St. Elsewhere

Photo: Brian Finke

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 guystelling 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 “Compared to last year, this is nirvana.”

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.

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?

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.

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.

St. Elsewhere