Wednesday, December 20, 2017

SJU-Iona and Army-Air Force games evoke memories of once upon a time

By Andy Lipton
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops

NEW YORK -- During the first five minutes of the second half of the St. John’s-Iona men’s
basketball game in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden, the Red Storm
hurtled down court with the speed and strength of Amtrak Metroliners – the trains
that arrive and depart daily from Penn Station deep under the Garden court - giving
credence to their slogan, “We Are New York’s Team.”

After that game, Mary Omitiga, a young college reporter from Iona’s school
newspaper; The Ionian, helped elicit sentiments and evoke memories of the history of St. John’s basketball with her poignant question to Iona coach Tim Cluess, that further

solidified the veracity of that slogan. Coach Cluess was asked what it meant to him to play St. John’s, given his relationship with the school.

You see, Tim and his three older brothers; Hank, Greg, and Kevin, all played for St.
John’s spanning three decades, at different times through the years, starting with Hank in 1963 who played for both Joe Lapchick and Lou Carnesecca and ending with Tim; whose stay at St. John’s lasted a few years, his last season being 1980-81.

And they all played on some terrific St. John’s teams. All four brothers played on St. John’s teams that played in the Holiday Festival, back when it was a tournament. Hank’s 1964-65 team won the Holiday Festival and NIT. All of the brothers’ St. John’s teams played in the NIT. Greg played for Carnesecca and Frank Mulzoff, playing from the 1969-70 through the 1971-72 seasons. Kevin, who played from the 1972-73 through 1974-75 season; and Tim, both played for Carnesecca. 

When I think of the Cluess brothers, I also think of the McIntyre brothers; Bob and Ken, who both played with Hank, and Dennis, who played with Kevin. I'm not sure there are bigger families more closely associated with St. John’s basketball than the Cluess and McIntyre families. Tim’s sister, Mary Ann, also attended St. John’s.

From Tim Cluess’ heartfelt response to the young Iona reporter’s question, close at one point to welling up, it meant the world to him to play St. John’s. He talked about the many friendships he and his family had at St. John’s, all the people he knew who came to this game, and the people he spoke to recently who he hadn’t spoken to in a long time because of the game. And what Tim did not mention, but had to underlie many of his emotions, was the profoundly sad loss of his brothers Greg and Kevin to cancer many years earlier when they were young men.

Iona, itself a New York college with a proud basketball tradition, got hit by that Red
Storm Metroliner to begin the second half, after being tied at the half 25-25. After the first five minutes and 23 seconds of the second half, the Johnnies took a 44-29 point lead, taking control of the game. With 11 minutes left in the game, St. John’s had a 20-point lead. Iona would not quit, and showed resilience in coming back to within seven points with five minutes left and possession of the ball. St. John’s won by 10, 69-59.

But alas, there was another New York team in the Festival, Army, the military academy with a tradition all its own; a national one, if not international, at that.

The Army basketball team will have to be reckoned with this season. They were a pleasure to watch.

It’s a young and deep team that keeps moving on defense, helps each other on defense, attacks on offense, whether getting up the court quickly in transition or in half court via player movement, ball movement or dribble attack. They have some size. And they are not afraid to shoot the three.

It’s a team that literally keeps moving its feet, constantly closing down driving lanes as players helped each other defensively on the perimeter, Air Force could not drive through and were forced to take outside shots not to their liking. Weak side Army defenders were sagging in the middle, always mindful of helping out. Army had 10 steals and Air Force had 21 turnovers. Offensively, the Army players pivoted beautifully with the ball, took full strides
between their dribbles, and moved without the ball.

A little more than half of Army ‘s 61 shots were threes. They shot 16-of-31 from the
three-point line. They were led in scoring by two of their starting guards, junior Jordan Fox and sophomore Tommy Funk, with 16 points each.

They start one senior; 6’7” forward Luke Morrison. Starting forward Jacob Kessler, whose constantly hustling made him seem omnipresent, is a junior, and center Matt Wilson, a 6”9’, 235 pound sophomore, gives them length and bulk. Alex King, a 6’8” freshman, also gives Army length off the bench. Freshman guard Tucker Blackwell, junior forward John Emezie, and freshman Babacar Thiombane came off the bench to play significant minutes for Army.

Any time two of our nation’s military academies play each other, it’s a big deal for the teams, and its schools and alums. Army won bragging rights this year as they resoundingly beat Air Force, 79-54.

You have to love Army and Air Force for having so many players on their roster, giving many players an opportunity to be part of a college basketball team. Army has 22 players and Air Force 20. The last time I saw so many players on a team was in ninth grade at Halsey Junior High, and the players on that Halsey bench were as spirited and happy as you will find.

In the first half, Army coach Jimmy Allen played 11 men, and Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich played 12, substituting in and out as frequently as people going through the subway turnstiles at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue.

Before the game, the Army men’s basketball team strength and conditioning coach, Courtney Walden, remarked to me how beautiful the Garden looked. She made me realize that I had come to take the Garden for granted. It wasn’t always that way.

The last time I had seen Army play in person was in the spring of 1969, the consolation game of the NIT, Army against Tennessee at Madison Square Garden. It was called the new Garden then, having replaced the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets a little more than a year earlier.

Coach Cluess alluded to the old Garden when asked by another reporter about the significance of playing in the Holiday Festival, once a major college basketball tournament at the Garden that started in 1952. He talked about the days when the Garden was filled with smoke and fans dressed in suits and ties.

The new Garden was one of the first large modern arenas of its time. It was beautiful, with colored fabric seats that were wider, more comfortable and felt plush compared to the hard wooden and narrower seats of the old Garden. The seats were colored depending on which tier you sat in. The blue seats were the cheap seats that were all the way and very high up. As you went down to the court from up high, it was the blue seats followed by the green, yellow, orange, and red seats. Seating in the green seats was a luxury as a teenager. But for that Army-Tennessee game I sat, for the first, and I think, only time, in the red seats, a row or two behind the far end of the Army bench. My mom’s cousin, Mershe (his name his Moishe but never seem to be pronounced that way), got my cousin Allan and I tickets.

The Army coach was a young Bobby Knight. His back looked massive as he sat on the Army bench. Knight counted Joe Lapchick as one of his mentors. Current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was the captain of that Army team.

This past Sunday, I was somewhat awestruck as I watched Army and Air Force warm up before their game. After graduation, the players would be going into the armed forces of the United States, taking a tremendous amount of bravery, sacrifice, and dedication to do so. This also has a color scheme associated with it: Red, White and Blue.


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