- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

Whether it helped make New York City the center of the college basketball universe or led the rebirth of the game in New York and other East Coast cities three decades later, St. John’s University carried a tradition unlike others.

The operative word is “lofty,” as if the small, Catholic school in Queens was special and different, supposedly above the various forms of malfeasance and general crud that have afflicted the game seemingly forever.

Actually, it was. Which is why recent events at St. John’s have packed such an emotional wallop, and not just in and around the close-knit neighborhood of the main campus in Jamaica, N.Y.

“It’s unfortunate with all the good things that have happened at St. John’s — the kids they’ve had, the tradition, their influence on the game — that when something like this happens it’s remembered more than all the good the institution has done,” said former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who, along with ex-St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca, helped put the Big East Conference on the map.

Programs routinely lose games, fire coaches, endure off-court problems and get rid of players. It is hardly routine when it happens at St. John’s all at once.

Since early December, when junior Willie Shaw was suspended after he was caught smoking marijuana with former star Marcus Hatten, the news in Jamaica has gone from bad to strange to awful. Shortly thereafter, coach Mike Jarvis was fired, the first Big East coach to be dumped during the season. Going into tomorrow night’s game against Georgetown at Madison Square Garden, the Red Storm are 0-10 in Big East play.

At 5-16 overall, St. John’s is set for the worst season in its history, and the team, now coached by former assistant Kevin Clark, is down to a minimal roster of nine, including four walk-ons. That’s because of the knockout punch, a nasty incident centered around a Pittsburgh strip club last month and led to the expulsion, suspension and/or voluntary departure of five players, including starters Grady Reynolds, Elijah Ingram and Abe Keita.

All this has touched a nerve that reaches beyond the world of fun and games. Former New York governor Mario Cuomo, a proud St. John’s grad who played baseball and taught classes there, told the New York Times, “It’s a city school, a religious school. This is a blow to their mission, and they feel embarrassed because they could not keep fundamental order. Not winning championships is one thing, but not living by the rules is an other. Now we’re showing we’re willing to pay the price for upholding those rules.”

Others with university links chose not to share their thoughts. Chris Mullin, perhaps the school’s most celebrated player, is an executive with the Golden State Warriors. A Warriors spokesman said Mullin is not addressing the issue. Bill Wennington, a former teammate of Mullin’s who now broadcasts Chicago Bulls games on radio, did not return phone calls.

Not long ago, Madison Square Garden vice-president Joel Fisher said, “I have all the confidence in the world they’ll bring the program back to the prominence it had.”

Fisher said this after Jarvis, who came to St. John’s from George Washington University in 1998, was fired after the team started out 2-4. However, Fisher’s comments were before six players broke curfew in Pittsburgh and went to a strip club called Club Erotica. Three of them brought a woman back to their hotel room, paid her for sex and were later dismissed from the team.

After that incident, a spokesman for Fisher said he had nothing to say about St. John’s.

But the 79-year-old Carnesecca did. He attended a game against Boston College (an 89-61 loss) wearing one of his trademark sweaters and vented to reporters. “We’re bleeding here. All of New York City is bleeding. … We’ve taken a hit,” he said, among other things.

This is an unusual situation, even to more dispassionate outsiders. ESPN commentator Dick Vitale, who criticized Jarvis’ firing on the air and on the network’s Web site, calls the series of events “embarrassing and humiliating.”

Veteran NBA assistant John Bach has a particular closeness with St. John’s. He was baptized in a church located on the school’s old Brooklyn campus. He graduated from St. John’s Prep and was recruited by legendary coach Joe Lapchick. He played pickup games in the St. John’s gym. Later, as Fordham’s coach, Bach competed against St. John’s back when college basketball in New York City was a big deal.

“Knowing their long and proud history, it’s sad to see a program suffer so much in terms of its dignity,” said Bach, a Chicago Bulls assistant who filled the same job with the Wizards the last two years.

St. John’s was a program “that stood up to not only everyone in the city, but they went out and competed nationally and did so well,” Bach said. “This has been a sad note because its history was not only so long but so successful. I don’t know where they went wrong. They always had a proud basketball tradition, and suddenly it’s crumbled.”

But St. John’s, like most high-profile programs, has been represented by less than model citizens at various times. Walter Berry, one of the stars of the Mullin teams of the mid-1980s, was hardly a saint. Mullin himself later admitted he had a drinking problem. During the point-shaving scandals of the early 1950s, which ruined both the integrity of college basketball and the stature of the game in New York, Bach said there were whispers about St. John’s, but nothing was proved.

As Madison Square Garden faded as a college basketball mecca and the sport was relegated to second-class status in the city, the program still flourished under Carnesecca, who was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. In 24 seasons that covered two coaching stints — 1965-70 and 1973-92 — his teams won at least 20 games 18 times and was an instant Big East power when the conference was created in 1979.

But instability prevailed after he retired. St. John’s went through three coaches — Brian Mahoney, Fran Fraschilla and Jarvis, each of whom was fired. Jarvis’ first team, composed mainly of players recruited by Fraschilla, advanced to the Elite Eight of the 1999 NCAA tournament. His next team won the Big East championship. But decline set in. Attendance dropped. Early this season in games at Alumni Hall, the on-campus arena, fans were chanting, “Fire Jarvis.”

Yet it’s hard to find anyone who believes St. John’s president Donald Harrington should have taken them at their word.

“While I don’t condone the actions of the players, I look at the administration and say you don’t destabilize a program by firing the coach for no good reason,” said former Duke player Jay Bilas, an ESPN commentator. “When I say no good reason, it wasn’t like there was mismanagement or egregious actions on the part of Mike Jarvis. He just wasn’t winning, and he had a personality conflict with members of the administration.

“The way it was related to me, it became personal. I feel it was inappropriate to fire someone and pitch the season out the window. College basketball is not pro basketball. I’m not sure it had any other effect than to destabilize the program. They didn’t fire Mike Jarvis to get the right guy. They fired Mike Jarvis to fire Mike Jarvis.”

Depending on the interpretation of his remarks, Harrington might blame Jarvis for the problems. He cited the “culture of the team” as a factor that led to the Pittsburgh incident and others. But the bigger questions facing St. John’s seem to be: Can it recover? And how?

“St. John’s is fortunate in that the tradition of the program has built up so much equity in and around New York that given the right [coach] they should be able to get it back relatively quickly,” said Fraschilla, an ABC and ESPN commentator.

“St. John’s still has a great tradition, it still has Madison Square Garden, and it still has, more than ever, playing time for the New York City high school kid. In New York, there are, on average, 10 kids good enough to play in the Big East every year. Five of them automatically go away from home, but five always want to stay close to home. And if you give them a good enough reason, they will. That’s St. John’s biggest priority.”

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