Courtside(Covers and Insert)
You can’t blame Norm Roberts if he didn’t see it.
The St. John’s men’s basketball team had just finished a 6-24 season, the worst in its 98-year history. The school had just fired its former coach, Mike Jarvis, in mid-season. And worst of all, six players were disciplined a few months earlier for their part in a sex scandal.
But it was almost as if Roberts was looking through rose-colored glasses. Or maybe he just didn’t care. Maybe all the shame and dishonor didn’t affect him. Maybe, like the trite awards- show saying, he was just happy to be here.
What the Queens native saw wasn’t a program that had just hit rock bottom. He saw a program that at one time – when he was growing up only a few miles away – was the premier team in college basketball.
When Roberts was introduced as coach in the President’s Room of what was then called Alumni Hall in April 2004, he called St. John’s his “dream job.” It wasn’t a cliched attempt to sound like he was looking forward to taking on the tedium of rebuilding. He was sincere.
“When I was growing up, Lou Carnesecca was on the sidelines and that’s where I dreamed of playing,” Roberts said at the press conference. “I didn’t dream about North Carolina. I dreamed about St. John’s.”
And why wouldn’t he? In 1983, as Roberts was graduating from Springfield Gardens High School, St. John’s was winning its first Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Carnesecca, of course, is the coach who was inducted into the basketball hall of fame in 1991. He took the Redmen to 18 NCAA Tournaments, six NITs and 526 wins in 24 seasons.
Roberts, who just celebrated his 40th birthday in July, was never looked at by St. John’s as a player. He ended up the third-leading scorer – and eventual coach – of Queens College.
“I should’ve recruited him,” Carnesecca said, smiling. “I missed him.”
St. John’s has found Roberts now, at a time when it needs him the most.
In his first year, he led a team with only eight scholarship players to a 9-18 (3-13 in the Big East) record and the undermanned, often worn-down Red Storm lost 11 games by only 10 points or less.
“Last year, I believe was a mirage for St. John’s,” Roberts said. “St. John’s is never going to be limited to that amount of talent, that amount of players ever again in the history of the school.”
He has a strong history to indicate that it won’t too: 27 NCAA Tournament appearances, 16 NIT Final Four appearances, and a record six NIT titles – most when the NIT was the tournament that crowned the national champion.
If last year was a mirage, Roberts is trying to be the oasis to St. John’s desert. He’s going to have to convey the school’s legacy to potential recruits.
Carnesecca thinks he will – if only for one reason, one in which Jarvis didn’t quite embody.
“The first thing is, he’s happy to be here,” Carnesecca said, “he wants to be here. He’s not looking to go on. Having grown up rooting for St. John’s, he knows what that tradition is and he would like to see that we get back to that.”
Tradition at St. John’s has been forgotten lately, mostly because of the neglect of Jarvis. Even after the past two seasons – a combined 15 wins – St. John’s is still fifth on men’s college basketball’s all-time wins list.
It’s fitting that under Roberts that the school will honor 10 of the most important people (Walter Berry, Lloyd “Sonny” Dove, Mark Jackson, Tony Jackson, Joe Lapchick, Dick McGuire, Chris Mullin, Malik Sealy, Alan Seiden and Carnesecca) in its history on Jan. 20 with banners that will hang from the ceiling of Carnesecca Arena.
“They’re getting close to 100 years of basketball either next year or the year after,” said Brian Mahoney, who was Carnesecca’s assistant for 18 years and was St. John’s head coach from 1992 to 1996. “And over all those years we’ve had some really great teams and some great players and after all those years the University has never done anything like this.”
Carnesecca added: “We do have a tradition here. People forget that sometimes.”
Directly above Carnesecca’s head, when the legendary coach is sitting at his desk is a framed poem from former player Mark Jackson. “He wrote the poem,” reminisced Carnesecca in his Sun Yat Sen Hall office. “He’s always had a good pen.”
The literary work was given to Carnesecca on the night in 1992 that he retired. Jackson, who went on to star with the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers in the NBA, was Carnesecca’s point guard from 1983 until he graduated in 1987.
The last line of verse reads: “And the legacy of Lou Carnesecca will live on forever.”
It is one of the many things in his office that reminds Carnesecca of the old days. There is a poster of Mullin that is autographed by the former Redmen sharpshooter, whose stay in Jamaica spanned from 1982 to 1985. It reads, “Coach, imagine if I could run and jump. You’re the best. Love, Chris.”
There is a red chair emblazoned with the school’s name in white sitting diagonal to the coach’s desk, a memento Carnesecca is not sure when he got or whom he got it from.
“It reminds me I’m at St. John’s,” Carnesecca said.
The coach doesn’t need the posters, pictures, or framed magazine covers to be reminded of the glory days of the 1980s, though. He remembers them all as if they happened last week or last month.
“St. John’s was-quality,” Carnesecca said, leaning back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling, as if he were reliving the moments right there in his office. “Not only did they experience a great tradition because of wins, but they played in Madison Square Garden, so they were a household word. People knew about them.”
In the 1980s, things were very different for St. John’s than they are today. During championship runs, the Empire State Building would be lit up in red and white. The New York Post once ran the headline “GO REDMEN” on its front page.
There was even a well-circulated joke that Madison Square Garden was so filled to capacity for a mid-’80s St. John’s-Georgetown game that Gov. Hugh Carey, an alumnus of the school, could not get a ticket.
That tale was never confirmed, but the yarn gets across what it’s supposed to: St. John’s was a big deal back then, maybe the biggest event to see in New York City.
Even from the 1930s to the 1960s, the days when Joe Lapchick (four NIT titles) was coach of the Redmen, St. John’s was perennially one of the best teams in the nation.
But no teams stood out quite like the ones in the ’80s led by Mullin, Jackson and former All-America, Walter Berry.
“We talk about the 1980s, we were the city’s team,” Carnesecca said. “As a matter of fact, I think that team might have been the country’s team. People loved that team for some reason. It captured the imagination of the basketball world. People liked them.”
At its peak, St. John’s was unlike any program in college basketball today, with its only rivals being Duke, North Carolina and UCLA.
Don’t even think about drawing comparisons to the University of Connecticut in Carnesecc
“How many years have they been in existence and really had great programs?” Carnesecca asked. “How many? 10, 15? We had them for 40.”
Forty years of being at the pinnacle. Two years of scandal, self-imposed sanctions, and losing have dropped St. John’s unceremoniously to rock bottom.
“Norm is coming in almost at ground zero,” Mahoney said.
It’s Roberts unenviable job to bring it back.
“The difference between where they are and where they want to be is not so great,” one Big East assistant coach told the New York Daily News.
It’s not exactly unchartered ground.
“It’s tough to maintain it,” Carnesecca said. “I think we’re going to recapture that, we will. It’s up and down, we’ll come back and recapture that.
“That happens. Even the Roman Empire fell.”