Flames of the Torch: A New Fervor in the Fans

Each year, St. John’s holds a Midnight Madness event to usher in the start of a new basketball season. In previous years, both attendance and excitement were less than spectacular. In spite of numerous attempts by the University to turn the Red Storm Tip-Off into one of the biggest events on campus, the response from students was decidedly lackluster.

At other Big East schools and in schools across the country, Midnight Madness has become one of the most anticipated events of the fall semester. Schools like Duke, Kentucky, and Syracuse have crowds lined up hours in advance, just hoping for a chance to celebrate the start of their team’s season.
This year, St. John’s took a step in the direction of those programs. The attendance at this year’s Tip-Off wasn’t record-breaking by any means, but it was clearly a much larger and more enthused crowd than any in recent memory.  The sight of students lined up from the ticket office next to Carnesecca Arena all the way to the D’Angelo Center in the rain waiting for their tickets showed that St. John’s basketball matters. For the first time in years, the start of basketball season is finally getting the attention it deserves.

The reason for the increased attention can be pointed squarely at the coaches who have engineered drastic turnarounds in both the men’s and women’s basketball programs. When Kim Barnes Arico took over the women’s program in 2003, the team was coming off a three-win season. Now they are coming off back-to-back NCAA Tournament seasons and are ranked in the Top 25 in major media outlets at the beginning of this year.

When Steve Lavin took over the men’s program, the team was coming off a 13th place finish in the Big East. Last year, with almost the exact same roster, the team finished in fifth place in the Big East and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.

In the process, he rejuvenated a previously apathetic fan base, and evoked the glory days of Lou Carnesecca, when St. John’s was truly New York City’s team.

That’s why, even though he was at home during last week’s Tip-Off recovering from prostate cancer surgery, he received the loudest ovation of the night.  And that’s why fans hold up signs that read “Lavinwood” in the student section, a nod to his California roots.

By the end of last season, Carnesecca Arena was sold out on a nightly basis and Madison Square Garden was more full for St. John’s games than it had been for years. The beginning of this season should boast similar attendance totals.

We can only hope that the newfound enthusiasm the student body has shown for the team is sustained. Not only does it benefit the basketball team, but it also benefits the University as a whole. The freshman class that enrolled this year was the largest in school history. They made their college deposits only a few months after the men’s basketball team made their enthralling run through the Big East to the NCAA Tournament.

While there’s no proven link, it’s not a stretch to infer that the two are connected. The University received tremendous positive publicity whenever the Red Storm took the court. That publicity raised the stature of the University in the eyes of prospective students, which made them more likely to enroll.

So however this season turns out, the basketball teams should be supported. When fans pack the Garden, hold signs and yes, storm the court, they are creating a whole new generation of St. John’s fans, of both the team and the school itself.