Saturday, April 21, 2012

Farewell To A Legend

Kim Barnes Arico accepts Big East Coach of the Year award during conference tournament in Hartford. After spending ten years restoring Red Storm program, Barnes Arico will take over at Michigan. (Photo courtesy of St. John's University)

Before I go any further, let me inform all of you that this piece is going to be a little more personal and autobiographical than some of my previous work, so please try to be patient with me on this.

Prior to January 2008, all I had known about St. John's women's basketball was the fact that the program existed. In fact, I can vividly remember the first time I did play-by-play for a Red Storm women's game, and admittedly mentioning that I had yet to see the team that was quietly becoming the best-kept secret and greatest success story in the New York basketball landscape. St. John's January 2008 contest against USF served as my first in-person experience of women's basketball, and after my broadcast partner Reginald Bazile helped educate me and anyone else listening to WSJU on St. John's and the team's tendency to regularly start three guards, I slowly became more and more enamored with coach Kim Barnes Arico and her group of underrated stars led by Kia Wright, Tiina Sten, and the "Mac Attack" of Monique McLean, Kelly McManmon and Joy McCorvey; along with newcomers Sky Lindsay and Coco Hart, not to mention role players such as Kristin Moore, Recee Mitchell and Victoria Hodges.

That team's appearance in the WNIT was only the beginning. Over the years, St. John's became home to future greats the likes of Da'Shena Stevens, Nadirah McKenith, Eugeneia McPherson and Shenneika Smith; but while the names and numbers changed, the architect behind a program that had been left for dead took St. John's to four NCAA Tournaments over her ten years at the helm, becoming the winningest coach in program history along the way. Included in that decade of dominance were three straight trips to the field of 64, the most recent of which culminating in St. John's first-ever regional semifinal appearance. That was just the icing on an extravagant and rich cake that embodies St. John's women's basketball, a program that now has produced a Big East Coach of the Year and consistent victories against the Who's Who of the women's game, chief among those victories an upset win against the University of Connecticut, regarded as the New York Yankees of women's hoops. The Red Storm's 57-56 victory over the Lady Huskies on February 18th was made even more memorable considering it came on UConn's home court at Gampel Pavilion, ending what was a 99-game UConn home winning streak.

However, as the old adage states, all good things must come to an end.

Today, St. John's is without their charismatic leader, as Kim Barnes Arico has left the corner of Union and Utopia to work similar magic at the University of Michigan, where she will be introduced on Monday afternoon as the new coach of the Wolverines. As a St. John's alumnus and broadcaster, I had become relatively close to Barnes Arico and her team through covering them over the years, and can say that she was one of my favorite people to be around. Over ten years, Barnes Arico turned a nonexistent doormat into a national powerhouse, and made it seem relatively effortless by exhibiting a calm and determined persona that always brought the best out of everyone who came into contact with her.

I am almost certain that Barnes Arico was offered far more than she was paid at St. John's, and having been essentially raised by a single mom after my parents separated when I was 13, I can definitely relate to Barnes Arico; a mother of three who turns 42 in August, wanting greater financial security for her family. I cannot blame her for making the decision in that regard. As far as perhaps having accomplished everything possible at St. John's, I also have no hard feelings there, as hardly anyone could have scripted the fairy tale that was authored in Queens over the last decade. Let's be honest, who would have ever pictured St. John's defeating Connecticut, Notre Dame and Rutgers on a regular basis before 2002, when Barnes Arico arrived in Queens?

Many will point to this past season as the beginning of the Barnes Arico legacy, but that story began in 2006. That was the year that the Red Storm, led by Wright and McLean, made their return to the NCAA Tournament and defeated California in the first round before narrowly falling to eventual national champion Maryland in a game Reginald Bazile still recollects as if it just went final last night.

Most fans will miss Kim's competitive fire and her determination to win at all costs, but I personally will miss the little things that made her so easily approachable. Most of my greatest memories of Barnes Arico took place off the court, from discussing her training for last year's New York City Marathon; which she finished in just over four hours, to her colorful postgame press conferences. Honestly, those gatherings will not be the same without either of her daughters sitting on her lap, or the occasional question from her son Trevor, which added a much-needed human element to the competition on the court.

People have asked for my reaction to Barnes Arico leaving, and although I am still in a state of shock; I feel in some ways like a parent, one whose child is just going away to college to start their freshman year. As a broadcaster, St. John's women's basketball was like a child to me, one that I saw in its infancy and continued to watch grow through adolescence and adulthood. Replacing Kim is no easy task for whomever Chris Monasch decides to entrust this budding dynasty of a program to; be it Barnes Arico's top assistant Joe Tartamella, or another name who could crawl out of the woodwork in much the same way Steve Lavin did when he was brought in as the replacement for Norm Roberts two years ago.

The University of Michigan's iconic fight song begins with the verse "Hail to the victors valiant, hail to the conquering heroes." "The Victors" also hails the "leaders and (the) best" within its hallowed lyrics, and the classic 1990s movie "The Sandlot" bears the powerful advice that "heroes get remembered," "but legends never die."

Kim Barnes Arico is all of these wrapped up into one: A victor valiant. A conquering hero. A leader, a hero, a legend; but most of all to the St. John's basketball program and the fans that she now departs as the all-time winningest coach of, the best. There is no doubt in my mind that she will do for Michigan what she spent the last decade doing for St. John's and a fan base that helped her build something really special out of nothing.

If you appreciate success stories the way I do, all you can do is look back and simply give thanks, while extending your best wishes from a distance.

From someone truly blessed to have covered your program for five years as a broadcaster, student, writer, and fan, I say this:

Go get 'em, Coach, and thanks for the memories.

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