Torch Photo/Nick Bello
For Mark Jackson, the choice was simple. When Lou Carnesecca made him and his family a promise that he would leave the Queens school a better man, the decision was made.
The man, now simply known as “Lou,” didn’t need to sell basketball in the city that never sleeps.
The quality spoke for itself.
Jackson watched from his New York City home as his former high school conference foe, Chris Mullin, scored just over 19 points per game en route to becoming a Big East Player of the Year. He wanted to stay home.
“Basketball in New York City will always be No. 1,” Jackson said in a recent interview with the Torch. “It breeds toughness; it starts from the playground where it’s win or sit.”
Jackson associates three words with basketball in the five boroughs: passion, commitment and swag. Three attributes that no matter how much basketball changes will always be associated with The City Game.
But the talent growing from the parks of New York City hasn’t been the problem. It’s been keeping the players in the five boroughs. The growth of private schools all around the country have contributed to the perceived decline.
One of the more recent examples is Hamidou Diallo. A consensus five-star recruit, Diallo only played two seasons at John Bowne High School in Queens before transferring to play at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut. Diallo announced Tuesday his plans to enter the NBA Draft in June.
A few years prior, University of Arizona star Rawle Alkins traded in his uniform at Christ the King to play at the Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C.
Playing around the country isn’t new, it’s just seen a growth in popularity in recent years.
“People have always been doing it, but when the numbers become overwhelming, that’s when it makes it sad,” Jackson said. “For me, it was never a factor.” Jackson starred at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn.
“You need success at the lower levels, specifically high school, but the success [of St. John’s and basketball in the City] goes hand in hand.”
Even in the tough times of a so-called decline in New York City basketball, Jackson doesn’t think it’s a poor reflection of the city game.
“The game has just become so global.” He believes other parts of the country and the world have closed the gap.
To see that influence of basketball around the world, you have to look no further than the New York Knicks.
The Knicks franchise player, Kristaps Porzingis, is from Latvia. Center Enes Kanter is from Turkey. The team’s most recent first round draft pick, Frank Ntilikina, grew up playing in France. New York City’s professional team is more global than city-made.
St. John’s fans need no reminder that during the program’s heyday in the mid-1980’s, the team fielded three New York City stars. Jackson, current Red Storm head coach Chris Mullin and Walter Berry. In addition to those three, Bill Wennington (although originally from Canada) attended high school on Long Island.
Now, Mullin is aiming to follow the blueprint of his former coach: keep the New Yorkers in New York.
“When I saw Coach [Carnesecca], I saw individual greatness,” Jackson said. The former St. John’s point guard still calls Carnesecca simply by “Coach” out of respect for someone that he describes as incredible. When talking about his recruiting, Jackson recalls that he would have felt leaving New York to play elsewhere would be a “crime.”
The New York City battles were on full display during St. John’s practice. Mullin would guard the paint against Jackson to force him to become a better shooter. Jackson would run Mullin off the perimeter, forcing Mullin to finish in the paint. Carnesecca never told either player of his strategy. He let that New York City grit manifest itself in order to make each other better.
Mullin’s first major breakthrough in the recruiting scene was when he nabbed current star Shamorie Ponds out of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn.
Since his arrival, Ponds has been in the middle of all the major breakthroughs in Mullin’s time as coach.
As a freshman, there was the 26-point outburst at Carnesecca Arena to upset No. 13 Butler. Fast forward a year, he led the charge with 33 points in an upset win against Duke, and then he scored 26 points to spark a win on the road at Villanova.
For Jackson, the impacts of those wins go beyond the win column. The same way Jackson watched Mullin garner national recognition in his home city, the players of this generation can dream of doing the same.
“The proof is in the pudding now,” Jackson says about the signature wins of St. John’s this season. It took time to get those moments and while the program might not be as far along as some had hoped at this point, Jackson isn’t surprised.
The ex-Golden State Warriors Coach never reached out to Mullin to give coaching advice when he was appointed back in 2015. He didn’t think Mullin needed it.
“Watching Chris is like watching Picasso, or Michael Jackson, he’s a true student of the game,” Jackson said. He considers Mullin “a brother for life.”
“They’ve never been overmatched with heart, desire, passion, and enthusiasm.” Even through the tough times, Jackson, a spiritual man, never lost faith.Passion. One of the those words Jackson used to describe New York City.
Mullin said after that win against the top-ranked and eventual National Champion Wildcats that he never walks out onto the court thinking the team has no chance, a mindset that likely comes back from his days playing at parks across the boroughs.
“St. John’s is not the only avenue for a city kid but it certainly is one avenue,” Jackson said.
That’s what Jackson argues is the most important thing for St. John’s in the recruiting game. Letting players know that they can stay home and still get exposure.
As for a return to coaching himself, Jackson wouldn’t rule anything out, but firmly stated that he’s comfortable in the ESPN broadcast booth.
Since the Knicks fired head coach Jeff Hornacek at the conclusion of this past season, Jackson has been linked with the Knicks job. The New York Post reported Jackson will interview for the job this week.
Could one of the best guards to come off the playgrounds in the concrete jungle be the next to lead a success-starved franchise back to glory?
Jackson wasn’t in position to say. But he knows this much.
“Going to St. John’s put me in a position,” he said, “that allowed me to do what I do today.”