Back for more: Julian Champagnie is coming in confident

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TORCH PHOTO / NICK BELLO

It’s a Saturday morning on a packed coach bus, the sun is shining and as the bus moves down 34th Street, Madison Square Garden (MSG) appears on the right through the window. As the doors open, the St. John’s Men’s Basketball team steps off one-by-one, ready to get in their uniforms and take the stage – it’s game day.

As a young basketball player growing up in Brooklyn, Julian Champagnie always dreamed of playing on basketball’s “biggest stage,” the home court of the New York Knicks, which hosts plenty of NBA games each year. He dreamed of stepping inside “The World’s Most Famous Arena” to be a player on the court, not just a spectator.

Champagnie stepped onto that stage as a freshman last year and felt the adrenaline rush, the energy of the crowd and the comfort of playing in his home city – and this year he’s coming back for more.

“Playing at Madison Square Garden has always been a dream of mine and to make that come true is honestly a blessing,” Champagnie said during Big East Media Day last month.

After a successful freshman season, hopes are high for the forward. Champagnie emerged as a key player toward the end of the 2019-20 season, providing the Red Storm with both a scoring edge and a rebounding presence during the season. Head Coach Mike Anderson expects to continue seeing great things from Champagnie as he heads into his sophomore year.

“You can’t look past what Julian did his freshman year,” Anderson said. “Going down the stretch in the last 10 games this guy almost averaged a double-double. I think that he is hungry, he is humble about it and he is looking forward to this year.”

Starting 26 of the team’s 32 games last year, the forward averaged 9.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, the latter of which led the team. He began to emerge in his last 10 games with the Red Storm when he averaged 13.6 points and 7.6 rebounds. Unfortunately for Champagnie and the team, the 2019-20 season was cut short in the middle of the Big East Tournament – just as they were gaining momentum – due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite its abrupt end, Champagnie plans to take the same “attack mindset” from the end of last season into this upcoming season.

“Coming off of the year I had, I feel like I can bring a lot to the team,” Champagnie said, “and I’ve just been working on my jump shot and leadership skills.”

Champagnie not only wants to improve on his personal skills, but also his teamwork. He said he wants to be a better teammate, and in this, he thinks they can improve more than they already have. 

This year, while much is expected from Champagnie from his coaches, teammates and fans, he has yet to falter under the weight of pressure, with both confidence in himself and his teammates.

“Without having the teammates I had, I wouldn’t have played the way I did,” he said. 

Champagnie said that it was his teammates who instilled in him the confidence that shined in his play. They pushed him to have this mentality as a freshman, stepping up to play his first year of college basketball. 

“It’s just basketball and if things go wrong, it’s just life,” he said. “I give that credit to my teammates.”

Anderson, while understanding the talent Champagnie possesses, knows that he will rely greatly on his teammates, and feels he has brought in the right players to complement those who have returned to the Red Storm roster.

Champagnie’s New York roots propelled him to choose St. John’s after a successful high school career at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, where he led the team to a 23-4 record in his senior year. He feels comfortable in the city, which is reflected in his performance on the court.

“I feel I was more comfortable,” Champagnie said, “especially playing with a guy like [Rasheem Dunn] who’s from Brooklyn, from the city, we were relatable and stuff like that. It’s been to my advantage, being able to play home.”

Senior guard Rasheem Dunn shared the same sentiment toward Champagnie.

“Getting that experience to play on an NBA court which you dream of as a kid, playing at Madison Square Garden,” Dunn said. “It’s been a great feeling. We enjoy playing together and in front of our fans and supporters.”

Another New York native who Champagnie has known since eighth grade, Posh Alexander, is joining the Red Storm roster this year. Champagnie alluded that those who stayed in New York to play college ball benefit from the comfortable atmosphere of the city. 

“I think being home will be another advantage for him [Alexander], being comfortable and just being [able] to go out and being like ‘OK, I’m from here,’” Champagnie said. 

Nothing seems to be bringing down the optimism Champagnie has heading into the 2020-21 season, even the opinions of others – specifically, those who ranked St. John’s ninth in the Big East in preseason polls.

“I don’t really expect anything from anybody,” Champagnie said. “Opinions are opinions and that’s just what it is. The only thing I’m really worried about is that we ended last season really well as a team and I would like to pick up where we left off.”

St. John’s fans can only hope as they anxiously await the return of Red Storm basketball that this confidence translates into both Champagnie’s and the team’s performance on the court. Champagnie certainly believes so, knowing he cannot win it by himself, and trusts his teammates to come together and propel the team to success.

“As far as me being able to take key shots and make key plays, that’s exciting, but I think all of my teammates will be able to take big shots and make big plays,” he said.

It’s game day at MSG, and as soon as Champagnie gets in the locker room, the chants from the crowd echo through the concourses. The crowds, music, lights and most importantly, his home city make this an experience one he will never forget. Champagnie steps onto the glossy court with a basketball in hand ready to fight the battle ahead.