Norm Roberts. In just a few short years, that name has become synonymous with Red Storm men’s basketball. You cannot think of one without thinking of the other, and rightfully so.
Entering only his third coaching season with St. John’s, Roberts has already had numerous triumphs for the team. In his first season, 2004-05, Roberts coached his team to victory over No. 17 NC State, No. 21 Pittsburgh and the championship of the 2004 Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. Under Roberts’ coaching, the Storm also defeated longtime Big East rival Georgetown.
Perhaps it has something to do with Roberts’ New York roots – something he shares with the majority of his coaching staff. Born in Queens, Roberts is as New York as they come. He attended Springfield Gardens High School and upon graduation chose to stay local, attending Queens College where he would get his start in college basketball.
While busy working on his bachelor’s degree in health and physical education, Roberts managed to find time to be a star athlete. He is Queens College’s third all-time leading scorer with 1, 719 points and is the career leader in steals, second in assists. In 1993, the college retired his jersey, number 15.
Following his graduation from Queens College in 1987, Roberts began his coaching career, again staying local. He worked with legendary high school coach Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy High School. There he stayed for three years, working as head freshman coach and an assistant on the varsity squad. His career at Molloy gave him the opportunity to coach a number of local stars, including all-time New Jersey Nets assist leader Kenny Anderson.
When the time came for Roberts to leave Archbishop Molloy, it was just a short trip down the road to his next job, as head coach for Queens College. Back at his alma mater, Roberts had a chance to give back to the school that got him started. He spent four seasons (1991-92 through 1994-95) as the NCAA Division II Knights’ mentor before leaving for Oral Roberts.
For the next several years, Roberts worked outside of his native New York. Following his two-year stint at Oral Roberts coaching the Golden Eagles, he went on to Tulsa to coach the Golden Hurricanes, then to Illinois to coach the Fighting Illini and finally to the University of Kansas where he worked with the Kansas City Jayhawks.
After nearly 10 years, Roberts returned to New York to continue his career and landed at St. John’s, winning the job as the 18th men’s basketball coach in the University’s history. It was a job that Roberts grew up dreaming of having. While other fans grow up dreaming of Duke and North Carolina, the New Yorker in Roberts would let him dream only of St. John’s and the Red Storm.
“I hope [to spend the rest of my coaching career at St. John’s],” Roberts said. “People have been very, very good to me here and this is home for me.”
Roberts has certainly made himself feel at home at St. John’s as well. His winning strategies have helped bring back a team that for a short time seemed to be going nowhere. But under Roberts’ guidance, the team only improved.
In 2005, the Red Storm won its second-consecutive Holiday Festival championship. Roberts became the first coach to win back-to-back titles in that prestigious event since St. John’s Hall of Famer Lou Carnesecca won in 1986 and 1987. And the similarities to Carnesecca have not gone unnoticed.
“The first time I saw him was at a practice and I said, ‘That’s Looie,'” ESPN college basketball analyst Bill Raftery told redstormsports.com. “He lost his voice, he was energetic and he was all over the court. Then I found out he was from Queens, worked with Jack (Curran) and that he had that great background. It’s a natural fit. He knows everything and has proven it at other places. I think they got a guy that values what St. John’s has meant all these years. He knows what they can be and how they were. I think it’s a great combination.”
Roberts is doing his best to live up to all the hype.
“I don’t know if I’ve made my mark [on St. John’s],” Roberts said. “We’ve gotta be more successful, good results out there on the court. What we try to do as a staff and as a team is just get better every day.”
But for all the fans, Roberts has made a mark. After all the scandals and losses the men’s basketball program suffered before Roberts’ appearance on the scene, his ability to deliver a team reminiscent of the Red Storm under Carnesecca is something not to be taken lightly. While the team may not be Big East champions yet, they are on their way, and it is all because of Roberts.
“You do [have to have a lot of patience],” he said. “You have to know where you are and what you’re capable of doing. It’s not gonna happen over night and we know that but I think we’re closer to what we want to do. I like the guys that we have. I think they enjoy being around our coaching staff and we enjoy being around them.”