"He showed me the best hand action I'd seen," said Phelan. "He had the cigarette jammed in his palm and had put it into his pocket, just like that. I mean, lightning quick. He said, 'Yeah, very happy to meet you.' "
Happily, it turned out that Carter had his high-school diploma. After his father died, Carter had dropped out. But he had later returned to school, attending both day and night, earnest in his effort to graduate. He also held a job as he attended school. The persistent effort made an impression in the Mount's admissions office when Carter presented himself. Shortly, he was admitted. That August, Phelan picked up his 20-year-old freshman at the train station in Baltimore and the two headed west for school.
"The farther into the country we got, he said, 'This is pretty far out.'
"I said, 'Nah, it's not far.' "
They drove some more.
"I said, 'Fred, there's not too many black kids in school.'
"He said, 'How many?'
"I said, 'You.' "
The best thing they did was not turn back.
"I said, 'You don't have to worry about being a crusader or a pioneer.' I said, 'Your biggest problem will be being lionized. You'll be a hero.' "
Carter was, and took it in stride. He stayed four years and graduated. After his NBA playing career, he coached women's basketball here before he went into pro coaching. He often comes back to visit.
Phelan came out of La Salle in 1951 -- his coach, Ken Loeffler, wore bow ties. He played for the Marines, briefly for the NBA's 1953-54 Philadelphia Warriors and the Pottstown Packers of the Eastern League. Competitor that he is, he still believes he'd have had a little longer NBA career ("I wouldn't have made a lasting impression") had he not been cut for a player who would play for a few hundred dollars less.
One game when he was with Philadelphia, an injured teammate was unable to shoot his foul shots. The opposing coach, Clair Bee of the Baltimore Bullets, walked in front of the Philadelphia bench, looking for an unlikely fellow he could pick to shoot. "I was the only guy he didn't recognize," said Phelan. He made the two -- it turned out to be a highlight of his pro career.
In 1954, Tom Gola led La Salle to the NCAA title, with Phelan serving as an assistant to Loeffler. After the season, Loeffler said to him, "A little school in Emmitsburg, Md., needs a coach."
Phelan and his wife, Dottie, also from South Philadelphia, drove into town, sized up the cows and wondered if this was for them. That was almost 1,000 games ago.
In his very first home game, the young Phelan caught the spirit of the crowd. After a year or so, his wife was settled in. He never meant to stay this long, it's just that one season led to another ... and another.
And almost every one was filled with excitement. His record is packed with close victories. In 1962, the Mount won the NCAA Division II title game by a point in overtime, after winning triple- and quadruple-overtime games earlier in the season. In a fairly typical finish to a Phelan game, the Mount advanced in the 1985 NCAA tournament on a running 30-footer in the last seconds.
While many of the victories haven't come easily, he's endured partly because he can relax, as he would say, "drop my pack." The Charles Town races are his "avocation"; one feature of the area that he said has helped keep him on the mountain is "year-round racing."
He hustles up the steps and into the new building for an afternoon practice. "John Wooden," he said, "was 53 when he won his first championship. I'm still in my 50s -- barely."
A few nights later, he was back on the team bus, heading to Baltimore and the first Beltway Classic. He has a way to go to make an impression in Division I. More than anything, he needs a big rebounder. Next season, the Mount will join the Northeast Conference, the old ECAC Metro. For now, he was trying to get past the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. A few minutes before game time at Loyola College, he followed his routine. He put on a brown bow tie to match his camel's-hair blazer and brown slacks.
Phelan watched the game on the edge of his chair. Occasionally, he'd bolt to the edge of the floor and cry out in anguish at an official or one of his players. But he's not as prone to explosive outbursts as he was when he was younger. One story has it that during a halftime many years ago, he kicked a trash can, then hopped around in agony as his players tried to keep from laughing.
With 35 seconds to play and trailing UMBC by three, Phelan called time. He set up a play for any one of four outside shooters. With 12 seconds left, the only senior on the squad, Mike Tate, hit for three. Unfortunately for Phelan, UMBC dominated the overtime.
"That's the story of our season," he said, drinking from a can of soda outside the basement locker room. "We don't play badly -- just bad enough to lose.
"What the heck," he added, and forced a laugh.
Over the years, he'd often done what seemed the impossible, and he wasn't finished yet.