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St. Elsewhere

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In the cooler light of reality, however, the main complaint against Jarvis, who’d had success everywhere else, comes down to his lack of understanding as to where St. John’s sits in the New York City basketball food chain. “Everyone knows St. John’s lives off getting the local kid who wants to stay home. Everyone except this guy,” says one well-known high-school coach. “He was from out of town. He didn’t understand New York. He’s got the biggest pool of players in the world and says he doesn’t get out into the gyms, to the camps. He says he’s going to recruit nationally, go up against Duke. It was insane. I’d tell him about a player and he’d either blow me off or not show up.”

Doomed or not by his alleged refusal to kiss the collective ring of local coaches, Jarvis was seen as an interloper who regarded St. John’s as a stepping-stone to a “better job.” This was the final straw. If you were a real New York guy, how could there be a better job than St. John’s?

This is the way Norm Roberts feels. Being a black Catholic couldn’t have hurt, but Roberts says he got the Storm job because “I wanted it more . . . because to me, St. John’s is it, a dream come true.” Roberts was a long shot at best. True, with his great smile and electric bright gray-green eyes, Roberts had a reputation as a highly effective romancer in the often seamy world of high-school recruiting. Working with the mercurial coach Bill Self at a variety of stops over the past decade, Roberts always got the good players. (Many of the players now at Illinois and Kansas—Self’s last two stops and currently the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the country—were recruited by Norm Roberts.)

When it came down to it, however, Roberts’s main selling point was that he was local, born in South Ozone Park and raised in Laurelton, with that city championship at Springfield Gardens, the final game played on the court at Alumni Hall. He went to school a few stops down the Q17 bus line, at Queens College, where his only head-coaching experience resulted in a startlingly rotten 24–84 record. (“We weren’t exactly a power,” Roberts says in his raspy voice, “but I did have a cop for a big man, so the paint was well patrolled.”)

But no matter. Roberts had one particularly impeccable recommendation, namely from Jack Curran, the Catholic High School coach of the year twenty times in the 46 years he’s been at Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood. Few New York hoop names held more magisterial sway than Jack Curran’s, except perhaps Lou Carnesecca’s, whom Curran replaced at Molloy in 1958. In the eighties, Roberts worked as an assistant to Curran, who suggested he would make a “good hire” for St. John’s. That might have been enough. As Lamont Hamilton, from Bishop Ford High School and North Bridgton Academy, and Roberts’s best big man, says, “Norm—he’s, like, one of us.”

“What happened to this place?” said Anthony Mason. “It used to be on fire for St. John’s.This is like a bingo game with everyone dead.”

With the university plastering subway entrances with an ad campaign proclaiming NEW COACH, NEW SEASON, WHOLE NEW BALLGAME, things began to look up. The first real glimmer came during the Holiday Festival at the Garden, a tourney the Storm used to own. They were up against North Carolina State, ranked seventeenth in the country. State’s Harlem-born star, Julius Hodge, said he wanted to look good “at home in the Garden for all my friends and family.” But weird things began happening. The hustling Storm built an improbable lead. At halftime it was 27–10. Was this some kind of misprint? With the edge cresting to an implausible 42–14, Hodge, unhinged, airballed a layup. Later, he still couldn’t believe it. It was humiliating to lose to a team “as bad as St. John’s . . . If we played them, we’d beat them 99 times out of 100,” Hodge said.

“A great win,” said Roberts. But he knew his team was “far from out of the woods.” Only a couple of days before, Rodney Epperson, a much-needed scorer, a Bronx kid, was suspended, probably forever. Seems that Epperson might not have earned the credits he said he did while attending Barton County Community College in Kansas, and that his coach, one Ryan Wolf, indicted on 37 counts of fraud and embezzlement, might have been furnishing his players with spending cash by setting them up with no-show jobs.

Asked about St. John’s long list of troubled players, Roberts said, “Maybe it is because so many of our kids are from the city, where the usual situations tend to be exaggerated. Obviously there’s a lot of pressure to take a chance on a player who’s good. You can be wrong. Kids often don’t understand what it takes to be a real 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 from the time you’re 13 years old. A lot of things begin to slide.”

Roberts says it could take two or three years before the Storm recovers. The school, with its time-warp mom-and-pop aspect, is up against it in the hyped-up world of big-time college athletics. St. John’s has survived mostly because it is the New York City representative of the Big East.

Still, it is a problem. Compared with megavenues like Syracuse’s 33,000-seat Carrier Dome, St. John’s Carnesecca Arena, which still has the same bleachers it had during the 1964 Olympic basketball trials, exudes a sweaty high-school atmosphere, not exactly the sort of vibe to knock the socks off prospective recruits. The Garden is a selling point, but in the satellite-TV world, kids sometimes prefer having their buddies see them on the hi-def rather than at the World’s Most Famous Arena. And St. John’s is light on the rah-rah, rarely drawing more than 4,000 fans for on-campus games, easily the lowest in the Big East. Next year it will only get harder. The Big East will be adding the University of Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, and DePaul, all recent top-25 teams. So what if the Johnnies keep losing? Would the university consider a change?

“What kind of change?” asked Roberts.

“Leaving the Big East and playing in an easier conference.” Perhaps the MAAC, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, would be a better fit.


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