Norm Roberts, coach of the St. John’s Red Storm, walked onto the Madison Square Garden court for the Big East opener and looked at the ceiling. Beside the sacred numerology of New York hoopdom—Reed (19), Frazier (10), Monroe (15), etc.—hung some daunting digits: 526, as in the number of St. John’s victories accumulated in the 24 years they were coached by Lou Carnesecca, he of the hideous lucky sweaters and old-school man-to-man defense.
Well, thought Roberts, a compact former point guard for Springfield Gardens High School in Queens (PSAL champs in 1983), only 520 to go.
The math was easy enough; winning would be another matter. St. John’s, the venerable, dowdy commuter institution on Utopia Parkway and Union Turnpike in Jamaica, has been playing basketball since 1907, winning more games than all but four colleges in the country during that stretch. Over the past few years, however, that glory has been mostly a memory, amid an unprecedented rash of scandals, player misdemeanors, and downright lousy ball. Last season was the worst since 1919: The Red Storm won only six times (for a 6–21 record, including a brutal 1–15 in the Big East Conference).
“Kids often don’t understand what it takes to be a player, or a man. You can’t really read, and have no clue how to act in public, but you’ve got a hundred guys telling you how fabulous your game is.”
It was Norm Roberts’s job—the Storm coaching position is generally regarded as the top of the heap in the New York basketball world—to turn the train around, or as he put it, to “rekindle the tradition of winning and bring St. John’s to its rightful place both nationally and here in the city.” The Johnnies had already matched last year’s six victories. But with the Big East schedule coming up, filled with such nationally ranked teams as Pitt, Boston College, and UConn, there was a good chance the Storm might not win many more. Like, maybe none.
“Six wins,” Roberts mused. “That’s not very much.”
Indeed, at six victories per year it would take Roberts 871⁄2 seasons to reach 526, which would make the 39-year-old coach 127, considerably older than the sainted Carnesecca, who just that night had celebrated his 80th birthday, a fact acknowledged with a standing ovation by the Garden crowd.
If you could even call it a “crowd.” Back in the eighties, when the Storm sent out such players as the sublime-shooting Chris Mullin and the all-court-seeing Mark Jackson, the Johnnies used to pack this place. When the black hats from Georgetown, led by the Darth Vader–like Patrick Ewing, came in, it was madness. Now, for St. John’s Big East opener, against Syracuse, the sixth-ranked team in the country, the Garden was barely a third filled, leading onetime Knick Anthony Mason—who played with Norm Roberts on that Springfield Gardens city championship team and whose son Anthony Mason Jr., a six-six forward, will attend St. John’s next year—to remark, “What happened to this place? It used to be on fire for St. John’s. This is like a bingo game with everyone dead.” Still, though the Red Storm would lose to Syracuse, they managed to keep it close, which was something of a triumph. Roberts expressed satisfaction at how his club, outsized and out-talented at every position, with only two genuinely Big East–quality players—point guard Daryll “Showtime” Hill and center Lamont Hamilton—“competed.” This sentiment was seconded on the St. John’s Internet boards. “Norm has got these guys playing their tails off,” said one poster on Redmen.com. “Compared to last year, this is nirvana.”