COURTSIDE: Bright Lights, Big Expectations

John Cavanagh, Staff Writer

The bright lights, the history and the expectations. Simply put, there’s no greater challenge than playing in New York City. Certain athletes are built for the moment and can handle the pressure.

St. John’s has embraced their image as New York’s Team, and so have their hometown athletes. Junior guard Shamorie Ponds says the only thing he feels is pride.

“I don’t think there’s any pressure,” Ponds said. “I just go out there and play my game. I don’t think there’s any added pressure at all.” Ponds has a quiet confidence.

The Brooklyn native played at Thomas Jefferson High School and led the team to its first New York City title since 1954. So when he took the floor at Madison Square Garden, it didn’t seem to rattle him one bit.

“It’s definitely something I dreamed of, especially Madison Square Garden,” Ponds said. “Being that I’m from here, it’s definitely important for me, personally, to shine on the biggest stage.”

Ponds followed in the footsteps of Head Coach Chris Mullin. Mullin was also born in Brooklyn and stayed home to play for the Red Storm from 1981 to 1985. Now, the two will try to power St. John’s to the top of the Big East Conference.

The women’s basketball team will also play at MSG this season when they face DePaul on Feb. 17.

“We’re pleased that we’re playing at Madison Square Garden again this year in February, which is always exciting for everyone here,” Head Coach Joe Tartamella said. His players are excited too.

Freshman guard Kadaja Bailey, from Long Beach, N.Y., said it will be really special.

“I’ve always wanted to play there,” Bailey said. “I knew in order for me to play there, I’d probably have to be in New York. That’s why I chose St. John’s.”

There’s more to New York than the Garden, however.As Frank Sinatra said, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

“You get a chance to represent the state, town or city you’ve grown up in,” junior guard Shamachya Duncan said. “To represent, that means a lot.”

Sophomore forward Kayla Charles echoed that statement. “It’s an honor to grow up in a place and play for that place you’re coming from,” she said.

For athletes who are used to playing at home, the transition may be easier. They’ve experienced the raucous New York crowds, from the cheers to the jeers. Yet, the Johnnies still have plenty of players from outside of the state.

Freshman guard Greg Williams Jr. is from Lafayette, La. With plenty of big-time basketball programs down South, Williams opted to play in Queens instead.

“I felt like it was a great opportunity for me,” Williams said. “I feel like I can make a lot of big things happen.”

Staten Island’s own Qadashah Hoppie said it’s been a great experience, even if it is challenging.

“I feel like anyone who comes from New York who tries to play on a New York floor, there’s always a higher standard they’re held to,” she said. “I feel so blessed to be here at this moment and I don’t take anything for granted.”