ONE-HUNDRED YEARS AGO, the St. John’s Redmen opened its inaugural season against New York University under the coaching of Reverend John Chestnut, ultimately losing 13-34. Despite the loss, the game would begin the legacy of the seventh winningest program in college basketball history, and ninth in NCAA history. This 2007-08 season commemorates the centennial anniversary of the St. John’s men’s basketball program .The men’s program moved on from the loss of its first game and saw 100 exciting years ahead, including a Helms Foundation national championship, two NCAA Final Four appearances (1952 and 1985), 14 Holiday festival titles and five National Invitational Tournament (NIT) championships (1943, 1944, 1959, 1965, 1989 and 2003).
In addition, the program has boasted six NIT most valuable players, 43 players with 1,000 points or more, 59 players selected in the NBA, and six inductees to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. During those years, the likes of Dick McGuire (1943-49), Alan Seiden (1956-59), Tony Jackson (1958-61), Bill Wennington (1981-85), Chris Mullin (1981-85), Walter Berry (1984-86), Mark Jackson (1983-87), Malik Sealy (1988-92), and a host of others wore the Red and White proudly in their respective years.
So many devoted coaches and athletes committed themselves to the program over the years, transforming a mere basketball team into a family. Lou Carnesecca, who coached for 22 seasons (1965-70 and 1973-92), has been a part of the men’s program for more than 60 years. Carnesecca remembers seeing his first St. John’s game in 1942 and joining the program in the 1946-47 season as a junior varsity player. After coaching at St. Ann’s Academy in Briarwood Queens (currently Archbishop Molloy High School), he returned to St. John’s as an assistant under legendary head coach Joe Lapchick in 1957. Carnesecca later took the reins of head coach for the first time in 1965, qualifying for the NIT and earning the team’s fourth tournament win.
“The tradition is so rich,” Carnesecca said. “We were known all over the country because we traveled everywhere: Midwest to Kansas and to the west coast. I remember getting off a plane in San Francisco and someone recognizing who we were.”
But even after retiring in 1992, earning a career record of 526-200, bringing the Redmen to 17 NCAA Tournaments and six NIT’s and earning the title of St. John’s winningest coach, Carnesecca is still heavily involved with the program.
“When you think about collegiate basketball, you think St. John’s,” Carnesecca said, now Assistant to the President. “I’m just happy they allowed me to stay. It’s home!”
Ron Rutledge, a graduate of St. John’s and former Redmen player, took along the values taught under the program: “friendship, pride, the respect you earn, and loyalty to the University.” He listed those reasons as why he wanted to stay with the administration. Rutledge, who served as an assistant coach under head coaches Carnesecca, Brian Mahoney and Fran Fraschilla for 20 seasons from 1978-98, is now the Associate Director for Advancement Programs and Institutional Advancement at the University.
“It’s important to reflect back and realize the program has been a storybook program in college basketball,” Rutledge said. “It’s not the most important part of St. John’s University, but it is the front porch.”I’m proud to be an alumnus, it’s in my bloodline,” he added.
Former player and fifth-year analyst of the St. John’s Radio Network, Tarik Turner, began playing for St. John’s in 1994, when the ‘Redmen’ became the ‘Red Storm.’ Turner said that through the overlap of coaches, change of players and other team transformations, one thing stayed the same: the sense of family. He said that it is important for fans, alumni and friends to take part in this year’s centennial festivities because it highlights the accomplishments of a consistently winning program.
“A big part of the successes of the men’s basketball program has always been the support of the alumni and friends,” Turner said. “I still feel I am part of the program even though I am not playing and I owe it to the University to give back.
“The legacy means excellence, first-class winning, a feeling of winning in a first-class manner on and off the court and learning how to be a man. Playing basketball for the program prepared me for life outside of St. John’s.”
St. John’s added a new member to the coaching staff who is also a former player. Billy Singleton, the new Head of Basketball Operations, is a 1991 graduate of St. John’s and former teammate of Malik Sealy. He mentioned that it was obvious for him to stay a part of the program because of the heavy tradition and legacy that is St. John’s.
“It’s about being part of something a lot bigger than me,” Singleton said. “When I was playing, the program taught me a lot about playing basketball, and also a lot about life.”
These strong connections to the programs tradition were not only felt by coaches and players, but also in the hearts of families who once watched loved ones from the crowd. Lisa Sealy and son Malik Sealy, Jr. still live with the St. John’s legacy every time they set foot on the hardwood at Carnesecca Arena, the same court husband and father Malik, Sr. played on 15 years ago. Malik, Jr., who has dreams about playing for his father’s alma mater, serves as a ball boy for every home game on the St. John’s campus in Queens. Mrs. Sealy can usually be seen seated not too far away from her son, cheering for St. John’s.
“I think that it’s great there are more games at Carnesecca Arena this year with the 100th anniversary of the men’s basketball program so that fans can attend more frequently,” said Mrs. Sealy. “It’s also great that they brought back a former player to serve on the coaching staff. Hopefully, there will be a lot of celebration.”
Current head coach Norm Roberts, who is the 18th head coach of the men’s basketball program, reminded his players of the special importance of the 2007-08 season and the history surrounding the program. “They are excited about being able to carry on the traditions,” Roberts said.
The season is especially important to the only three seniors graduating in 2008: Eugene Lawrence, Otoja Abit and Liam Biesty.
“It is such an honor to be a part of the legacy of St. John’s,” said Lawrence, the only senior scholarship player.
Abit, a fourth-year walk-on, agreed.”It’s amazing that I’m here for the 100th season,” said Abit, whose father is an alumnus of St. John’s. “We’re the 100th year graduating basketball class and that’s going to go down in history, and St. John’s is all about history, so it means a lot to me.”
Liam Biesty, another senior walk-on, will always see being a part of this rich tradition as an accomplishment in his life.”People didn’t think I could play with a Division I program with such a strong tradition,” Biesty said. “To me it means opportunity and I don’t take it for granted.”
Athletic Director Chris Monasch, a graduate of St. John’s in 1981, did not play for the men’s basketball team but remembered how big the program was when he attended the University years ago.
“I was certainly here through some fun years. In ’79 we came within a game of going to the Final Four. We had a couple of great upset wins and ended up losing to Penn,” Monasch said. “Then a couple of years after I got out of school, it was a Final Four year in ’85 and back-to-back players-of-the-year with Mullin and Berry, so those were exciting times.”
Because of those exciting years and loyalty to the University, Monasch wanted to remain with the school as a part of the administration.
“It’s my alma mater, the great basketball tradition, the tradition in a lot of our sports, [and] the commitment the University has, currently, to the 17 programs that we have,” he said.
In September, Monasch
announced upcoming events to commemorate the year-long anniversary, including a centennial gala open to alumni, fans and friends of St. John’s, a December symposium discussing the history of the program with appearances from St. John’s basketball legends, and an anniversary game later on in the season. He even mentioned new products for the yearlong celebration, such as 100th anniversary apparel and a commemorative coffee table book. There will also be an “All-Century Team” consisting of 25 members that will be voted on by fans and members of the media. This team will be honored at the aforementioned 100th Anniversary Gala.Looking forward to the seven-man incoming class of the 100th year, the University hopes to merge the new with the old. This year’s freshmen are motivated to build upon the traditions of the past and aid in rebuilding the program into the next century of NCAA basketball.
“The legacy is big, it’s very big, and it’s the reason for my decision to come to St. John’s,” D.J. Kennedy said. “I’m a part of this history and just want to bring it back to where it used to be. [The other freshmen and I] have a great chance at bringing the program back.”
St. John’s men’s basketball hopes to be on the rise to recapture the glory days of the past and to rekindle a romance that New York once had with the University.
“Playing basketball is like making good music, you have to hit that right note to make it good,” said Carnesecca. “These players know they have to make that pass and make that shot to play good basketball.”
“They’ll hit that note.”