A tale of two city recruits

What impresses me the most about Omari Lawrence isn’t his jumpshot.

What impresses me the most about St. John’s newest recruit isn’t his ability as a defender, it isn’t his No. 22 national ranking among small forwards and it isn’t the thousands of hits on his
YouTube highlights.

What impressed me the most in my first encounter with Lawrence was his character.

They say first impressions are lasting impressions, but honestly, that’s something I rarely believe in. To me, first impressions are often unreliable pretenses and, as a rule, I try to take what “they” say for granted as seldom as possible.

However, I think the mark that Lawrence left on me at a press conference held Thursday to announce the signing of his letter of intent to attend the University. He came across as a humble young man who understands the importance of his family life.

He sat behind a small table at the halfcourt line of a local court.

His mother Alma, older brother Abebe and younger sister Cynyace sat with him at the table. And it was Lawrence and his family that handled the questioning of local reporters. There was no big important CHSAA representative, no public relations expert and no sketchy-looking guy in a cheap suit making sure Lawrence didn’t say the wrong thing. It was quickly obvious that Lawrence wasn’t going to say the wrong thing.

His answers always turned back to his family.

Omari, why did you decide to stay so close to home for college?
“I wanted to share college with my family,” he said.

Omari, what would be the significance of a resurgence of St. John’s basketball?

“It would mean a lot, to the program and for my family,” he said.

If Norm Roberts has had any success in his years here it has been in his ability to wipe clean the face of St. John’s basketball after the stain of rape accusations in 2004 that led to player suspensions, expulsions and one of the worst seasons in program history on multiple levels.

And it was clear to me last week that Lawrence was the type of guy who will continue to drive the Red Storm further down the road from that epic crash. But it got me thinking.

It got me thinking about Lance Stephenson.

Last January, Stephenson, the most highly-touted recruit in this city and a player who still has St. John’s on his short list, is a player whose character would be difficult to defend.

Last January, during his junior season at Lincoln High School in Coney Island, police had to intervene to break up a fight between Stephenson and a teammate that resulted in an injury to the teammate’s hand.

And if the news of Stephenson’s arrest for allegedly sexually abusing a 17-year-old girl inside his high school in early October had broke while Norm was in his first year with the Storm, it would’ve had to have been a deal-breaker.

After all, “cultures develop on a team – and I’m not talking about ethnic culture or religious culture – it’s the way people interact and what they think is acceptable or not acceptable.” Or at least that’s what St. John’s President the Rev. Donald J. Harrington told the Daily News in 2004.
But, the waters surrounding St. John’s basketball have grown and the times have changed.
The new challenge that faces Norm is not an improvement of this team’s off-the-court behavior; it’s an improvement of their on-the-
court behavior.
Norm no longer has the luxury to recruit on character. Doing so may be career suicide.
Though a player like Lawrence is ideal, a player like Stephenson is necessary.
Whether or not Stephenson would be a problem in Queens next year is no longer even an issue. There are other, bigger problems to deal with than Stephenson could
ever be.