For the Red Storm’s assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih, Carnesecca Arena is more than just a basketball court – it’s home.
A former student manager for the basketball team, the 2007 SJU graduate rejoined the school where he got his start in 2015 as an assistant coach. Describing his return as “phenomenal,” Abdelmassih said, “Getting to walk on campus and be in a place that you deeply love and enjoy to be at is a dream come true.”
He admits, however, that being back has been difficult.
St. John’s’ fairly new coaching staff, headed by alumnus and world-renowned basketball player Chris Mullin, has been tasked with rebuilding the men’s basketball program. Abdelmassih, one of the nation’s top recruiters, has played a huge role in recruiting many of the talented athletes fans will see on the court this season, including freshman Shamorie Ponds and junior transfer Bashir Ahmed.
“The 18 months that we’ve been here have been very productive,” Abdelmassih said during SJU’s Media Day on Oct. 27. “I feel like we’ve fielded a roster that will be a lot more competitive. I think we’ll make a significant improvement, and more importantly, we’ve got kids in our program that we feel like will represent St. John’s University in a way that we want.”
Coming off of a losing season, Abdelmassih said that this year, the biggest thing the team hopes to see different are wins. “We definitely expect to win a lot more,” he said. However, he added that it isn’t all just about winning for the team.
“The core of what we’re looking for, is just to make significant improvement,” Abdelmassih said. “Every game we step out there we’re trying to make improvements.”
With less than two years coaching the Red Storm, significant improvements have already been made to the team’s roster, with the addition of several coveted players, like Tariq Owens and Justin Simon, among others.
“It’s why I do it,” he said, of working with the players. “Recruiting these guys, you develop such close relationships with them and being able to play a small part in seeing them mature while you have them has always been my biggest achievement in recruiting kids.”
He added that watching the players he’s worked with leave as better people than they were when they came in is a huge achievement, and one he takes seriously.
When it comes to recruitment, Abdelmassih is no stranger to the task. He’s been labeled as one of the best recruiters in the country. Working his way to that spot though, has been a learning process.
“The biggest thing is that you’re just trying to foster relationships over time, nothing happens over night,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to develop a lot of networks and trust with people that have been able to help me with my career up to this point. I feel like the biggest thing too is developing that trust. You can’t sugarcoat anything you have to be real with these people and transparent, and that’s probably the biggest qualities that I have in terms of fostering those relationships.”
In his previous job as an assistant coach at Iowa State, he was instrumental in attracting top players, while also helping coach the team to four straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Giving a nod to his alma mater, he said that it’s the qualities he developed as a manager at St. John’s that he feels have prepared him for his career.
“I got to work with tremendous people that I have the utmost respect for – coach [Norm] Roberts and his staff – and you know, at the end of the day, as a fellow former manager –those qualities that drove me back then are what continues to drive me today: a relentless work ethic, a relentless mindset,” he said. “That you’re always replaceable, that someone always could take your job.”
When it comes to coaching in New York, as opposed to coaching in Iowa, Abdelmassih said that there’s definitely a difference.
Notorious for their opinions, especially when it comes to sports, New Yorkers have a tendency to be more negative than fans in the Midwest, Abdelmassih said. That criticism though, he said, is also a positive.
“The thing about New Yorkers, and as a fan of New York sports, and I’m a psychotic fan of New York sports, is what you want is, you just want the people that you’re cheering for to go out there and work hard everyday,” he said. “When you work hard everyday and you represent the program or the organization that you’re playing for the right way, that’s when fans get behind you.”
Abdelmassih said the thing that links the two places is that they’re both blue-collar cities, where you “Roll your sleeves up, go to work and be the hardest working person out there.”
More than once, Abdelmassih has said that he’s a very proud alumnus, and that he loves being in New York. However, he acknowledged that Iowa would always be a place that he loves.
“I met my wife there so I can’t say anything negative about it – not that I would. It’s a place that will hold a special place in my heart for a very long time,” he said.
New York, however, has called him home once again. And while the past 18 months haven’t been easy for the Red Storm, Abdelmassih has taken it in stride, and played a key role in making significant improvements to the basketball program at SJU.
“I’m a very, very proud alumni,” he said. “I take it very serious that I’m called upon to be a small part of trying to turn this thing around.”