Love the School, Love the Team

In my time here at St. John’s, I’ve become a big English Premier League soccer fan. People who know me are already rolling their eyes at this, but bear with me.

 

My favorite team is Tottenham Hotspur, sometimes referred to simply as “Spurs” (not the Spurs, just Spurs). They are a team based in London, England’s largest city, with a rich history. Their glory days were in the 1980s, and the early 2000s was a pretty rough time for the club.

 

If this reminds you of the St. John’s men’s basketball team, you’re not alone.

 

Throughout the years, they’ve always been known as a team that plays an exciting brand of soccer (football), but suffered from bad luck, poor defensive play and a lack of mental fortitude which ensured that they never seriously challenged the hierarchy of the Premier League. The best example of that came at the end of the 2005/06 season. They needed only to beat lowly West Ham to come in fourth place and clinch a place in the Champions League (Europe’s premier competition, featuring the best teams from all over the continent) for the first time in club history at the expense of their archrival, Arsenal.

 

The night before the game, most of the team came down with a bad case of food poisoning (I’m not making this up). They lost, 2-1, and their manager was fired a little over a year later.

Same old Spurs, they said in England.

 

Two years ago, under new and charismatic manager Harry Redknapp, they finally broke the glass ceiling of fifth place and qualified for the Champions League. Last season, the team made the most of its Champions League adventure, breezing through the group stages and upsetting Italian giants AC Milan in the Round of 16 before falling to Real Madrid in the quarterfinal.

 

This season, the club has set its aspirations even higher –  the Premier League title. They played league-leading Manchester City on the road Jan. 21. The stakes were high. Tottenham was five points back, which meant that a win would have them breathing down City’s neck, and a loss would leave them with a huge mountain to climb.

 

Tied 2-2 in the second minute of stoppage time, Gareth Bale – one of the world’s best left-sided players – made one of his signature runs down the left wing and crossed for an unmarked Jermain Defoe, one of the best finishers in England. It looked to be a certain goal

 

Spurs being Spurs, however, they managed to blow the chance by inches, and less than two minutes later, Ledley King, the team captain and smartest player on the pitch, made an unfathomably horrible tackle on a Manchester City player inside the 18-yard box. A penalty kick was awarded. It was converted. Game over, 3-2 to City. Just like that, Tottenham’s title chances were gone.

 

Same old Spurs. Same bad luck.

 

But chasing titles isn’t why I love Spurs. No, what I love about Spurs is the fans. Through good times and bad they stick with the team. They have the best traveling support in England, and make the most out of even the bleakest situations (“We’re gonna win 5-4!” they sang in Madrid last year after Real Madrid took a 4-0 lead late in the second half). Bale, Defoe and King might have combined to blow Tottenham’s chance at a title, but the chants in their name will still be sung with the same vigor the next time they play at home.

 

“Love the shirt,” is a common refrain. Whoever is wearing the shirt doesn’t matter. Spurs are their team, and the team receives great fan support whether its in first place or last. White Hart Lane, where Tottenham plays its home games, is full every game. It was full when the team was at the bottom of the league, and it’s full now.

 

I cover the St. John’s Red Storm, sometimes referred to simply as “the Johnnies,” (always the Johnnies, not just Johnnies). They are a team based in New York, the United States’ largest city, with a rich history. Their glory days were in the 1980s and the early 2000s was a pretty rough time for the team.

 

(You already knew all that. I have to keep the parallels going).

 

It seems that all the bad karma the program built up during the Fran Fraschilla-Metta World Peace-Mike Jarvis years was unleashed on the Norm Roberts Era. NCAA sanctions (remnants of Jarvis’ tenure), players transfers, lost recruiting battles, buzzer-beating losses – you name it, and St. John’s went through it under Roberts.

 

But last year, under new and charismatic head coach Steve Lavin, the team broke the glass ceiling of Big East mediocrity, finishing tied for third in the Big East and setting off wild celebrations at St. John’s campuses all over the world many times during the season.

 

With the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class coming in for next season, everything seemed to be falling in place for the Johnnies in March.

 

But the ghosts of Mike Jarvis and Metta World Peace are not gone yet, clearly.

 

Do-everything swingman D.J. Kennedy got hurt in the Big East Tournament, and missed the NCAA Tournament. St. John’s drew Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament, a terrible matchup for them, and lost.

 

Same old Johnnies. Same bad luck.

 

Then, in September, JaKarr Sampson, Norvel Pelle and Amir Garrett were ruled academically ineligible, making that No. 3 ranking seem hollow.

 

Same old Johnnies. Same bad luck.

 

Then Lavin took time off to focus on his battle with prostate cancer. A historically young team without its leader got off to a bad start (understandably, given the pieces they were left with), and star guard Nurideen Lindsey and top-100 commit Ricardo Gathers jumped ship, both citing Lavin’s absence as a reason for leaving.

 

Same old Johnnies. Same bad luck.

 

It’d be easy to lose faith in this team. And the worst might not yet be to come. This is a team with huge potential, but there are serious questions as to whether that potential will ever be realized.

 

But that shouldn’t matter. Love it or hate it, St. John’s is our school. The Steve Lavin Era has taken a detour on its path to college basketball’s upper echelon, but that doesn’t mean it should get any less support. God’sgift Achiuwa might have played badly against Villanova, but when he scores his first bucket against West Virginia, he should hear “God’s on our side!”

 

Being a sports fan is about so much more than what happens on the court or the pitch. Sports bring people together, give otherwise complete strangers a common bond. The men’s basketball team is the one thing that unifies us as a community, and when
we are alumni, it’ll be the one thing bringing us back together. There’s nothing quite like seeing people passing each other in Penn Station, high-fiving and saying “Let’s go Johnnies,” just like there’s nothing like passing people on Tottenham High Road, high-fiving and saying “Come on you Spurs.”

 

“We’re building something special,” assistant coach Mike Dunlap said after the team’s loss to Villanova. “But it takes time.”

 

I believe him. But whether he’s right or not shouldn’t make any difference as to whether you show up to the Garden to see them play.

 

St. John’s fans should follow the familiar Tottenham refrain – love the shirt.