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St. Elsewhere

Senior forward Phil Missere. (Photo credit: Brian Finke)

Last year . . . geez. When you’ve been playing basketball for nearly a century, the sound of rock bottom is a sickening thud. In November 2003, Willie Shaw, a senior guard, and former star Marcus Hatten—in what can only be called a serious lapse of race-profile-defusing street smarts—were busted for smoking pot as they sat in a white Caddy with Maryland plates outside the St. John’s off-campus players’ residence. Three weeks later, Mike Jarvis, the Storm coach who had led the team to twenty-win seasons in four of five years, was fired.

This was no surprise, as Jarvis, who compiled a 77–1 record as Patrick Ewing’s high-school coach, had clearly worn out his welcome. Perceived as arrogant, haphazardly prepared, and a poor recruiter, the coach was heard on WFAN expressing dismay about St. John’s outmoded facilities and bitching about his $750,000 contract. Still, his dismissal caused a stir. No Big East coach had ever been fired in the middle of the season before.

It was the Pittsburgh strip-club incident, however, that truly put the black spot on the season. On February 4, 2004, after a particularly dispiriting 71–51 loss to Pitt, six members of the Storm team, including starters Elijah Ingram, Grady Reynolds, and Abe Keita, found their way to the Club Erotica in the McKees Rock suburb of Pittsburgh. There they encountered the 38-year-old Ms. Sherri Ann Urbanek-Bach, who would accuse the players of trying to rape her. These charges were proved untrue, thanks to a video of Urbanek-Bach’s extortion demands surreptitiously recorded by Ingram on his cell phone. (It was a presence of mind some said Ingram rarely had displayed on the court.) Still, it looked bad—real bad—having players from a Catholic institution, especially one with a new campus in Rome, in a topless bar after curfew. Reynolds was expelled from school, and the rest were suspended for the rest of the season.

Reduced to playing walk-ons, the proud Johnnies barely resembled a Division One NCAA basketball team. In fact, they barely resembled a Division Two basketball team. Father Donald J. Harrington, St. John’s president, called “Father Steinbrenner” for his alleged obsessive control of the athletic department, expressed dismay at “the culture” of the basketball team, a remark taken to be racially obtuse.

The current season began no more auspiciously. Fearful of impending NCAA penalties regarding alleged under-the-table payments to Keita, a six-ten Ivory Coast native, St. John’s announced a self-imposed two-year ban on postseason play, taking itself out of the Big East tournament.

And then there was that nasty Ron Artest business. When the excitable Indiana Pacer ran up into the stands that fateful Friday night in Detroit last November, many Johnnie followers bit their lip. No one was surprised that Artest, the former Storm star out of the massive, hardscrabble Queensbridge Projects, went off. What was troubling was the arrow Artest pointed at the melancholy history of St. John’s best players over the past several years. Aside from Artest, there is Jayson Williams, awaiting retrial for shooting his driver, and Sharif Fordham, the 2002 team captain now in jail for selling crack. Then there’s Erick Barkley, who brought down NCAA sanctions; Omar Cook, the point guard who may have wrecked his career by leaving for the NBA too soon; Felipe Lopez, who never quite panned out after being touted on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the Latin Michael Jordan; the supremely gifted Walter Berry, who should have been an NBA star but never was; Malik Sealy, who was tragically killed in a car accident; and even the nonpareil Mullin, who almost boozed away his fabulous gym-rat talents.

The sheer number of names is enough to make you wonder what’s in the water over there on Utopia Parkway. Lou Carnesecca, retired since 1992, the old Alumni Hall now renamed in his honor, sat in his campus office and said, “I’ve spent a good part of my life here. Great years. And now there’s this stain. This taint. Things like this happen and the school takes a hit. A bad hit.”

When The Red Storm takes a bad hit, New York feels it. This is because, more than those dim-bulbed Knick mercenaries over there at Dolan U., St. John’s is the true New York home team. It sits at the pinnacle of the sprawling, endlessly interconnected city-hoops universe. It is a food chain that starts on a million courts and spreads to include who knows how many players and coaches, a whole array of JV, high-school, CYO, and AAU teams, plus scouts, freelance college recruiters, would-be agents, playground touts, summer-camp organizers, and every other variety of warm-up-suit-wearing character in the city.

Says Mark Jackson, who went through it all, from the peewee leagues in St. Albans, to Bishop Laughlin High School in Fort Greene, to CYO, AAU, to St. John’s, and finally the Knicks: “When you play CYO, you’re thinking about St. John’s. Same in high school. When St. John’s is doing good, it gives everyone in the city a lift, because if you’re a player it says something about you, because you’re part of it. When St. John’s is going bad, everyone’s depressed.”

The St. John’s coach has always been considered “the man,” the top dog in town, someone to whom all the high-school coaches and assorted hoops apparatchiks pay homage. But after Carnesecca, the Red Storm’s coaches have not always measured up to their exalted office. The laid-back Brian Mahoney, grandfathered in after eighteen years as Carnesecca’s assistant, started well, but by 1994 he was leading the Storm to their first losing record in 30 years. Fran Fraschilla, fast-talking, tightly wrapped, lasted two years before reportedly dropping his pants during a locker-room speech, by way of suggesting that his players might be challenged in the manhood department. Then came Jarvis, African-American (i.e., not Irish or Italian), a winner at D.C.’s George Washington University, a gentleman. It was hard to argue with the initial results. Jarvis led the Johnnies (“with Fraschilla’s players,” naysayers quickly add) to the Elite Eight in the NCAAs. But within three years Jarvis would become probably the most reviled figure in Storm history.