Wednesday, July 29, 2009

March Sadness

(Written in March 2008 when it was apparent once again that St. John's would not be invited to the Dance.)

It's March. Football season has ended. Baseball is not here yet. My beloved Prospect Park is covered with snow. I don't go to the park much in the winter; it reminds me of a death camp; nothing is growing. (Although the way my industry is going, I'm probably going to end up as a "federal park cleaner" to help stimulate the economy.)

For a lot of sports fans, this is the worst part of the sports calendar.

But for me, it used to be the best. It meant March Madness would soon be here, and that the St. John's Redmen would be front & center the team to watch in New York.

For generations, if you were playing word association, if someone said "Detroit", you would respond "Cars". If someone said "St. John's" you would say "Basketball".

The Redmen were always very good, and occasionally great. That's a fact. It was true when your father was born, and it was true when you were born. But not when your kid was born.

And it kills me dead.

Before I get into the basketball analysis:


As a Giant fan or Met fan, I root for the team win or lose. I give the team my allegiance, and in return I ask that they play hard, and don't embarrass me in an A-Roid or St. Joseph of Torre, the Patron Saint of Rats, kind of way.

But with St. John's, it's different. It's different because St. John's University lowered a couple of life boats for me and my family and led us to dry land.

The first life boat arrived in 1981. My dad, like millions of other factory workers, lost his job of 26 years when the company left New York.

While there is never a good time to lose a job, this was particularly bad timing, as my parents had just bought a house a few months before and had two children in Catholic School. But my old man was able to get a job as a security guard at St. John's University.

Not only had St. John's given my father a job, among the job benefits was that all children of school employees that achieved admission to SJU were able to go for free.

Sounds great, right? It was a perfect fit. My old man got a job, in a couple of years I would need a college.

But I fu**ked it up. Bigtime. I just never went to class. To this day, I cannot tell you one class I took at St. John's from the fall of 1984 to the Spring of 1985. I don't remember any classmates or teachers either. If you water-boarded me, I would not be able to give you that information. Let's just say I was majoring in chemistry at the time. (Hey, St. John's has a Pharmacology school.)

So by the fall of 1986, I was an SJU dropout, with a transcript with more F's than an Andrew Dice Clay monologue.

Flip the calendar ahead 6 years. I knew I had to go back to school. And school to me meant St. John's.

Would they take me back? Could I go under my father's plan?

My father went to talk to the Dean, Dr. Brennan.

Dr. Brennan looked like a 55 year- old Wellington Mara. His face was the map of St. Patrick's Cathedral. He's the kind of guy that hasn't missed a 6:45 daily morning Mass since Abe Beame was Mayor.

"Can my son come back?" my old man asked. "Yes" said Doctor Brennan.

"Is he still eligible under my benefits"?

You know what Dr. Brennan said to that?

"We don't want your money. We want your son."

That's the kind of guy Dr. Brennan is. And that's the kind of school St. John's is.

So it's different with me and St. John's. OK?

They put bread on my table and gave me a second chance.

When We Were Kings

Basketball is a city game. And the city game was best represented for generations by the Catholic School in Queens. That was a commuter school. That had no dorms. That recruited city kids. NYC kids.

While the Redmen never won a Championship, they were in the top 20 more often than the Beatles were on the pop charts.

Every city kid who played basketball wanted to be recruited by St.John's.

And why not?

Learning basketball from Coach Looie Carnesecca was like learning guitar from Les Paul.

Looie was an unappreciated master. I say unappreciated because while he was loved by the media, it was a Yogi Berra type of love. Not "this guy is a great" coach type of love.

The genius of Looie: he recruited the city, played only 7 guys, put his players in a position to succeed, and played only man to man defense.

Sounds easy? It wasn't.

Looie always played to his players strengths. He could slow it down and take the air out of the ball with a Mike Moses or Kevin Williams, or he would run like mad with Boo Harvey & Michael Porter.

Look at the late Malik Sealy. His major strength was his baseline jump shot. Looie saw that,and designed plays that put the ball in Malik's hands on the baseline where he caught & shot his way to being our second all time leading scorer.

Plus, he was an authentic New York character. Could you see Looie interviewing at Georgia Tech? Trust me, it would never happen.

Bottom Line: Looie was great. And he made it look easy. Seventeen years after Looie retired, we now know it wasn't.

Mid 80's Madness

While St. John's maintained a level of excellence from World War II to the Gulf War, the true Golden years were the mid 1980's. Those teams, those players, & those times are en-grained in the minds of millions.

The Mullin, Berry, Wennington, Jackson,Wennington, Glass & Jones Redmen teams; how can you not love them?

Chris Mullin was one of the greatest college basketball players ever. If anyone tries to dispute that,they should be sentenced to watching the WNBA for the rest of their days. Plus, people forget that when Mullin played, there was no three-point shot in college basketball. Imagine how much that would have opened up his game? Making Chris Mullin play basketball without the 3 point shot is like major league baseball implementing a rule that says "Jose Reyes is not allowed to steal bases."

Mark Jackson ended his professional career with the third most assists in NBA history. Yet, in my view, he played his best basketball during his junior & senior seasons at St. John's. He was the consummate point guard, with laser-like peripheral vision. He could run the fast break to perfection, and always put the ball in the hands of the right guy at the right time in the half court game. By his senior year,he became the ultimate double threat; he could pass, and he was a go-to scorer.

Walter Berry

"Walter Berry and Kevin McHale had the best low post moves I have ever seen." UCONN Coach Jim Calhoun to Mike Francesa Feb 16, 2009.

When the change was made uptownAnd the big man joined the band-Bruce

You can't handle the Truth!- "A Few Good Men"

Before Walter arrived at St. John's, there were tons of stories on how great he was. He went to Ben Franklin High School, which closed down while he was going there. As a result, he did a year in Junior College at San Jacinto which is in Texas. You may remember San Jacinto by its other name:

'The St. John's University Basketball Farm Team."

Now the hype that followed Walter was enormous; even Looie got into it. I remember him saying in Sports Illustrated "I can't wait for Walter to play with Chris. I'd pay to watch them."

Everybody did pay to see St.John's in 1984-85, the year Mullin & Berry played together . It was the hottest ticket in town. We we ranked #1 or #2 virtually the whole year,taking turns with hated Georgetown.

And Walter? He turned out to be one of the most unstoppable forces in college basketball history. I remember early on, we played the David Robinson -led Navy. Walter torched him so badly,I thought Robinson was going to get court marshalled.

But Walter abused everybody; he went left more than Obama, and as that guy advised Deniro about Tommy's demise in Goodfella's "There was nothing we could do about it."

In the golden era of Big East basketball (the mid 1980's), Walter Berry could not be checked. He only played two years ; the first,we went to the Final Four,the second, he won the Wooden Award as the nation's best player.

The only person with a similar resume is the actor John Cazale (Fredo in the Godfather). Cazale appeared in only 4 or 5 movies, but each received an Oscar nomination for best picture. (That is the only think Fredo & Walter have in common.)

My favorite Walter game? That's easy. It was down in DC, in the Capital Center against Georgetown. There was this sequence where Walter blocked three shots in a row on the same Hoya possession; each block was met with a wave of euphoria. The end result: we beat Georgetown, and the commuter school in Queens was the undisputed # 1 college basketball team in the nation.

Down goes Georgetown. To a Redmen fan, those were the three sweetest words in the English language. To the victor goes the spoils, but who knew that would include a visit from the leader of the free world?

The Prez Comes to SJU

After beating Georgetown,and becoming #1, the Redmen owned the city. It was the hotest ticket in town, and this is before most of the city had cable, so you had to go to bars to watch a lot of games.

Right in the middle of our 19 game winning streak, President Reagan decided to honor the biggest Catholic University in the nation by giving a speech on Campus. Reagan's speech was a shout-out to the Redmen, and the team gave him a replica of the famous Louie sweater.

Reagan was greeted with love and enthusiasm by the students,which was not surprising. You see, at commuter schools, the students work & go to school. There's no time for flag burning, Fidel worshiping, and senseless protests. These kids were true "Reagan Democrats" and the reception they gave Reagan touched him deeply. So much so that Reagan wrote about it in his diary. Think that would have happened at Yale?

End of the Magic Ride of 84-85

You know how the season ended; we lost to Georgetown in the Final Four. Villanova went on to beat Georegtown in the Finals. Thompson put a box and 1 on Mullin,and we could never get going. Mullin scored 8 pts., it was the first time he did not reach double figures since he was in the womb.


One quibble: why would you put St. John's and Georgetown on the same side of the bracket so they would meet in the semi-finals? They were #1 and #2 all year. Its like having a boxing tournament that matched Ali-Frazier in one semi and Wepner & Quarry in the other.

Post 1985-Still Excellent

Even after 1985,we were a dominant force. In 1986,we were a number one seed,Walter was the best player in the nation, and we won the Big East Tournament. In 1987, we had the most exciting team we ever had, with Mark Jackson leading the fast break to perfection.

Up to the early 90's we still held the fort; we were ranked as high as # 5 in 1991, and lost to eventual champion Duke in the Final 8.

But then two things happened that changed St. John's basketball forever: (1) Looie retired; and (2) we lost our identity.

Bye-Bye Looie, Hello Redstorm, Goodbye To All That

Looie retired in 1992. At the time of his retirement, he was already in the Hall of Fame. He turned the reigns over to Brian Mahoney, who was Looie's top assistant for 18 years.

Like Robert Wagner and Rob Lowe, some people are destined to be # 2. Brian Mahoney is one of those guys. He was a helluva recruiter (Felipe Lopez was the most sort after player in the country), but when he finished under 500 for two of his four seasons, he was clipped.

Mahoney was replaced by Fran Fraschilla. Fraschilla could recruit (Ron-Ron Artest & Erik Barkley) and he could coach.

So what happened? He went out and interviewed for the Arizona State job, and went back to St. John's and used the interview to try to get a raise and an extension.

You know how some people can totally misread a situation? That was Fraschillla. Instead of getting a raise, it was hit the bricks time, as Father Harrington gave him a pink slip.

By the way, is "pink slip" still an acceptable term? Is it offensive to any group at all?

Cause when we talk about the demise of St. John's, I don't think it was a coincidence that we started to suck (1994) when we changed names to "Red Storm "from "Redmen".

From the 1920's to 1994,we were universally known as the Redmen. "The St. John's Redmen" Has a hell of a ring to it, no? Who knew that whole time that we were offensive to Indians? If I were an Indian, (I'm not, I'm a Native-American, more on that at some other post) I would be proud to wear a St. John's jersey.

So, after careful deliberation,which included mulling over the names "Foxwoods" & Mohegan Sun", the school settled on "Red Storm." Quick question: What the f**k is a Red Storm? No one knows. I think it was a nuclear holocaust that Reagan came to campus to protect us from.

Finally,if Redmen was offensive to Indians,how come the Syracuse Orangemen did not have to change their name because it is offensive to white people that use tanning salons?

The Devil & Mike Jarvis

After Fraschilla was axed, we hired Mike Jarvis, the coach of George Washington University. This guy Jarvis turned out to be a sleeper cell on a mission to destroy St. John's basketball. I'd sooner be a member of the Derek Jeter fan club than say something nice about Jarvis.

Jarvis achieved a rare trifecta: (1), he could not coach; (2) he could not recruit; (3) he was corrupt.

They guy had no interest in recruiting New York City kids. We should have known, when he coached in DC, all of his players came from Europe or West Africa. He had so little feel with NYC, he could not find Times Square by train.

And the accent. The guy had such a strong Boston accent, he makes Teddy Kennedy sound like he is from Queens. This clam chowder of a coach should have been the dialect coach for the movie "The Departed."

And he was corrupt,too. He paid his players,his sh**ty fu**kin players,and the NCAA sanctioned him and the school.

Below are some of the many nicknames I gave him during his "reign of error":

1) The goofy uncle from a Will Smith sitcom;

2) The red devil paint man;

3)The Providence Friar;

4) The devil in human form;

When we sh**t-canned Jarvis, I jumped for joy.

Plus We Are Jinxed

Since Looie left, not only have we sucked, we have had horrible things happen, like Malik Sealy being killed by a drunk driver, and Jayson Williams deciding to assassinate Gus the Limo Driver. (If I were Jayson's lawyer, I would have pleaded innocent. Gus was shot from 8 feet away,and everyone knows that Jayson's shooting range was only five feet.)

State of the SJU Union

Norm Roberts has been our coach for four years now. Of course,he has a losing record. Yet, when he was hired,he had the perfect pedigree; he was a city kid, and had big time recruiting experience.

But it has clearly not worked out.

When you watch his teams, its like its the first time they ever played with one another. They run around like Ritalin -taking maniacs, with no sense of purpose.


Bringing It Back

We need a coach to led us to the promised land. I have two suggestions: Bob Knight or Danny Hurley.

Knight in New York would be must see TV. He has strong ties to the program too, one of his mentors was Joe Lapchick. When Indiana won the 1979 NIT @ the Garden,he had Laphick's widow accept the trophy. Can you imagine the General at the Garden? Alas,don't hold your breath.

Danny Hurley,on the other hand,has built a national high school power in St.Benedict's in Jersey,he has the connections,and as Bob Hurley's son,he has the pedigree.

All I want is a Big East Tournament where the NYC team is the team to beat. Where the Garden roars with "WE ARE......ST. JOHN'S" just one more time.

Where the UConn jerkoff fans don't overtake the Garden.

Is that to much to ask?

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