Hope and Reality: The St. John’s Men’s Basketball 2012-13 Season

Sophomore Sir'Dominic Pointer. Photo Courtesy St. John's Athletic Communications.

Sophomore Sir’Dominic Pointer. Photo Courtesy St. John’s Athletic Communications.

In a makeshift locker room in Madison Square Garden, where pipes and wires were exposed like those in an old basement apartment, the St. John’s basketball team gathered after a loss to Villanova in the Big East Tournament in mid-March. The Johnnies were above .500 at 16-15, an improvement from the 13-19 finish of 2011-2012, but losing that final game and seven of their last eight ended any chance of an NCAA Tournament bid.

It was a silent, depressing atmosphere. The players, minus sophomore captain D’Angelo Harrison, who was surprisingly suspended two weeks earlier, were dressed in black and white trainers and heavy black St. John’s jackets. Some had hoods on and others wore skully caps and backpacks. There were no smiles. The players were quiet, like grade-schoolers, who felt ashamed after disappointing their parents by bringing home an F on a test. Their faces showed all the signs of defeat– heads down and eyes that fought to hold back tears. They were staring around the room, which except for some reporters, was empty. It was not a traditional dressing room, and it was hardly larger than some of the classrooms at St. John’s. It had no lockers, carpeting or logos, just benches and chairs—a demotion from what they were used to at Madison Square Garden, their home court when they didn’t play at Carnesecca Arena on the main campus in Queens.

The players said little. All the words had apparently been spoken behind closed doors with coach Steve Lavin. Playing in the NCAA tournament was the goal, as with all college basketball teams. In the fall of 2012, when the season began, there was excitement around this young, but talented team. Lavin returned to St. John’s after missing most of the previous year recovering from prostate cancer surgery. At the annual Midnight Madness celebration in October, he promised special things come March. Five months later the players realized that their best had only been mediocre. “It hurt big time,” sophomore guard Jamal Branch said. “Our main goal from day one was to make the tournament.”

Then, as young athletes do, Branch started to look ahead. “It’s all just a learning experience,” he said, reflecting on a chaotic season when the star player was suspended, another player was declared ineligible, Lavin’s father passed away and the Big East Conference disbanded and was re-born. “We just got to move on though,” Branch continued. “I feel excited about next year. We got a lot of big guys… and everyone is talking about coming back. We got a year under our belt. First year with coach Lav, even for the vets from last year.”

***

On October 12, in front a crowd of 3,158 students and fans in Carnesecca Arena, St. John’s held its annual Midnight Madness celebration. The event was broadcast on ESPN3, the streaming service of the sports network, with Sports Center anchor John Anderson as the emcee. There were red spotlights and there was a fog machine for dramatic effect. Anderson called Lavin out after the men’s and women’s basketball teams had been introduced. Lavin emerged from the wisps of fog to the disco classic “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” by McFadden & Whitehead.

Lavin missed most of the 2011-2012 season while recuperating from surgery. But he was upbeat last fall. He used the word “energy” numerous times in his speech and in his later conversations with the press. And he also made a promise. “Great energy in the house tonight,” Lavin said as he addressed the students and fans. “There’s no doubt the men’s and women’s basketball teams will be doing special things come March.”

St. John's head coach Steve Lavin. Photo Courtesy St. John's Athletic Communications.

St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin. Photo Courtesy St. John’s Athletic Communications.

Lavin was hired after a national search for a new coach following the 2009-2010 season. St. John’s finished 17-16 that season, and lost to the University of Memphis in the first round of National Invitation Tournament. But it was generally accepted that head coach Norm Roberts, who was a former assistant at Kansas under head coach Bill Self, was going to be fired after six seasons at St. John’s and an 81-101 record. During that time, the Johnnies failed to finish higher than 11th place in the Big East Conference, and they had just two years above .500.

The Johnnies were looking for a big time leader. The school, which according to the U.S. Department of Education, had a men’s basketball budget of nearly $7.3 million in 2011-2012, wanted Florida’s Billy Donovan and interviewed Paul Hewitt of George Tech, both of whom declined. There also were reports that the school targeted Virginia Tech’s coach Seth Greenberg and interviewed Boston College’s Al Skinner. But at the end of March, St. John’s Athletic Director Chris Monasch and President Donald Harrington, settled on Lavin, the former coach of UCLA who had become a broadcaster for ESPN.

Lavin was always involved with basketball. His father, Albert “Cap” Lavin, was a standout basketball player during his high school days in San Francisco and went on to play Division 1 basketball at the University of San Francisco. Lavin also played basketball in college, but it was almost certain he wouldn’t have a shot in the NBA. He played for San Francisco State, a Division II team, and then transferred to Chapman University. After he graduated he became a graduate assistant at Purdue under Hall of Fame coach Gene Keady before becoming an assistant at UCLA, under Jim Harrick. In 1996 when UCLA fired Harrick, the school made Lavin the interim head coach and later head coach.

Lavin was a success at UCLA. In his seven years there, he had a 145-78 record and he led UCLA to an Elite Eight berth in the NCAA tournament, as well as five straight appearances in the Sweet Sixteen. Lavin also became well known as a strong recruiter. He had the number one recruiting class twice, according to ESPN, and 13 of his players became draft picks in the NBA.

Lavin said he was very interested in the St. John’s job because of the school’s basketball tradition and because the team plays in New York City. The school decided to hire him for six years and about $9 million, according to media reports. “I was certainly impressed with his vision of what the program could be about,” Monasch said about his meeting with Lavin. “I also like this vision that he would recruit across the country and internationally. We’ve been stuck a little bit here with this notion we have to get kids out of New York. And he brings the vision that we’re a national program, we’re a national university and he can attract young men from all over the place and the team we have this year is very much that way.”

Soon after Lavin was hired he called Keady, with whom he is close, to ask if he would join his staff. But Keady wasn’t too thrilled at first: “I said ‘Are you crazy? You’re the best analyst in the game, you want to be a coach?’ He said, ‘Yeah you want to help me?’ I said sure. He wanted to get back to the excitement of recruiting and teaching and trying to win. It gives you a special rush.”

In his first year, Lavin and his staff coached the team of seniors left by Roberts to a 21-10 record and the first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade for St. John’s. And he made a splashy entrance with his new style. At UCLA he was known for his slicked back hair, and shirt-and-tie formal look.  After coming to St. John’s, Lavin wore a jacket and shirt with no-tie and white Nike Air Force 1 shoes to each game. He wore the shoes originally to support the Coaches vs. Cancer program, but kept the look because it was comfortable. And he said he discarded the tie so he could breathe better. “When you’re coaching a practice, obviously you never have a tie on and you never have dress shoes on,” Lavin said. “It felt more of my element. It hit me right away like wow, why haven’t I done this my whole career. Just one of those things until you do it, you don’t really see the advantages of it.”

In his second year as head coach, Lavin had the number three recruiting class in the nation with nine incoming players, five of whom were ranked in the top 100, according to ESPNU. He recruited around the country, and stayed in Queens to get Moe Harkless, who jumped to the NBA in 2012 and is now with the Orlando Magic.

“Steve brought instant credibility, because he had achieved at this level,” Monasch said. “I think we saw that immediately with the level of players he was able to recruit. So I think we’re probably on the front end of seeing a turn.” Optimism was high for St. John’s fans. But that ended when Lavin announced at the end of the season that he had prostate cancer and would be undergoing surgery in the weeks ahead. “His health was our first concern,” Monasch said. “Fortunately he appears to have come through it clean and healthy and strong and it was inspiring to watch how he went through it. He was very positive, very upbeat.”

Lavin returned for the start of the 2011-12 season, but after coaching just four games he began feeling sick again and missed the remainder of the year. His assistant Mike Dunlap, who became the head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012, coached the rest of the season. Lavin used some of his time away from coaching to bring in more top players for the next year, players like Chris Obekpa of Our Savior New American High School in Long Island, who finished the 2012-2013 season with the second most blocks in the NCAA Division 1, with 133 rejections.

“I thought he did a terrific job of being able to rest during that year, but still overseeing the program, directing coach Dunlap, staying in touch with the athletes, staying very much involved with the recruiting progress, so we really haven’t lost a beat in that period,” Monasch said of Lavin. Lavin said when he had cancer the hardest part was not being able to “participate on the journey with the players I recruited.” One of those players was the highly-regarded D’Angelo Harrison of Dulles High School in Sugar Land, TX.

***

With seconds before halftime of a game against Seton Hall, Harrison dribbled from the left side of the court to the right and pulled up for a shot. As the ball swished through, the crowd at Madison Square Garden erupted and then the buzzer sounded to end the first half. Harrison was obviously charged by the play, his fists clenched as he shouted excitedly. Harrison’s three-pointer on Jan. 27 put the Johnnies up 38-33, and they went on to win their fourth straight game, which gave them a 13-7 record and visions of a spot in the NCAA tournament. Harrison, who scored 17.8 points per game this season, was a special recruit for the Red Storm, and he was putting together a season worthy of it. But it didn’t start that way, nor did it end that way. A few weeks later, when the team was 16-11 and had three games remaining, Lavin announced that had been suspended Harrison.

Sophomore D'Angelo Harrison. Photo Courtesy St. John's Athletic Communications.

Sophomore D’Angelo Harrison. Photo Courtesy St. John’s Athletic Communications.

Harrison became the face of St. John’s this season after leading the team with 17 points per game in the 2011-2012 when he broke Erick Barkley’s freshman scoring record of 500 points by scoring 572. On Nov. 5, St. John’s placed a billboard advertisement featuring Harrison in Times Square, on the corner of 46th Street and Broadway. His picture also appeared on the team schedules given out on campus. Then came the first game of the season, an exhibition against Sonoma State on Nov. 3. Harrison, Lavin said, had committed “minor team infractions,” but he would not elaborate and Harrison did not start. He was benched the following game, another exhibition, against Concordia on Nov. 6. Lavin’s discipline carried over briefly to the first game of the season against the University of Detroit when Harrison was benched for the first four minutes. When his name was announced over the loudspeaker as he entered the game against Detroit, the crowd of 3,506 fans in Carnesecca Arena cheered. The Johnnies won that game 77-74. Harrison led the team with 22 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes and all seemed right on the Jamaica campus in Queens.

Harrison had a reputation for being a hothead in his first season with the Red Storm. He often threw his hands in the air and glared at referees if he felt they missed a call. It all reflected a competitiveness that Lavin said he liked in Harrison. He also said that his star needed discipline. “Early when you set the tone, set the tenor on things in terms of the season, it’s important that we make sure the guys are toeing the line,” Lavin said.

Basketball for Harrison started as it does for most people. At first it “wasn’t anything serious, it was all about fun,” Angela Harris, Harrison’s grandmother, said in a phone interview in January of 2013. Harrison was born in Anchorage, Alaska, but grew up in Missouri City, TX with his grandparents, Angela and Orville Harris, and his older brother, DeAndre “Dre” Harrison. Harris said Harrison’s father was never in his son’s life, but she wouldn’t explain further. His mother, Yolanda Harris, was left to take care of the boys herself in Alaska. It was a heavy financial burden, Harris said, and Yolanda made the decision to leave the brothers with her parents back in Texas. His grandparents said D’Angelo was never depressed despite his mother’s absence. “As long as you have care and love around you, you don’t feel a void,” Harris said.

When Harrison was in kindergarten, his grandmother put him in sports and other programs at a local YMCA to give him things to do. He excelled at sports and by junior high school was an elite soccer and basketball player. Coaches, however, wanted Harrison to focus on one sport. At first he didn’t want to choose, but eventually he settled on basketball. “After awhile when it was getting more difficult, being involved in two things, he just decided he liked basketball more,” Harris said.

Dre, 21, also played basketball and the two, only two years apart, played for Dulles High School in Sugar Land, TX. When the brothers were growing up Dre would tease D’Angelo, according to their grandmother, but they remained best friends through the years. Dre was the point guard and D’Angelo the shooting guard when they were at Dulles.

D’Angelo averaged 31 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 steals in his senior year. He was a two-time all state player and was rated the 44th top high school player in the nation and the ninth best shooting guard by ESPNU, which ranks high school players. Baylor, Marquette and Oklahoma State recruited D’Angelo. Lavin got in late, he admitted. “When we got involved it was Marquette,” Lavin said. “Everyone said he was going to [There].” Lavin envisioned Harrison as a combo guard, who would run the offense right into Big East Contention. “First time I saw him play I think he had 43 or 45,” Lavin said.

After fellow top 100 recruits Moe Harkless and JaKarrSampson committed to St. John’s, in mid-October of 2010, Harrison selected St. John’s on ESPNU and suddenly St. John’s was a factor again after eight sub-par seasons when the team did not make an NCAA tournament appearance. With a hearty smile, dressed in an all black shirt with matching black and silver-striped tie, Harrison slipped on an “I love New York” cap and said, “I’m going to…play for St. John’s.”

Missouri City, a suburb near Houston, is nothing like New York City in the sense of skyscrapers, energy and screeching subways. It’s a residential area, where individual houses, trees, trimmed lawn and backyards pools are the norm as opposed to housing projects, bodegas and pavement.

“Location really doesn’t matter to me,” Harrison said when asked on the program if the bright lights of New York attracted him after he announced his selection. “I want to go play for somewhere I can be one of the top guys on the team and I think that’s where I’m going to be able to play and be good.” Two years later “good” turned into an understatement, as Harrison became one of the premier players in the Big East Conference and in the nation.

Harrison’s commitment to St. John’s came after a dark period in his life. On May 26, 2010, nearly five months before D’Angelo committed to St. John’s, his brother was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Dre had been in a van with a friend. They pulled up near another van in the parking lot of the Marq-E Entertainment Center, in Houston to conduct a drug deal. Something went wrong and Dre’s partner fired multiple gunshots, killing 21-year-old Ronald Foreman and injuring another man, Glenn Hickman. Dre was later tried and convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and he received a sentence of 10 years, cutting his basketball career short. “He’s really just a young man, who’s a good man, who made a mistake,” Harris said about Dre. “It’s been devastating to the family and we’re in support of him and are waiting with anticipation and joy for him to be released.”

Harrison said he writes to his brother before every game. He e-mails Dre and gets a hand written response a couple days later. During the winter holidays Harrison went to visit Dre, who is in Texas State Prison in Dilley, TX.

As Harrison was closing in on scoring his 1,000th point as a player at St. John’s he was approaching the milestone faster than even Hall of Famer Chris Mullin. But he said he wasn’t that interested in the achievement, as much as his brother would be.

“It would probably mean more to my family than to me, my brother, especially my brother,” Harrison said in an interview. At the end of the second half of the Seton Hall game, as the Pirates slowly crept back and cut the Johnnies’ lead to 60-59, Harrison took over and scored 9 of the Johnnies’ final 11 points. He exhibited the ability to take over a game, something NBA scouts admire, but he said he wasn’t considering the transition to the next level yet, and was more focused on helping St. John’s succeed.  “I’m just worried about this year right now,” said Harrison, standing in front of his locker at the Garden after the Seton Hall game. “I want to make the tournament. Everybody’s stock will go up if we make the tournament and win games. So that’s all everybody’s worried about right now.” Harrison eventually broke 1,000 points against Louisville on Feb. 22 and it was an accomplishment that impressed his brother. In an unedited letter from prison, Dre wrote:

“Even though he is younger than me I look up to him. We are really close. Something like twins. We both love to hoop we both love sunflower seeds we both love tattoos. The only thing we disagree on is who is better LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. LeBron of course. I love my baby Brother. Though I would do whatever I could to see my lil brother play a game in person I’ve watched him on ESPN and CBS, but to watch him in person I would go crazy. I promise the whole stadium would remember D’Angelo’s Big Brother. The crazy dude with all the tattoos.

“I think about him and my family all the time. I feel that I have I have let them down. It’s hard being away from Dee. I know my baby Brother needs me but I don’t know if he knows but I need him more than ever. Im his biggest fan. He has my name tattooed on his chest I have his on my right hand. Why because he is my right hand Man. I talk to him before every game. Ill tell him for every 3 pointer you make Ill do 100 push ups for every 2 Ill do 50 and for every free throw Ill do 25. Lol so when he scored 36 against Villanova My Arms were hurting for days.”

On March 1, St. John’s announced that Lavin suspended D’Angelo Harrison. During a press conference later that day Lavin said it was because of “behavior detrimental for the future of the team.” When Harrison was later asked about what happened in a text message, he said, “That’s closed info.”

The next day Harrison’s grandmother came to the school. She met with coach Lavin. Even after talking to Lavin, Harris could not believe that Harrison did anything to warrant the suspension. Despite leaving the team, Harrison said that he would return to the Red Storm next year. “I plan on finishing school here,” Harrison said in a text message. “I wouldn’t have picked this school if I didn’t want to.” And Harrison kept his eye on the team. Harrison, his girlfriend, Tyranni Henderson, and his grandmother, who stayed in New York just a little over a week, went to the St. John’s – Marquette game at Madison Square on March 9. In that game the Johnnies rallied against the co-Big East regular season champions and a cut a 9-point deficit with four minutes remaining to send the game to overtime. But the Johnnies lost by two points when Marquette junior guard Vander Blue made a layup at the buzzer. “I wanted that game,” Harrison said. “It was hard to watch and not be able to play.” While there was uncertainty about the future of the Johnnies without Harrison, there was also uncertainty about which league they would be in next season.

***

In the fall semester of 1977, Jack Kaiser received a call from David Gavitt, the Athletic Director of Providence College. Kaiser, the Athletic Director of St. John’s at the time, knew of Gavitt and was intrigued with subject of the call. Gavitt, said he wanted to meet with Kaiser to discuss a new basketball league. Gavitt later traveled to Queens to see Kaiser in his office in Alumni Hall, now Carnesecca Arena. Frank Rienzo, the Athletic Director of Georgetown University, joined them, Kaiser said.

Before the meeting, these three schools competed as independents and were not affiliated with any league. The NCAA had a new requirement that if schools wanted an automatic bid to the tournament they must win a league in their region. As independents the three institutions were all very successful in basketball and satisfied with their situations, according to Kaiser. But because of the automatic bid possibility they came to the conclusion that they were being forced into a league, so Gavitt came up with the idea to form one that would protect them. The league would be called the Big East.

“He said, ‘Look the NCAA is putting us in a conference as long as we have to do that let’s make sure it’s a conference we want’,” Kaiser, now 86, said remembering Gavitt, who died in 2011. Kaiser was wearing a blue sweater, with the Big East logo above his heart.

Kaiser is still working at St. John’s with the title Athletic Director Emeritus. His new office is still in the same building just on a different side. In 2013 the powerful conference he once helped found was about to dissolve as schools sought new affiliations and as much television revenue they could find.

“[The Big East] was founded on basketball and strong basketball, because we were all outstanding teams in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference area,” Kaiser said. “Our thought was we wanted to strengthen basketball in our conference and… to upgrade championships in other sports and to establish championships in other sports that didn’t have them at that time.”

Lou Carnesecca, the former coach of St. John’s, was skeptical at first, but on a trip to Italy, he happened to meet Gavitt by chance and the two talked about the league on a flight home. Gavitt managed to convince the Hall of Fame coach, Kaiser said.

After that first meeting at St. John’s, the group invited Syracuse University to join and together the four schools founded the conference. Within the following year they added Seton Hall University, the University of Connecticut and Boston College. The 1979-1980 season was the first year of the conference and it had seven members. Villanova joined in the following season.

“The tone was very positive from the beginning,” Kaiser said. “There was a little trepidation, because we didn’t know what to expect.” In the early years of the conference, a small, all sports network called ESPN started up and was looking for programming. “And we advanced together,” Kaiser said. “We helped them and they helped us. They were looking for product.”

He added: “It was very helpful for us to have programming on a national network right away or almost right away. That was big, I thought.”

The conference grew after that, adding teams from the east as far south as the University of Miami. What started as a basketball conscious conference started accepting football members. By 2003 there were 14 schools in the league.

That same year three of these football members, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami announced they were going to the Atlantic Coast Conference, a more visible football conference. Fast-forward to 2011. West Virginia decided to leave the Big East, and in 2012 five members decided to depart as well. Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville went to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Rutgers to the Big Ten and Notre Dame, which did not play football in the Big East, signed with the ACC for basketball, but remained independent for football.

“I don’t think anything went wrong,” Chris Monasch, the Athletic Director of St. John’s said. “…I don’t think it was a break-down of negotiation or strategy or leadership. It just was a factor of those leagues from a football standpoint seemed more stable.” He added, “For example Boston College going to the ACC, they had more certainty the ACC was going to be one of the top four-five football conferences maybe than the Big East was going to be, and it’s played out that way.”

The Big East began shopping for more members, and took some schools for all sports (Tulane, Houston, Memphis, the University of Central Florida and Southern Methodist University) and some for football (East Carolina and Navy). Temple University had planned to join the Big East for football in 2012 and all sports a year later. The confusion forced the remaining basketball schools that were associated with the Big East to come together.

In mid-December of 2012, St. John’s along with Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, Marquette, DePaul and Villanova announced they were going to leave as a group and form a new conference focused on basketball. Because the universities are all Catholic schools they became known as the “Catholic Seven.”

***

Chris Monasch was sitting in his office in the St. John’s athletic department in January. He was happy with the direction of the men’s basketball program under Lavin.

“We’re very talented, but we’re so young,” Monasch said of the team of mostly freshmen and sophomores. “We’ve competed in almost every game that we’ve played this year. So I think it’s natural to think as they grow up, hopefully later this year, but certainly in the next couple of years those losses are going to turn into wins. I feel very positive about where we are.”

Pictures of St. John’s icons, such as Carnesecca, and trophies from past tournaments filled his office. It looked like a mix of a living room and small museum. On one side of the office were two posters of unmistakably identifiable figures to anyone familiar with St. John’s athletics. One was a cardboard cut-out of Chris Mullin, St. John’s all-time scoring leader. At that time his hair was brown and longer than the blonde, buzzed flat-top hairstyle that was his trademark in the NBA. And he wore the white and red St. John’s uniform of the 1980s, with the short pants.

The other cut-out was of Carnesecca wearing the coach’s well-known “Ugly sweater,” a plain brown sweater with a red “V” pattern across the front and a patch of blue at the top. The sweater was a gift from an Italian coach, who had visited the Red Storm coach in the 1980s, and Carnesecca first wore it to a game against Pitt in 1985. The Johnnies won on a last minute jump shot and from then on he viewed he sweater as lucky, and he wore it for most games.

Monasch said he believed St. John’s was making the right decision to embrace the “Catholic Seven” because of an even more lucrative television contract and because the seven schools were joining other basketball-focused schools such as Butler, Creighton and Xavier. “I think the seven schools have a common view of intercollegiate athletics, emphasis on broad based programs, with a strong emphasis on men’s and women’s basketball,” Monasch said. “And I think the programs that the membership will look to expand to will have comparable goals and values. When you build a league like that it gives you the chance to stay together for the long term.”

The TV deal between the “Catholic Seven” and the three other teams and Fox Sports was for $500 million for 12 years, according to various media reports. The deal with Fox Sports will bring more money to the schools than the expired deal that the Big East Conference had with ESPN, which gave each basketball member of the conference about $1.5 million each per year, according to a report by ESPN.

Monasch said that money was a factor in moving to the new league. “We knew we got a certain amount of money from the Big East and our hope is in a new league we will be comparable or better,” he said. “The financial upside to us is if the program is doing well. The more successful we are the more dollars we can generate, which will help offset the cost of running our athletic program.”

The Catholic Seven, which will retain the Big East name, and Fox Sports announced in a March 20 press conference that they had agreed to a deal that added Butler, Creighton and Xavier Universities. The deal also kept the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. The deal will be worth $500 million for 12 years, according a Fox Sports executive with knowledge of the contract. St. John’s will make about $4 million from it.

“For the ten schools that are going to be in the newly named new Big East, I think they landed as well as you could hope to land,” said Tom Shultz, managing director of capital and media of JMI sports, a sports consulting firm. “They’re in great markets. They’re great institutions and are going to be sort of a flagship for the Fox network so it should give them a lot of exposure.”

Lavin thought from the beginning that the deal would work out well for St. John’s.“It’s not that the league isn’t a part of the equation, but I never went in a home and said, ‘Look we’re in the Big East, that’s the reason that you should come to St. John’s’,” Lavin said. “The elements that our staff amplifies has always been St. John’s great tradition, its location in New York City, Madison Square Garden, our particular staff, the brand or style of basketball that we play, our track record of sending guys to the next level and the kids that didn’t go to the next level that are doing well in every industry, and career under the sun.”

Many of the St. John’s players weren’t concerned as rumors about the new league played out in the media all season. Sophomore guard Sir’Dominic Pointer’s views seemed to represent those of his teammates. “Whatever the Big East breaks down into, we’re still going to be in New York,” he said. “We’re still in one of the most media towns in the country … and we still play at Madison Square Garden.”

***

Freshman JaKarr Sampson apparently wants to continue playing at the Garden. He stood out as one of the best players in the Big East Conference in 2012-2013. Sampson averaged 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. He was expected to be a big performer for St. John’s before the season started and reporters and bloggers asked whether he could be a one-and-done player and bolt to the NBA, like Harkless had. At the end of the season Sampson won the Big East rookie of the year award, just like Harkless did, but the NBA wasn’t on his mind. “Of course I’ll explore it a little bit, but my mindset is not really even there right now,” Sampson said after the loss to Villanova.

Lavin also didn’t seem to think Sampson would leave. “He already has a mature perspective on it,” he said. “Again that doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent but in my conversation I’d be surprised if he doesn’t return. He’s likes his teammates. He likes to win big, he wants to develop his game and he wants to be ready not just to make the NBA but to thrive and excel.”

It didn’t appear that Sampson was going to have such an impact after his first game with the Johnnies. Against Detroit in Carnesecca Arena on Nov. 13, he scored just two points and had six rebounds in 18 minutes of play. He missed easy layups, was noticeably out of position sometimes and shot just one of seven from the field. Lavin said Sampson was nervous and had “jitters.” “He’ll probably never have a game like that again the rest of his college career,” Lavin said.

Sampson grew up in Akron, Ohio, the same town as NBA star LeBron James. Sampson’s father, Darrel, used to coach YMCA recreational basketball and pushed his son into the game. “From an early age I was always on a travel team,” Sampson said. “Even when I wasn’t old enough I was just always around basketball and I just fell in love with it.”

His father never stopped pushing his basketball skills as he grew up. “I remember he brought my first real regulation basketball hoop when I was probably 10,” Sampson said. “That was like the first hoop I dunked on. It was black, it had the little water tank that you fill up so it won’t tip over.”

Sampson went to high school at St. Vincent St. Mary’s, the same school that James attended. He transferred to Brewster Academy, a prep school in Wolfeboro, NH, for his senior year. After he averaged 15 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game, Sampson was ranked the 44th best player in the nation by Rivals.com. He chose to play for the Red Storm over Tennessee and Louisville. Sampson is one of the Johnnies who had connections with future Red Storm players before arriving on campus. He had played together with Harrison and Harkless in a Nike event in Queens, before coming to St. John’s. “Team chemistry is a big thing,” Sampson said. “I feel since we know each other it’s easier to bond, easier to click, off the court and on the court. So I think that has been a big factor.”

Before the season started, the NCAA reviewed his grades and declared him academically ineligible. It also said incoming freshman Norvel Pelle and Amir Garrett were ineligible. Sampson decided to play another year at Brewster after the NCAA’s ruling. He improved his scoring and rebounding to 18.5 points and 11 rebounds per game.  Lavin recruited Sampson and the forward re-committed to St. John’s in 2012.

“I formed a bond with the players when I was going to come here,” Sampson said. “I already formed that bond with coach Lavin and the coaching staff and I love New York so it was easy to come back.” At the beginning of the season Sampson predicted the Red Storm would do something special. “I see ourselves being really good,” he said. “Expectations are definitely higher than last year. We’ll make a lot of noise this year.”

***

Sophomore Phil Greene. Photo Courtesy St. John's Athletic Communications.

Sophomore Phil Greene. Photo Courtesy St. John’s Athletic Communications.

Sophomore Phillip Greene IV, a native of Chicago, is a combo guard, who starred at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he scored more than 24 points per game with 6.3 rebounds and six assists in his senior year. Greene was ranked as the number 41 shooting guard in the nation by ESPNU, and was recruited by Division I schools, such as West Virginia and Arizona State.

Before coming to St. John’s Greene knew of Pointer from AAU games. “We bonded pretty quickly,” Greene said about his future teammate. In his first year at St. John’s in 2011-2012, Greene started 28 games and played an average of 31.1 minutes. He averaged more than 7.8 points and nearly three assists per game.

While his playing time was about the same, 33.0 minutes per game this season, he improved his scoring to 10.1 points per game and 2.6 assists.

In the first game of the season against Detroit, Greene had 20 points, six rebounds and six assists. On Nov. 18, against Baylor he scored 24 points, while adding five rebounds and seven assists. “Phil is the most improved player on our roster,” Lavin said about Greene early in the season.

***

When it comes to improvement, St. John’s had another player who grew in 2012-2013 and who showed he could have a big impact on next year.

For much of the Red Storm’s 2012-2013 season, Sir’Dominic Pointer averaged just more than 21 minutes per game and had a few double-digit scoring performances. But Pointer’s breakout game came when he led the Johnnies to a 71-62 win over DePaul on Jan 19, with 14 points, 11 rebounds and three steals, earning his first double-double of the season.

After that game, Pointer, a 6-5 guard, saw his playing time increase to an average of more than 32 minutes per game. When the Red Storm defeated Rutgers in the next game, Pointer nearly had a quadruple double. The sophomore had 13 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and six steals. “I’ve always said he is the heart and the soul of our team,” Lavin said about Pointer. “Tenacious, disruptive of what opponents are trying to accomplish and he does it in a unique way. But a lot of it is his spirit. He has a purely competitive spirit.”

Pointer’s story started with another sport. Dominique Pointer, his birth name, is from Detroit. His father, Anthony Nolan, was a boxing trainer so Pointer began boxing when he was four years old. But around age 12, right before high school his dad told him to start playing basketball because of his height. “I was always in the gym with my dad,” Pointer said. “I was boxing and I was good, but he thought I’d have a better chance with basketball.”

Before he actually played basketball seriously, Pointer only played pickup games with his friends. He admits that he got into basketball late. In his junior year at Quality Education Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he averaged 16.3 points per game and 5.8 rebounds. In his senior year he improved those numbers to 20 points per game and nine rebounds. He was scouted by top Division I schools such as West Virginia, DePaul and Michigan, according to ESPNU.

But he chose St. John’s after visiting the school, meeting the staff and talking with his future teammates. “We had nine open scholarships so I talked to a few guys and I knew they were coming here so I came here with them,” Pointer said. “We all talked about it and came together.” These players were Harrison, Sampson, Greene and Moe Harkless.

Before coming to St. John’s, Pointer legally changed his given name to Sir’Dominic, saying it was his original name. “My mother named me that from birth,” He said. “It got mixed up in some kind of situation on my birth certificate. They said the doctor didn’t believe her. So they put Dominique instead of putting Sir’Dominic and she didn’t realize that until we left the hospital so it kind of stuck with me.”

In his first year at St. John’s, Pointer played in all 32 games and received praise for his defense and high energy. “Coach Lavin said my energy, it never stops,” Pointer said. “He likes to call me Costco, because I could do a little of everything.”

***

God’sgift Achiuwa, a senior 6-8 forward from Nigeria, played at Erie Community College, before coming to St. John’s. He contributed to the team in 2011-2012 by scoring nine points and grabbing 5.6 rebounds while averaging nearly 30 minutes a game. As one of the Johnnies’ tallest and strongest players and upperclassmen on the team, Achiuwa was expected to be a major factor in 2012-2013.

Despite the rigorous schedule of practice, classes and games, Achiuwa qualified for St. John’s President Society, which is the university’s highest academic honor society. “The main thing about a student athlete is that they learn how to balance both of them,” Achiuwa said. “They shouldn’t worry about which one is more important than the other. Both of them are important at this point in your career.”

At the start of the season, Lavin told the media that he planned to redshirt Achiuwa so he could develop further for 2013-2014. Achiuwa was scheduled to graduate in 2013, but because he enrolled in a five-year program in administrative studies, he could earn his master’s degree from St. John’s in 2014 while he is still on the team.

“That’s like killing two birds with one stone,” Achiuwa said excitedly. “I almost didn’t take it, because I was like I got to sit out one year. But my parents don’t have to pay for school, so they said you better take it.” Lavin said, “Long term it makes more sense for him academically.” Achiuwa represents a contrast between players leaving school early to jump to the NBA and student athletes who stay in school and graduate. Within a six-year period, 2005-2011, St. John’s graduation success rate – men’s basketball players who graduated versus those who entered – has been good. The rate was 86 percent, according to the NCAA.

Lavin has created an NBA culture at St. John’s. Harkless was drafted 15 overall in 2012 by the Philadelphia 76ers and later was traded to Orlando. Lavin’s assistant coach, Dunlap, who served as the interim head coach while Lavin was recovering from cancer surgery, was hired to coach the Charlotte Bobcats for the 2012-2013 NBA season. Lavin also surrounded himself with assistant coaches, who have had experience in the NBA, including Rico Hines, who worked as a player development assistant with the Golden State Warriors and Darrick Martin, who played for 13-years in the NBA. If Achiuwa doesn’t project as a pro, though, he will have two degrees to cushion his re-entry into the real world.

***

When St. John’s defeated UConn , 71-65, at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 6, the Red Storm improved its chances to make the NCAA tournament. The Johnnies were 15-8 for the season and 7-4 in conference with seven games remaining. Five of the next seven games would be against ranked opponents. And the first two games were against Syracuse and Louisville, two of the conference’s leaders.

But on Feb. 10 before St. John’s faced Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, Lavin’s world became undone once more. He learned that his 82-year-old father had died. Lavin left the team and traveled to California to be with his family, leaving Hines to coach the team. That night the Johnnies fell to Syracuse, 77-58. Lavin also missed the game against Louisville four days later, which the Red Storm lost 72-58. After spending about a week with his mother and siblings, Lavin returned to the New York City on the night of Feb. 17. He addressed the team the next morning and conducted practice. Two days later the Johnnies knocked off the University of South Florida, 69-54.

“Obviously losing my father is the most challenging experience I’ve had in my life and this was the most difficult week that I’ve had in my coaching career,” Lavin said. “But with each passing day the challenge becomes more manageable. And you find that the best medicine for a heavy heart is to get back to doing what you love.”

***

At the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, two Red Storm players were under investigation by the NCAA. Marco Bourgault and Orlando Sanchez both had played for Monroe College, a Junior College in the Bronx, and both were international players. Bourgault is from France, while Sanchez is a native of the Dominican Republic. Bourgault was eventually cleared to play after the second game in November and made his debut in the third game against Murray State University. As the season progressed, the mystery as to why Sanchez still was not cleared prompted fans to tweet about his situation.

When St. John’s played against South Carolina, ESPN’s color commentator Kara Lawson said that Sanchez had taken off from basketball to work and support his family, and the NCAA was looking at that to learn if he violated its rules.

In January of 2013, The New York Post said that the NCAA needed documentation to prove that Sanchez suffered from “financial hardship beyond an individual’s control,” and that St. John’s was trying to secure the necessary documents. Eventually on Feb. 22 with only four games remaining, The New York Times reported that Sanchez was ineligible, because he once played the final 3: 38 seconds of a game with the Dominican National team. St. John’s hired Robert Orr, a lawyer familiar with NCAA rules cases, to represent Sanchez to prepare an appeal.

Sanchez, 24, is the oldest player on the Red Storm roster. He is also the tallest at 6-9. He brings two key things that St. John’s has been missing with his height and experience. Sanchez moved to Spain to work as a carpenter with his father when he was 17, so he could send money back to his grandmother in the Dominican Republic.

After four years he saved enough money to travel back to his country. He completed his high school degree and then he became a member of the Dominican National team in July of 2010. In the fall of that year he enrolled at Monroe College and joined the basketball team, where he played for two years. In his final year he averaged 10.2 points and eight rebounds per game, which attracted Lavin. Sanchez said he believed in Lavin in a preseason press conference.  “He’s the greatest coach I’ve ever had in my life,” Sanchez said. “He believes in me and I believe in him.”

On Feb 28, about a week after St. John’s announced Orr would take a look at Sanchez’ case, the forward was cleared by the NCAA. Sanchez was noticeably excited in a press conference the next day. Orr had calculated correctly. Even if Sanchez played a couple minutes with the Dominican National team and played two years at Monroe College, he should still have one year of eligibility remaining. Sanchez would use that remaining year to play next season with the team, instead of just four final regular season games. “I was so surprised,” Sanchez said when Lavin told him about the decision. “I didn’t believe him. I almost cried… I told him I wanted the full season next year to do something great.”

While the re-instatement of Sanchez gave the Johnnies fans hope, the next day Harrison was suspended, shattering their world. The Johnnies then went on a five game losing skid, ending with the loss at Villanova to end the conference tournament. But that loss didn’t mean the team would be putting the basketballs away.

***

After a practice on March 17 following the loss to Villanova in the Big East tournament, the Red Storm and Lavin gathered in the locker room to watch the NIT selection show on ESPNU. The Johnnies weren’t going to make the NCAA tournament, but there was still hope for the NIT. Sixty years ago, the NIT had more significance than the NCAA, but the basketball scandals of the 1950s changed that and New York college basketball as well. St. John’s had a rich history with the NIT through the years and has it five times, more than any team in college basketball. The team had food from Boston Market sent in and watched eagerly. And another chance came. St. John’s was chosen to play St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in the first round. “Last night, it was great to see the joy on the players’ faces,” Lavin said in a press conference the next day.

Because they were ranked lower than St. Joseph’s, the Johnnies had to travel to Philadelphia. St. John’s trailed the Hawks for most of the game. But the Johnnies made a charge within the final 10 minutes to take control. With the game tied and seconds left, Pointer took the inbounds pass and drove up the floor. He wanted to attempt a layup, a high percentage shot, but two defenders cut off his lane. So he stepped back and threw up a midrange jump shot that rattled in at the buzzer for the win. Pointer had an emphatic celebration, pounding his chest as his teammates gathered around him. “Get a layup, make a play,” Pointer was thinking as he ran up the court. “But they cut me off so I hit them with a step back and I had faith in the shot going in so I let it go. It felt good. I’ve never hit a shot like that in college. It was my first one.”

The Red Storm, filled with freshmen and sophomores, had won their first tournament game. “We needed this win,” Sampson said. “It’s been a while since we got a win and this win came at the perfect time.”

That joy would last not more than a week. Just five days later in the second round the Red Storm played against the University of Virginia, a one seed that nearly made the NCAA tournament. St. John’s was behind by 11 points at halftime and eventually lost 68-50. St. John’s played poorly and the loss mirrored the inconsistency of the season. Lavin, as coaches do, looked head.

“I’m trying to develop the kids’ skills and build the program,” Lavin said. “And I knew when I took over it was going to be four years or five years, it takes a long time to turn the culture. But I thought along the way we would be able to do some nice things.” Then he added a bit of coach-speak for the St. John’s students and fans. “There’s a bright future,” he said. “You could see there’s a nice picture there in terms of where we can go if we can continue to develop this group.”

The key word was “if.”

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