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Basketball Legends Reunite to Inspire Today’s Players

Richard “Digger” Phelps speaks at the 2010 Basketball Tip-Off Dinner, surrounded by his former players.

Photo by Chris Taggart

“Don’t tell me you can’t make it happen.

You believe. You make it happen. And come

March Madness, you’ll get an NCAA bid.”

For one shining moment four decades ago, Fordham stood near the top of the collegiate basketball mountain with a clear view of the peak.

The Rams’ basketball team from 1970-1971 finished the season with a record of 26 wins and three losses, and ranked among the top 10 teams in the country. Along the way, they bested some of the biggest programs in the land.

On Nov. 8, the team and its head coach, Richard “Digger” Phelps, gathered at the Fordham Men’s Basketball Tip-Off Dinner to reminisce about their glory days, celebrate their accomplishments and say thank you to the University and city that carried them on their remarkable run.

“This is a very special evening,” said guard Billy Mainor, who spoke on behalf of the players. “Not only have I been able to connect with old friends, former teammates and coaches, I have been able to finish something too long left undone.

“This team never got the opportunity to say thank you,” he said before a packed ballroom at The Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan.

“Thank you for the unwavering support in Gainesville, Florida—not a particularly nice place to play,” Mainor said. “Thank you for your unwavering support at the Garden, for Notre Dame and then again for Marquette.

“Thank you for the unwavering support when things weren’t going well, and as the coaches can tell you, there were many times for members of this team when things weren’t going well.”

Mainor’s remarks and those of Phelps, who recounted details of that long-ago season as if they happened yesterday, sounded a clarion call to the players on the 2010-2011 squad.

“You talk about a team? We were a team,” Phelps said. “These guys were the hard hats’ favorite team in New York City. There was no place they couldn’t go because they were so loved and respected.

“They had faith in each other, they were relentless and they believed in the press,” he said. “It was amazing how everybody came together and believed in that one team.”

His words did not fall on deaf ears. Current head coach Tom Pecora met many members of the 1970-1971 team the previous evening at an informal gathering in the Bronx.

“A great team beats with one heart, and I’ve never seen a better example of that than I did last night,” Pecora said. “They went out of their way to tell me how much they love Fordham, how much they care about Fordham and want to see it do well.

“This team is remarkable not only for what they accomplished on the court, but for how successful they were when their playing days were done,” he continued. “That’s what the Fordham tradition is all about.”

Speaking directly to the current players, Mainor issued a challenge:

“Wear the maroon proudly. Let it become one with your very being,” he told them. “It will steel you for the challenging times to come—both on and off the court.

“If you do that, you will take your rightful place with us in history.”

Added Phelps: “Don’t tell me you can’t make it happen. You believe. You make it happen. And come March Madness, you’ll get an NCAA bid.”

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