Lavin is perfect for the Storm

Imagine Alumni Hall for just a minute. It’s a Friday afternoon, shortly after lunch time, and the place, situated on the aptly named Utopia Parkway, is packed. A smattering of students mill about the court, bricking three-pointers and lazily checking the man they’re supposed to guard.

This is the rec center, and it is also the same cramped gymnasium where guys like Ron Artest, Eric Barkley and Lavor Postell not only practiced but played a few Big East basketball games.

I love this about St. John’s. It’s small time, only it’s big time. The names – Lou Carnesecca, Chris Mullin, Artest – and the numbers – only six schools have more all-time victories – prove that. Really, St. John’s is Big East basketball, more so than Georgetown, Syracuse, Villanova, Connecticut, any of those schools. There’s more history at St. John’s, more pride.

I started watching the Red Storm when Artest and Barkley played. Later, Postell took over, then Marcus Hatten. He would lead them to the NIT Championship one year and the NCAA Tournament the next. That was 2002, and the Red Storm hasn’t been back since.

After Hatten, Elijah Ingram, a McDonald’s All-American took over as the lead guard. Losses piled, Ingram was charged with a crime and then dismissed from the team, coach Mike Jarvis would lose his job, more losses piled, Norm Roberts was hired, New York ties were supposedly reintroduced, more losses piled; and now when the Red Storm gets brought up in conversation, it’s more likely to get mentioned with South Florida than Georgetown.

***
Who has the hardest job in America?

I began the first journalism assignment of high school with that question. Keep in mind, we didn’t actually learn anything about journalism – i.e. reporting or structure or writing or anything of that nature. So this first assignment was basically a column. It was a column about UCLA coach Steve Lavin.

At first I couldn’t stand Lavin. His slick hair and scratchy weasel voice made John Calipari seem wholesome. He only got the UCLA job because it fell to him after Jim Harrick was charged with NCAA violations and other top assistants like Lorenzo Romar had already found head coaching jobs elsewhere.

Then players from Kansas City started going out west. Lavin recruited JaRon Rush, and one of my all-time favorites, Earl Watson, and I began watching UCLA.

Every year followed the same structure. Lavin’s teams would begin the year with high expectations, a top 25 ranking and a tough schedule. They would slump in the middle before gaining ground at the end and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, even if it was because they got the Pac-10s automatic berth.

Anyone who watched this season after season could form one of two opinions, the first being that Lavin disappointed. He twice brought the consensus No. 1 recruiting classes to Westwood and never put together a complete season.

The second opinion differs greatly from the first, penciling Lavin as a good coach who couldn’t meet wild expectations. I agreed with this one.

After all, Lavin did his best in the NCAA tourney. His teams advanced to the Sweet 16 five times in six seasons, most of the time upsetting higher seeds along the way. Only Mike Kryszewski and Duke made the same number of Sweet 16s in that stretch.

Of course, this wasn’t enough. John Wooden coached the Bruins, and we all know how he did. Nothing short of Final Fours and national championships wins goodwill from UCLA fans.

So no matter what Lavin did, UCLA wouldn’t accept it. Everyone called him a great recruiter and a terrible coach. He could bring in the talent and then let it lay dormant until it moved on to the NBA.

The placing of his name onto the so-called hot seat became a midseason tradition, a tradition that always ended with those Sweet 16 runs and thus the inability to fire him. I admired how he dealt with the unfairness, persevered, struggled a while again, and then still found some way to bring it all together.

Then came his final year – 2003. The Bruins never had that middle of the year run, and his firing was inevitable. Lavin spoke in the past tense about his time in Westwood. He knew he was finished, and he had no problem admitting it, even embracing it.

But then something strange happened, although with Lavin nothing was entirely strange. UCLA defeated Arizona, the top seed, in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament. Would the Bruins mount another tournament run? It sure looked that way.

In the second round, UCLA held a big lead against Oregon. It was happening again, all the late season theatrics and victories that certainly incensed athletic officials and boosters. Somehow Lavin would save his job.

But that’s not how it worked. UCLA coughed up that lead, and Oregon won 75-74. The Bruins finished the year 10-19. Finally Steve Lavin could be fired.

***
Nobody can win at St. John’s. That’s the sentiment circling around right now; it has been since Mike Jarvis left, a cloud of controversy staying there behind him. Yep, no one can win there. No one can win at Rutgers or Seton Hall either. Schools like them, schools like St. John’s, they’re urban schools.

On the surface, coaching St. John’s would seem like an easy job. You’re based in New York. You’re based in the Mecca of college basketball.

About 20 million people live in that Mecca. Plenty of them grow up playing rec ball in cramped CYO gyms in the winter before bringing the game outside to the famous playgrounds in the summer. The smaller ones become pass-first point guards, and the taller ones develop mean streaks; they become the type of player no one wants to drive against in a game. Yes, the talent is there, but mining it is the hard part.

All the best players from the NYC area generally want to get out of the five boroughs. They don’t want to live in Jamaica, Queens. And outside of the NYC metro, no one has heard of St. John’s or cares about St. John’s. They don’t want to live in Jamaica, Queens, either.

The Red Storm’s last coach, Norm Roberts, knew New York as well as anyone. He was the man who first convinced Russell Robinson to leave the City and come to Kansas. He had connections. He could recruit the public and private schools of New York.
Roberts lasted for six seasons. He never made the NCAA Tournament.

And now here comes Lavin. He probably doesn’t have enough connections to reserve a table at a restaurant in New York City, let alone enough to gain favor among the area high schools.

Most people say this is a problem. How can the coach of a basketball team in New York City survive without any connections? How can a laid-back San Francisco guy inspire the gritty players of the Northeast to come play for him?

Here’s how. Lavin won’t. He won’t get the best players from New York City. He won’t establish deep connections with the city’s high schools. He won’t have to. And he shouldn’t try to.

St. John’s has been milking the New York City route for too long, and it’s a pointless endeavor. All the great connections of Jarvis and Roberts have gotten the Red Storm nowhere except the bottom of the Big East for the last several years.

New York City boys don’t respect St. John’s like they used to. They’ve moved on. St. John’s needs to do the same, and finally did so by hiring Lavin.

Like he did at UCLA, Lavin will recruit from all over the country and probably still largely on the West Coast. There’s no question it will be tougher. This will be a challenge.

But, remember, Lavin once held the hardest job in America. His new job fits into that same category, and there are few others more prepared for such a challenge.

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