Celebrities, a slam dunk contest, a choreographed dance routine by the women’s basketball team, and Norm Roberts draining a 3-pointer.
The Red Storm basketball Tip-Off celebration on Sept. 25 indeed had the feel of an NBA All-Star weekend.
The 1,200 St. John’s students and fans in attendance were formally introduced to the Red Storm’s 2008-09 men’s and women’s basketball teams in Taffner Field House. The festival’s guest emcee has been a Red Storm fan for over 25 years, and now arguably knows more than anyone about sports in general.
Howie Schwab, St. John’s 1982 grad and star of ESPN’s “Stump the Schwab” attempted to baffle Red Storm buffs in the crowd with St. John’s basketball trivia. The Schwab’s questions were no match for St. John’s fans, which impressed the sultan of sports knowledge. But it was the overall turnout that had him most excited about his alma mater.
“It’s great to see the enthusiasm,” Schwab said. “It’s great to see young people in school. My four years at St. John’s were very special to me.”
Schwab, to this day, carries memorabilia from his two favorite St. John’s sports memories in his wallet. One is a ten dollar ticket from the 1979 East Regional final in the NCAA tournament when the Johnnies lost to Penn. The other is a ticket to the 1985 Final Four, the Storm’s last trip to college basketball’s Promised Land. Schwab hopes there are more memories to come, starting with this season.
“Let’s be honest,” Schwab said. “It’s been tough the last few years. Back in the Mullin, Berry and Jackson days, they were great teams. This is a school of pride, a school of tradition. I think when they get kids here that understand that and work hard, the Garden will be rockin’ again and we can turn this around.”
Women Enter in Style
So Schwab sat in the crowd like any other fan and watched as women’s head coach Kim Barnes Arico introduced her squad in a rather unique way. Her ladies entered center court and took their places in what looked to be some kind of dance formation.
The hip-hop blared and the basketball team – coming off a Sweet 16 appearance in last year’s postseason NIT – broke into a choreographed dance number.
“Our girls wanted to do something special, so that’s why they decided to do a little dance number,” Barnes Arico said. “We have a lot of young ladies with a lot of personality on our team.”
Courting Sir Lance
After a short women’s intersquad scrimmage, it was men’s head coach Norm Roberts turn to introduce his team, who are attempting to rebound from missing the Big East tournament in 2007-08. However, he was not only introducing them to the red-clad raucous crowd; he also introduced them to over 10 St. John’s recruits in attendance. The biggest name among them was Lance Stephenson, who rivals.com ranks as the nation’s No. 9 recruit.
Storm fans seeing the sharply dressed Stephenson watching the men’s team’s scrimmage began chanting, “We want Lance. We want Lance,” over the pep band and cheerleaders.
“If I was Lance today, I would have committed on the spot with the fans coming here wanting me to,” sophomore point guard Malik Boothe said. “I think him being here shows we’re trying to take a step in the right direction.”
Roberts didn’t single out Stephenson when stating his appreciation for the recruits making the trip to Queens, but rather, attributed St. John’s tradition in making the Red Storm program so attractive to high school stars.
“St. John’s support keeps getting better and better all the time and [the recruits] are always welcome here,” Roberts said. “This is really just a fun night for everybody.”
Norm From Downtown
And before the team gets back to the grind of training and conditioning, there was more fun to be had.
Roberts set the theme for the night in a 3-on-3 game where St. John’s coaching staff took on the winners of a campus recreation tournament. The coaches did not win, but did please the crowd when Roberts popped a 3-pointer to put his team up by four early in the contest.
Then Storm fans learned the towering dunks and emphatic slams seen in the men’s scrimmage were just a teaser to the night’s main event: a slam dunk contest between Anthony Mason Jr., Justin Burrell and Paris Horne.
Burrell, in his sophomore year at power forward, didn’t fare well. Horne’s dunk – he started his leap from the foul line – earned him a finals matchup with Mason Jr., who advanced with a through-the-legs, reverse jam. While Horne couldn’t convert his final dunk, Mason Jr. loaded up his closer. He threw the ball off the shot clock, which had the assist on his night-ending slam.