Kia Wright has a dream.
The junior guard, who transferred from UConn two years ago, fantasizes of a time when St. John’s can duplicate the feat the Huskies achieved in 2003 – dual national titles.
“Hopefully, we can make history,” Wright said. “The girls on UConn won and the boys at UConn won, so why not do that for St. John’s.”
Both Red Storm teams, under the leadership of Kim Barnes Arico and Norm Roberts, are a number of years from being considered serious national title contenders, just as the Connecticut teams were when Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun took over in late 1980s.
The women’s program has never won a national championship. But the men’s team has won six NIT titles, many of which occurred when that tournament was the top one in the country.
But the foundations have been set in both Red Storm programs for the men to eventually reach the Final Four for the first time since 1985 and the women to win their first NCAA Tournament game since 1988.
The teams have taken similar roads to their current positions. Each program has had numerous coaching changes and a year when it hit rock bottom. They have both recently hired a new coach that has re-energized it and has gone through growing pains.
“Their programs have somewhat mirrored each other,” said Kathy Meehan, associate vice president for athletics and a former standout at St. John’s from 1971 to 1975. “They have really got people to take notice.”
The signs of the two teams’ equality and vibrancy are visible. The men’s and women’s basketball teams share the newly completed Taffner Field House. The state of the art practice facility gives the players and coaches modern locker rooms, offices and weight room and will help with recruiting. Their plush offices sit side by side on the second floor. In the past the team’s offices were separated. The men’s were the annex to the Little Theater and the women’s were in Carnesecca Arena. Also both can now call Madison Square Garden home too. The women’s team, which played its first game at the Garden in 2003-2004 will play two there this season.
“Some of the greatest [players] stepped on that court,” Wright said. “So just to play behind them that’s a great feeling. But I have yet to play there so I’m real excited about it.”
If anyone knows about the electricity of The Garden it is legendary St. John’s men’s basketball coach Lou Carnesecca, who coached there for 24 seasons.
“When you play at Madison Square Garden, you never forget it,” he said. “Even the pros when they come in, they tighten those laces.”
Along with the shared experiences, the programs can now be considered equal in many respects. You can even argue that for the first time in school history, the women’s basketball team is ahead in the process of garnering national rankings and attention. Last season the team received votes in the AP and the coaches’ poll and reached the second round of the WNIT.
“We’re definitely looking forward to making it further in the Big East tournament and the NCAA Tournament,” junior forward Angela Clark said. “[It] would be a disappointment to myself, my teammates and our fans [otherwise].”
Four years ago, everyone in the country would have laughed if Clark had made that statement. The team was coming off a 3-24 season, with no conference wins. A college basketball magazine rated the Red Storm as the worst women’s team in the country, according to Barnes Arico. Now fans wait to see if Clark and her teammates can bring that goal to fruition.
For the men, who finished 9-18 last season, the goals are slightly more humble. An NIT berth would be considered a step toward to the goal of renewed national prominence. Roberts made his team watch a tape of that era last season hoping they would pick up a few pointers.
“The unselfishness, working hard, knowing your roles, playing to your strengths and a sense of pride with the St. John’s lettering across your chest,” Roberts said.
The era of Chris Mullin, Walter Berry and Mark Jackson and Dolores Dixon and Jackie Smith were the only other time the teams could even be considered on a similar plane of expectations. Sure the men’s team went to the Final Four in 1985 under Carnesecca, but the women’s team, coached by Don Perelli won back-to-back Big East Tournament championships in 1983 and 1984, then again in 1988 under Joe Mullaney Jr.
“In the early goings, we were the best of the conference, when we were killing Connecticut by 70 points,” Meehan said.
After 1988, that all changed.
“We started having a tough time recruiting,” said Mullaney Jr., who is now an assistant coach at Villanova. “Connecticut was getting a lot better. It seemed to dry up a little bit.”
The Express, the women’s team’s nickname until the University adopted the name Red Storm in 1994, finished under .500 for 12 of the next 15 seasons under three different coaches in a vastly improved Big East conference. While the men, even after Carnesecca retired in 1992, continued to have winning seasons under four head coaches and reached the NCAA Tournament six of the next 13 years.
The direction for each of the programs began to move away from the old guard, following the 1993-1994 season, the first time both finished under .500. In 1996, the programs finished with losing records for the second time. The same year, Mullaney quit after 12 seasons and men’s basketball coach Brian Mahoney was asked to step down.
“We’ve been struggling the past few years and the losses started to mount up,” Mullaney told The Torch after he left. “I just needed a change.”
Both hired a new coach in 1996. Fran Fraschilla guided the men’s program to a 35-24 record and an NCAA tourney berth over two seasons until he was fired in 1998. The women’s program, under the direction of Charlene Thomas-Swinson, never had a winning season (24-61) during her three years.
“I think what happened when I left was they tried to bring in their own kids too quickly and change the whole philosophy,” Mullaney Jr. said.
By 1999, both teams again had new coaches in Mike Jarvis and Darcel Estep. The two would eventually run their programs into the ground.
Estep never had a winning season in Queens, posting a combined record of 22-51 in two-and-a-half seasons. In 2000, the team suffered its worst defeat in school history, a 118-44 loss to UConn. Her final season, in 2002, which she was fired midway through, was the worst in the program’s history. It saw the team finish 3-24 and fail to win a Big East game under interim head coach Pechone Stepps.
Estep then sued the school, saying she was fired because of racial and gender bias.
Estep, who is black, said that St. John’s cited her “harsh treatment of her players” as the main reason for her dismissal, according to court papers.
“It was a decision that was made that in the best interest of the program she had to move on,” Meehan said. “I can’t go into it any further.”
Jarvis, on the other hand would take the Red Storm to the Elite Eight in 1998 with the players such as Ron Artest and Erick Barkley, players that Fraschilla recruited, and players that finished 28-9 a season earlier. Except for 2001, when the team finished 14-15, Jarvis kept St. John’s a more than successful program. The teams made four NCAA Tournament appearances, won a Big East title in 2000 and won an NIT Championship in 2003. Even with all the former George Washington coach’s success, there were flashes of another side to him and the program.
St. John’s players’ actions raised eyebrows and placed a black eye upon on the program. Gr
ady Reynolds was charged with assaulting a University swimmer in 2002 and Willie Shaw and Marcus Hatten were both arrested for marijuana possession in 2003. Omar Cook left for the NBA in 2002 after one season and Tristan Smith, Eric King and Tim Doyle transferred after the 2002-2003 season.
“”It was something I will never forget,” Doyle told Newsday. “He [Jarvis] was two different people. He was fake. It was a different front. It was an eye-opening experience.”
Doyle got out just in time. While the men’s highs may forever transcend any of the women’s accomplishments, its lows could not have been worse.
In December 2003, Jarvis was fired. Two months later, six players were involved in a sex scandal in Pittsburgh. It led to the players’ being expelled, suspended or forced to withdraw from the University.
St. John’s basketball had hit rock bottom with a thud.
“[Roberts] probably thinks right now that nobody has ever been in that position,” Barnes Arico told The Torch before last season. “The same situation that he’s taking over [I was in].”
Since the two coaches, both with New York roots, took over their respective programs there have been more than a few similarities. Both are led by a local guard/forward duo.
Daryll Hill is from Queens and Lamont Hamilton is from Brooklyn. Wright and Clark are from Long Island. Mullaney compared Wright transferring to St. John’s to Lisa Smith, also from Long Island, coming to the University from Mississippi in 1987.
“For a lot of years there weren’t two players on the whole island as good as those two players,” Mullaney said of Clark and Wright.
People at the programs believe having local talent is a key to their success.
“I think that always has to be the niche for your basketball program, to try to keep some of these local kids home,” Mahoney said.
Roberts and Barnes Arico have done that.
Unlike in the recent past, both teams are stocked with tri-state talents.
Seven members of the women’s team’s 13-player roster and 12 of the 17 men’s players come from the tri-state area.
Barnes Arico had a two-year head start on Roberts, and has her program in a position the Queens College alum hopes his program will reach soon.
“It’s always good to bounce things off of people that have been in those similar situations because you never know how you could respond to what’s going on,” Roberts said.
But for Wright, the ultimate goal for the two programs, which have mirrored each other in many ways over the last 20 years, remains to duplicate Connecticut’s feat of winning dual national titles and she has some pretty strong backing.
“Why not?” Carnesecca said. “How many years have they been in existence and really had great programs, 10, 15? We had them for 40.”
Wright realizes that her team, and the one they now share Taffner Field House and the Garden with, have the opportunity to continue to move St. John’s toward their ultimate goal and hopes future recruits are watching.
Is good to make a name for this school, and years to come, little girls are going to want to come here just like they are dying to go to UConn,” Wright said. “So why not come to St. John’s and start from the bottom and work your way to the top.”