“The MAAC?” For the first time Roberts seems ticked. “That will never happen. We’re talking about St. John’s University. No disrespect, but I didn’t come here to play in the MAAC. Great players didn’t create this legacy so we should play in the MAAC.”
Roberts has already started to pick up the kind of player on which St. John’s has always built its program. “I looked at UNC-Greensboro; it was nice, the country and all,” says Eugene Lawrence, currently the Storm’s starting point guard. “But after talking to Coach Roberts, I picked St. John’s. I believe in the mission. Rebuilding. Being from the city, that means something to me.”
Lawrence, 18, grew up on Bristol Street in Brownsville, off Pitkin Avenue. It was “a rough area,” he says, extra tough when he walked around with his violin case—not that he was about to quit the instrument, because his father, a mailman and “one really big dude,” wouldn’t allow that.
At Lincoln, where he started in the backcourt with Sebastian Telfair, cousin of the Coney Island Marburys and undisputed No. 1 high-school player in the city, Lawrence figured to get noticed. He did, too—he was named the most valuable player in Lincoln’s PSAL city championship game—not that the offers piled up.
Eugene Lawrence knows that six-foot-one guards who are not lights-out quick are few and far between in the NBA. He also knows he was pretty much a borderline Big East scholarship candidate. But you play the hand you’re dealt. So now Lawrence, a communications major, lives on campus. His old running mate Telfair might be a millionaire sitting on the bench for the Portland Trail Blazers, but Lawrence sees the ball more. The other night against Syracuse, he played 34 of 40 minutes.
“If you told me a year ago that I’d be playing 34 minutes in a Big East game at Madison Square Garden, I would have said you were crazy,” offers Lawrence, adjusting his RocaWear cap as we walk across the quad near his dorm. Looking at the brownish expanse of grass, planes to La Guardia rumbling overhead, he says, “It is a little like the country, I guess.”
Roberts also signed up Ricky Torres, a six-four guard from St. Ray’s whom Roberts calls “the best shooter in the city.” A classic street baller from the Webster Avenue projects on 168th Street in the Bronx, the laconic Torres was recruited by Pittsburgh. But his younger brother has Down syndrome, and he didn’t want to leave home. “My brother needs me, so when Coach Roberts started coming to my games—he came a lot—that made up my mind to go to St. John’s,” Torres said.
Any time Torres’s St. Ray’s team plays, a sizable contingent of the New York basketball cognoscenti turns out. Usually, the watchers include Monsignor Charlie Kavanagh; Bob Oliva, coach of Christ the King; Fordham coach Dereck Whittenburg; Tom Konchalski, the scout who is universally believed to know everything about every city ball player from age 14 on up; and the frenetic Ron Naclerio, coach of Cardozo High. All these guys have their own teams to worry about. But the future of St. John’s, the top of the line, is never far from their minds. As Torres takes a bounce pass from the wing and effortlessly hits a three, they all look up. “Well, that’ll help,” says Bob Oliva.
One more night at the Garden. And this night, at least, St. John’s had something to play for. Home court was up for grabs, which was nuts considering the game was at the Garden, where the Johnnies had won 364 times. Yet the challenge was out there, palpable. The Pitt Panthers, ranked 21st in the nation, last year’s Big East champions, had twelve straight wins at the Garden. This made the Panthers “very comfortable” on the MSG floor, said Carl Krauser, the Panthers’ all-league point guard, whom Mike Jarvis passed on. The Garden was his team’s “second home,” Krauser said.
This claim was buttressed by the fact that nearly half the Pitt team was from New York, including Ronald Ramon, from All Hallows, and Chris Taft, from Xaverian, a likely top-five pick in the next NBA draft. Like Julius Hodge before them, the city guys were looking “to take the house.” This made Krauser’s woofing more galling. He was saying he didn’t need St. John’s, that St. John’s was over, that he didn’t even need New York.
The Johnnies had just played West Virginia and Notre Dame close and lost. The Pitt game seemed a rerun. Behind “Showtime” Hill and Lamont Hamilton, the Storm built an eleven-point lead early in the second half. It was really a remarkable performance, a coaching coup. With only two scorers and little bench, the Storm was flummoxing a far better team. But then Pitt went to a zone defense, keyed on Hill, and came back. “They’re wearing us down, like water torture,” bemoaned one Storm fan. With 1:39 left, Pitt led, 62–59. But with the score tied, Hill stole the ball from the mouthy Krauser, got fouled, converted the shots, and the Johnnies had a 65–62 win.
After the game, reporters mentioned Krauser’s pregame comments, asking Lamont Hamilton if the win proved the Garden was once again St. John’s “house.”
“It’s our house,” answered the soft-spoken, shy Lamont, who grew up in the Gowanus Projects, and last year, as an 18-year-old freshman, in what he describes as “a really dumb act,” followed his teammates into the Club Erotica and got himself suspended. But now, liking the sound of his answer, Lamont repeated himself.
“Our house!” he said, slapping his open palm onto the table.