By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — It seems like just yesterday Walter Berry swatted away Pearl Washington’s last-second gasp, giving St. John’s its second Big East Tournament championship in four years.
Unfortunately it wasn’t yesterday, nor last year, nor five years ago. The year was 1986. I was 15.
The Mets were soon to become the best baseball team on Earth.
Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, Wham!, Pat Benatar, Chicago and Huey Lewis and the News were the country’s premiere pop/rock acts.
Bootsy Thornton, the only real St. John’s hero of the new millennium, was just 8 years old.
Lou Carnesecca was a spry 61 and still into funky sweaters.
I could go on, but I just wanted to paint a picture of what the cultural landscape was like during the true glory days of St. John’s basketball. A case can be made that the Johnnies of the 1980s were as exciting a college program as any on either side of North Carolina.
Under Carnesecca, a man who needs no introduction anywhere in the often uncivilized world of college sports, St. John’s went 526-200 from 1965-1992. The Redmen, yes Redmen, won six Big East regular season titles, advanced to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 five times, got to the Final Four once and did, albeit briefly, climb to the top of the Associated Press poll.
To put it plainly, St. John’s basketball was a marquee event. When Chris Mullin, Berry, Mark Jackson and a host of others took the court during that decade you knew you were watching something that was singularly New York City. It’s actually okay that St. John’s never won a national title under Carnesecca because the school had at least become a symbol of regional dominance. Its wars with John Thompson-led Georgetown were epic and it was a program the Big East needed to succeed because the conference was often viewed as the red-headed step-child to the ACC. If a team was excelling in the “Mecca,” well, that would always be good for business.
Carnesecca finally retired from coaching after the 1991-92 season and with him went seemingly everything. What followed was a major step down from prominence. Eighteen-year assistant Brian Mahoney was promoted and, despite some initial success, within a few years St. John’s suffered through its first losing season in three decades.
We all know what followed. There was the failed Fran Fraschilla experiment and then the disastrous Mike Jarvis era, that is if you choose to ignore the 1999-2000 season when St. John’s won 25 games, the Big East Tournament and got to the second round of the NCAA tournament. But it’s hard to really look back on that season, which featured Thornton making shot after shot from just about everywhere on the court on a daily basis, with fond memories because of this relentless feeling that Jarvis had his eyes elsewhere.
Eventually the dark days were ushered in without so much as a formal introduction. There were constant off-the-court issues and a lack of discipline that resulted in high school and AAU stars treating once-highly regarded St. John’s like it had the plague, only to sign on with conference rivals or leave the area altogether. Due to a variety of reasons — none of them good — St. John’s simply stopped getting what many considered the blue-chip New York City-area players — or really anyone else of note for that matter — and the program’s reputation took a massive, near-fatal hit.
By the time then-Kansas assistant Norm Roberts took over the program in 2004, St. John’s was a wasteland. Soccer had taken over as the school’s premier sport. I have no problem with soccer, but it seemed awfully weird seeing Carnesecca amped up over something other than an orange ball.
Roberts is by all accounts a really nice man who probably deserved a better fate, but he had just two winning seasons — if you want to call one game over .500 and trips to the NIT actually successful. The Red Storm, a name that still bugs the hell out of me to this day but is definitely a rant for another day, had a grand total of five NCAA tournament appearances from 1993 through last season.
But that’s all about to change.
If Roberts did nothing during his six seasons in Queens he did find a collection of area talent that, as it turns out, simply needed a new voice barking out the commands.
In just his first season, Steve Lavin has become a savior to the thousands upon thousands of St. John’s alums and fans, guiding his charges to a 19-9 mark and an even more impressive 11-5 record in the ultra-competitive Big East. The Storm will conclude the regular season with games Thursday at Seton Hall (11-17, 5-11) and Saturday at home against South Florida (9-20, 3-13). And although on paper they look like two easy wins, just keep in mind the fact that St. John’s has not won a road game against Seton Hall since 1998. But, as if they needed any extra motivation, the Red Storm will clinch that all-important double bye in the conference tournament with a sweep.
But back to Lavin. What he’s done with this group of players has been nothing short of remarkable. And despite the fact that most of them will be gone after this season, the dapper coach from the West Coast via ESPN has reportedly put together a recruiting class for next season that may only be trumped by mighty Kentucky. Translation: St. John’s will again go through some growing pains, but in reality isn’t going anywhere for a while.
There is an air of anticipation surrounding the Storm these days. At first it was all about how the players would adapt to a new coach with new ideas. Then, following some rather unremarkable early season efforts, there were some eyes rolling. I mean losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham? Where have we seen this before? Would Lavin, a man who guided vaunted UCLA to five Sweet 16 appearances in seven seasons, be the long-awaited answer to St. John’s ills or just another guy in way over his head at the head of a program lost in an abyss surrounded by an earthquake?
Lavin has answered that question — and then some, turning St. John’s into the team absolutely nobody wants to face. He’s helped transform Dwight Hardy into possibly the Big East Player of the Year. Hardy does everything and he does it in a way that conjures images of a meeting of the minds between Jackson and Erick Barkley. Lavin has turned talents like Justin Brownlee, D.J. Kennedy, Paris Horne and Justin Burrell into rugged players who play an old-school style — physical and relentless. On offense I see flashes of Willie Glass and Shelton Jones. On defense I see a Matt Brust-type intensity. This season has been a far cry from the countless before it, the years that featured players with potential that mostly fell through the trap door into a sort of no-man’s land.
St. John’s of the new era has put together quite the resume. The Storm are currently ranked No. 15 in both polls, will win at least 20 games and absolutely own Madison Square Garden, the site of the conference tournament. They have beaten ranked team after ranked team, including former No. 1 Duke, have won six in a row overall and eight of nine and are considered as difficult a team to prepare for as there is in the country. They play relentless defense and move the ball around on offense in a way not seen anywhere near enough over the last two decades.
Like Rex Ryan did with the Jets, Lavin has changed the culture at St. John’s. The “We Are St. John’s!” battle cry has been brought out of mothballs and it again has meaning. The program’s turnaround has begun to break through in the ever-important social networking and television landscapes — and I’m talking beyond your average game broadcast.
On the Internet it doesn’t take much to drum up a spirited conversation about St. John’s. Just type the hashtag #StJohns or #stjbb or #sju on Twitter and within seconds you will be inundated with countless excited souls just bursting at the seams to discuss that which they have kept in the basement for years.
My weekly television viewing now also consists of the thorough Red Storm Report on SNY. It’s a must-watch if you really want to get the skinny on the program. The behind-the-scenes All-Access stuff is precisely what the fan who has strayed or is new to the program needs. Imagine if we all had that type of programming when St. John’s was in its heyday?
The buzz is now undeniable. The product on the court has been a revelation. Lavin has become an instant celebrity. And all of this is coming from a columnist who has actually … sort of … kinda … forgotten he graduated from, of all places, Syracuse.
Even my mother, a St. John’s alum from the mid-1960s who educated me on the merits of one Joe Lapchick, has stopped getting all upset when the Storm don’t play well. She hasn’t had many opportunities to see them struggle. Then again, nobody has.
So I’ll leave you with this: In a few weeks, when it’s once again time to start filling out your bracket sheets for the “Big Dance,” keep St. John’s in mind. Though the Storm lack a true big man, they make up for it by running opponents off the court and by playing the type of team defense needed to win a bunch of games in a short period of time. They are currently playing as well as any team in the nation. And, believe it or not, they are still sort of sneaking up on people.
But the truth is the Storm aren’t coming. It took an awfully long time, but they’re once again here.
And somewhere the late-great Malik Sealy is slashing through the paint with a big smile on his face.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini.
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