Monday, January 31, 2011

A Long Time Coming

Less than 24 hours later, it's still surreal to see St. John's fans storming the court at Madison Square Garden after Johnnies' unlikely 93-78 upset win over No. 3 Duke. (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)

You can always argue a statement win for any team in any sport. Very rarely, if ever, is there a consensus; but in the case of a once-proud college basketball program that has shown flashes of wanting to return to prominence, those associated with its glorious past need not look any further than the end result yesterday afternoon on a court just as rich in history; and an opponent with four national championships under a man soon to be recognized as the winningest coach of all time, and quite possibly among the greatest ever.

There are many special connotations to St. John's taking down third-ranked and reigning champion Duke yesterday at Madison Square Garden in the 93-78 Red Storm victory that definitely ranks among the biggest upsets in college basketball this season, and chief among them is that all the hype and optimism that engulfed the corner of Union and Utopia back at the end of March when athletic director Chris Monasch made the bold choice of luring former UCLA head man Steve Lavin out of the ESPN broadcast booth and back onto the bench as the successor to Norm Roberts has finally come to fruition.

When Lavin took the job, you didn't have to be a college basketball expert to tell that the charismatic coach hit all the right notes in his first impression. Right away, you could sense that Lavin had a vision to see this program succeed once more; and more importantly, St. John's had a coach that wanted to be there to make it happen after weeks of name upon name deciding against going to Queens to resurrect New York City's college hoops team. Almost a full year later, the aura that some programs would look upon as a potential distraction; one that was embraced by the St. John's community, has only grown exponentially to the point where the Red Storm are on the verge of doing something that has not been done in nine years: Make the NCAA Tournament.

Yesterday, the Johnnies picked up their first victory over Duke since the great Marcus Hatten game back in 2003, one where the former Red Storm star drained a free throw after time expired to give then-coach Mike Jarvis the win in a season that saw St. John's win the NIT, only to have that crown vacated after the infamous Pittsburgh incident that cost Jarvis his job and led to the six-year tenure of Norm Roberts that restored the program's dignity after experiencing its lowest point since playing basketball competitively for the first time back in 1908.

However, this win is for more than just the fans. It's for the players, a group led by ten seniors who feel as though they have something to prove; a group that has grown tired of being the doormat of the Big East and New York metro area. It's for a coaching staff that came together this summer with the daunting and unenviable task of getting a roster of players they would only have under their tutelage for five months to buy into a new system only to have to start from scratch. It's for the nine recruits who will take the court next year with the opportunity to make a name for themselves over the next four years of their lives if they stay in Queens that long. It's for the beat writers and play-by-play announcers that covered this team and its players up close and personal since the day most of them arrived on campus as 18-year-old boys in the fall of 2007 and wrote about their struggles or called their games and watched them grow up through resilient efforts like their back-to-back wins against Georgetown over seven days in March 2009, and demoralizing losses such as DePaul in 2008 and Fordham last month. It's for the young boys and girls that harbor dreams of playing at the highest level. It's for anyone with the ability to be inspired through something so simple and unassuming as a sporting event. It's for a city desperate to embrace a winner on the hardwood after years of frustration with the futility of both their collegiate and professional residents until this season. This is for anyone who believes that anything is possible. This is for those who don't just expect the unexpected, but hope for and greet it with open arms. This is for anyone simply looking for a reason to believe, in anyone or anything.

As a fan, alumnus and media member of St. John's University, words cannot describe how much people like me have waited for a feel-good moment like the one that transpired yesterday in midtown Manhattan. However, I offer this piece of advice for anyone remotely affiliated with the Red Storm in any capacity:

Enjoy the emotional high and savor the memories, because regardless of how this season turns out, one thing remains certain:

It's only just begun. A bright future awaits in the Big Apple, one that we'll all have the pleasure of experiencing together as it unfolds right before our eyes.

Love them or hate them, St. John's is back, and you'll find that most people wouldn't have it any other way.

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