‘Our Guardian Angel’: Saint Peter’s ready for Sweet 16 thanks to ‘Run Baby Run’ guy who Spent Baby Spent


One by one, sinners walked through black wrought iron gates, down a stone pathway and through a side door to Saint Aedan’s Church on Bergen Avenue in Jersey City at 9 a.m. on Sunday. Rev. Rocco Danzi, the pastor, wore a black suit, Roman collar and blue Peacock pin on his left lapel as he greeted regulars. It was 11 hours since Saint Peter’s reached the Sweet 16.

“We’re winners!” he said. “Have you been watching the basketball?”

Kathy Conway, a parishioner, nodded. She had been listening, too. She offered a confession.

“I get so mad because all you hear is that Saint Peter’s is this small little school,” she said. “But it has always been so big to us. I’m so proud.”

The organist started. Rev. Andrew Downing led the processional and stood on the altar, where two painted Peacocks represent the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He commenced mass.

“As we continue this Lenten journey, many of us are very mindful that another journey is going on,” he said, “and that is of the Saint Peter’s team making its way to Philadelphia next!”

The faithful, already standing, applauded.

“So we celebrate,” he said. “We join with them in their joy and in their struggles.”

Saint Peter’s gave up losing for Lent. Still reconciling early defeats to St. John’s and St. Francis with the team that upset No. 2 Kentucky and No. 7 Murray State to collect the first two NCAA Tournament wins in program history, the Jesuits count the team as a mystery of faith.

“It’s weird how God connects the dots,” Danzi said.

A mortal moved earth to help, too. The bridge to the current success was built by Tom Mac Mahon, a booster who played on the school’s 1968 team, which answered to the call of “Run Baby Run” because of its breakneck pace and average of 94 points per game. He spurred the school’s renaissance by donating $7.5 million to build a six-story student center on campus in 2013 and followed with a $5 million donation to kickstart the 47-year-old gym’s renovation, which was completed in time for the season opener.

“Saint Peter’s is like a Phoenix, always rising out of the ashes,” Danzi said. “We’re feeling that resurrection.”

The Peacocks have won nine straight, and after decades of irrelevance, the student body, which has 2,100 undergraduates, is reveling in increased interest that led the school’s website to crash for a half hour Thursday. Two nights later, on Kennedy Boulevard, which bisects the inner-city campus, drivers honked horns as they sped past the school to celebrate the Murray State win.

Once mass concluded, one woman stepped out of her pew, looked at Danzi and shouted, “We’re in the money!”

Danzi smiled. He spoke in Spanish to the next wave of worshipers.

“Que un momento por la universidad!” Danzi said.

Julia Ulloa laughed before slipping back to English when she noted “underdogs.” They discussed previous Jesuit runs, including Loyola Chicago’s Final Four campaign in 2018.

“Cinderella is back!” she said.

“Looking pretty good!” Danzi said.

“Gotta get a glass slipper!” she said.

Run Baby Run

The Peacocks had played basketball near the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Montgomery Street for 42 years before Mac Mahon, then a student at Seton Hall Prep, arrived at the Jersey City Armory, just off McGinley Square, in 1963. It was an intra-faith rivalry. Seton Hall was squaring with Saint Peter’s. The military installation was packed. Mac Mahon, who arrived near tipoff, sat up high in a corner.

“About 300 yards away from the court,” he said.

St. Peter’s College: Desire Plus Second Effort

The team photo of Thomas P. Mac Mahon ’68 in the hallway where Saint Peter’s Peacocks play home games inside the brand new Run Baby Run Arena on campus in Jersey City, N.J. The arena is named after the 1968 team that upset Duke in the National Invitational Tournament quarterfinals. Webster’s T-shirt reads, St. Peter’s College: Desire Plus Second EffortAndrew Mills | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Saint Peter’s won, 94-93, and Mac Mahon, from Florham Park, a sleepy Morris County suburb 27 miles west, was fascinated by the atmosphere. He rode the bench on a state championship team at Seton Hall Prep, which was on the same campus as the university. But after watching the Peacocks beat the Pirates, he applied to both schools and gained acceptance to both. With his family’s support, he sought a new campus and enrolled at Saint Peter’s as a commuter.

That fall, he ran against basketball players who were on scholarship. When it came time for the first day of practice, fellow freshmen, Bob Leckie, a Brooklynite attending night school, and Kenny Grant, a Manhattan native on his maiden journey to New Jersey, encouraged him to try out. Mac Mahon walked on, made the cut and started crashing with Leckie, Grant and Paul Walsh in a one-bedroom apartment adjacent to campus, which had no dormito
ries. The heat often didn’t work. They slept four on a couch, bed and two mattresses.

“We wore coats, gloves and hats to keep warm at night,” Grant said. “You get close that way.”

Playing conditions were equally spartan. At Collins Gym, which was on campus, moisture beneath the court caused the hardwood to buckle and created dead spots. Two blocks away, the armory was an active military installation. The hardwood court was in the center of a cavernous 175,000-square-foot building so shooters had a hard time adjusting to the depth perception. The Peacocks often arrived to find tanks on court and exhaust in the air. In the basement, there were no stalls between showers or toilets.

“We got used to it,” Gene O’Connell, a reserve forward, said, “but I don’t think visitors ever did.”

The freshmen were resourceful. Leckie, a brassy point guard, grew adept at drawing offensive fouls off the ball by stopping in front of opponents in transition. The slick plays regularly escalated into spats with counterparts. Also, he was ineligible because night school students weren’t supposed to be playing.

“Out of 24 games, Bobby had a fight in 22 and was ineligible for the other two,” Grant said.

The bleachers around the court only went back six rows, but the infrastructure grew as the team drew spectators. The student section was known as the Horrible Hundred, and when the referee made a questionable call, one student threw a stuffed fish on a long rope onto the court before pulling it back.

Coach Don Kennedy welcomed transfers into his program. First came Harry Laurie, who grew up on Jewett Avenue, four blocks from campus, and had starred at Lincoln High. He played at Loyola Chicago as a freshman, got married and returned to Jersey City, where he had to sit out a season. For work study, he mowed lawns with the maintenance staff and served as a rectory receptionist.

Elnardo Webster, another Lincoln alumnus, was playing at Wharton County Junior College, 60 miles south of Houston, but wanted to come back east. At 6-foot-5 with wide shoulders and a thin waist, he fit perfectly with what the scrappy Peacocks lacked: a physical scorer and rebounder.

“He had so much energy,” Grant said. “He’d put a shot up under the basket, miss it, catch it, go up again, up again, up again until he put it in. There was no stopping him.”

With the transfers eligible in 1967, coach Don Kennedy charged his Peacocks with transitioning from defense to offense quickly. To ensure the passage of the ball up court, he plotted three spots for players to go to each time so defenders could not slow them. During practices, they wore gray T-shirts with “Desire Plus Second Effort” written inside a basketball across the front.

Kennedy’s approach led to a 22-2 record. Before the first round of the NIT at Madison Square Garden on March 18, 1968, Tom Schwester, a transfer from Rhode Island, wrote “RUN BABY RUN” in chalk on the locker-room blackboard.

That night, the Peacocks fell behind Marshall, 51-38, in front of 17,602 fans, but they rallied during a 16-0 run spurred by Pete O’Dea, the center and captain, and Webster, to win, 102-93, in double overtime. Webster finished with 51 points, two short of George Mikan’s NIT record. Webster also collected 17 rebounds. When asked what the difference was between that season’s team and the previous year’s Peacock squad that had been blown out, 103-58, in the NIT, he said, “I’m here. That’s the difference.”

Saint Peter’s faced Duke, the tournament’s favorite, next. Forward Mike Lewis was the focal point for the Blue Devils, and Leckie, knowing he would be a challenge to defend, drew early fouls on him.

“Two nailed his ass to the bench and the third cemented it,” Leckie said.

The Peacocks won, 100-71. It was the biggest win in program history, but larger problems loomed. Kansas, which featured future Boston Celtics great Jo Jo White at the point and a pair of 7-footers in the paint, was next, and the Jayhawks won, 68-56. A final defeat came in the consolation game against Notre Dame, 81-78.

The Peacocks rode the PATH train from Manhattan to campus. Ten days later, on April 4, O’Connell was in Dineen Hall, and saw Webster ahead of him in a stairwell. Webster, typically the life of the party, was emotional. They had just learned Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke on the Saint Peter’s campus in 1965, had been assassinated in Memphis.

Guardian angel

To keep the spirit of the 1968 team alive, Dick McDonald, who took over as head coach of Saint Peter’s in 1974, drove a sky-blue Volkswagen Beetle with Saint Peter’s Basketball logos on the doors. On the back window, three words were painted in navy: “RUN BABY RUN.”

He had a new $6 million facility to sell to recruits starting the next year, when the Victor R. Yanitelli, S.J. Recreation Life Center was opened, and he led a team back to the NIT in two of his three seasons. Bob Dukiet succeeded him and led the program into the MAAC conference by going 135-64 in seven seasons. Ted Fiore got them into the program’s first NCAA Tournament in 1991 and returned to the dance in 1995, but three months later, he was fired. A university spokesperson said at the time it was because he “was a very unhappy employee.”

Saint Peter's University Residence Sites

Yanitelli Recreational Life Center at Saint Peter’s University on Sunday, July 12, 2020.

The Run Baby Run players were all on their own career paths during that period. For Webster, it was professional basketball in gyms as close as New York and as foreign as Switzerland before he earned a doctorate in education and oversaw Roselle’s public schools as superintendent. Laurie played a season in the ABA, and then pivoted to a 30-year career in relocation and urban renewal in Jersey City.

Grant and Leckie toured Europe for a travel team, and Leckie took up coaching at Bishop Loughlin High in Brooklyn before returning to coach the Peacocks from 2000-06. O’Dea was the national sales manager for RN Magazine when he was in a vehicle with a colleague that was involved in a fatal crash in Nashville, Tenn. in 1980. He was 33 years old with a 20-month-old daughter, Kelly, at home. Pat Finnegan, a reserve guard in 1968, was a financial adviser with Morgan Stanley, and remembered the day years later that Kelly came to his bar, P.J. Finnegan’s in Westwood, N.J., to apply for a job.

“I said, ‘Gosh, she looks like someone,’” Finnegan said. “It brought back memories.”

Mac Mahon was the most successful of them all. After earning a marketing degree, he climbed the corporate ladder at Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. From 1997 until 2006, he was the chairman and chief executive officer at LabCorp, the largest medical testing company in the world, and a director from 1996 to 2013. The company’s revenues were approximately $12 billion per year.

But as Mac Mahon thrived, Saint Peter’s struggled with enrollment and the basketball program waxed and waned. While Seton Hall was a charter member of the Big East along with other Catholic schools like Boston College, Georgetown, Providence and Saint John’s, Saint Peter’s maintained a low profile in modern athletics landscape with limited resources and real estate as a member of the MAAC, a one-bid league with no television contract.

Mac Mahon loved regaling others about his experience at Saint Peter’s, and in the early 2000s he became a university trustee. Soon after, Rev. James N. Loughran, the university president, asked Mac Mahon to visit his office. Mac Mahon did not know why, but Loughran informed him that Saint Peter’s needed a student center as the university continued to enroll more students who lived on campus full time rather than the commuters of the past. Together, they strategized a capital campaign and succeeded in opening the doors in 2013.

More was needed, though. Early in his tenure at Saint Peter’s, head coach Shaheen Holloway approached Mac Mahon regarding the Yanitelli Center, which had had become a recruiting liability due to disinvestment over the years. Locals considered it a high school gym with wood bleachers. In 2016, a home game against Manhattan was postponed due to a leak in the roof. Keydren Clark, a 5-foot-11 guard who led the nation in scoring as a Peacock from 2003-05, recalled the smell of chlorine when he passed the swimming pool next to the locker room. The weight room was in the garage. No admission was charged at games.

“The conditions weren’t up to Division I standards, but it was what we had,” Clark said. “It made beauty in the struggle.”

Holloway took Mac Mahon on a tour of the gym.

“I said, ‘Listen if you guys want to be a big-time place, compete at this level, you have to do some upgrades,’” Holloway said. “Anything we’ve ever asked of him, he has done. He’s our guardian angel.”

Mac Mahon listened and made the lead gift of $5 million to start the fundraising process. Construction started soon after, but Holloway, whose program operates within a $1.4 million budget, had to find new homes in the interim. Last season, the team was displaced to Marist High, which had already been closed by the archdiocese that summer, for practice, and games were hosted at New Jersey City University.

The university named the facility Run Baby Run Arena in honor of the program’s best team, and dedicated the new space at the season opener in November. Surviving members of the 1968 team and relatives of the deceased, including O’Dea’s three grandchildren, marveled at the renovation. The final reveal came on the seats. Each former player was gifted two chairs with his name, number and graduating class engraved on plates affixed to the chairs’ left arm.

“I’ve tried in my afterlife at Saint Peter’s over the past 50 years to explain to so many people what it was like in 1968 when we went through the NIT and clobbered Duke and how all of Hudson County went absolutely crazy over this team,” Mac Mahon said. “I have constantly tried to convince, rightfully so and effectively, that we could do it again. You’ll never understand the enthusiasm, excitement and beauty of greatness even if it is for a short period of time like we sustained in 1968. Now they are seeing it again.”

Strutting since 1967

Before Saint Peter’s departed campus last week, O’Connell, a reserve forward in 1968, sent an e-mail to Holloway that read: “Coach, good luck Thursday. Let’s make your team the greatest in SPU History.”

And of all the thousand or so Peacocks who packed Run Baby Run Arena to watch the game against Murray State on the new video boards Saturday night, none was prouder than O’Connell. He brought his 10-year-old grandson, Harry, and reveled with current students, including a shirtless swimmer who had “FLOCK UP!” painted across his chest as Saint Peter’s reached the Sweet 16.

St. Peter’s College: Desire Plus Second Effort

The Saint Peter’s Peacocks play home games inside the brand new Run Baby Run Arena on campus in Jersey City, N.J. Elnardo Webster ’69 (left) and Thomas P. Mac Mahon ’68 pose in a team photo. The arena is named after the 1968 team that upset Duke in the National Invitational Tournament quarterfinals. Webster’s T-shirt reads, St. Peter’s College: Desire Plus Second
EffortAndrew Mills | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

O’Connell was on site to greet the Peacocks when they returned to a gathering of students again on Sunday afternoon. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt with “Strutting since 1967” across the front.

Celebrations were soon tempered, though. Webster, who became a university trustee in 2020, had a pacemaker put in last year and was battling coronary issues of late. He checked into the hospice at Morristown Medical Center recently. On Tuesday, Finnegan contacted Webster’s wife, Sandra, to see whether he could visit. She welcomed him, but as he waited in the lobby, she sent him a text message to alert him that Webster had died. He was 74.

“It’s hard to think of him as ill,” Grant said. “He was always so alive.”

Finnegan relayed word to his teammates. Laurie had been the best man in Webster’s wedding, and they all got together at least twice per year, whether at Laico’s, an Italian restaurant in Jersey City’s Greenville neighborhood, or Franklin Social, a restaurant Mac Mahon owns downtown.

Funeral arrangements were being made, but a plan was already in place to see each other. Mac Mahon secured tickets for his teammates, and rented a 23-passenger bus for them to take down to Philadelphia for the Peacocks’ Sweet 16 game against No. 3 Purdue in front of 19,500 fans. They will meet outside Run Baby Run Arena at 2 p.m. Friday. Laurie knew it was the type of scene Webster would have relished.

“He always enjoyed a big gathering,” he said.

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Kevin Armstrong may be reached at [email protected].


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