howie! Yes, I've been to Super Bowls, Olympics, World Series games, NBA Finals games, etc but nothing tops that Princeton comeback against Penn. It was amazing to see that Tigers comeback in the Palestra, the greatest sports venue in the country. It's a game - a memory - that I'll never forget. Judge