The fall of St. John's (cont.)
Of all the near-misses during Roberts' tenure, none stung worse than Doug Wiggins' decision to renege on his oral commitment to St. John's one week before the 2005 early signing period. Wiggins, a speedy 5-11 point guard from East Hartford, Conn., chose to sign with UConn, a decision Wiggins says he doesn't regret even though he transferred to UMass last spring. Not only did Wiggins' change of heart cost Roberts his incoming point guard, but it also came too late for the coach to find a replacement.
"I loved the coaching staff at St. John's. They were with me from Day 1," Wiggins said. "I loved the campus, the facilities, everything. I would have had everything there except the winning. I feel nowadays, players are focusing on the big schools, the ones that are winning. No one cares about what St. Johns used to do, they care about what's going on now."
Thus has Roberts found himself in a classic Catch-22. "People will say to me, 'Norm, just get good and everybody will help you,'" he said. "It's really the other way around. You're supposed to help someone get good."
While Roberts has not been able to land the program changer he needs, he has made palpable progress over the last two recruiting cycles. The eight-man class he inked in 2006 has demonstrated clear potential on the court. The group included the highest-rated recruit Roberts has signed, 6-8 forward Justin Burrell from the Bronx, who averaged 10.8 points and 5.9 rebounds as a freshman. This year, Roberts signed two good players during the early signing period in November, most notably Omari Lawrence, a 6-4 guard from the Bronx who is playing for South Kent (Conn.) Prep. And he remains in the hunt for what could potentially be the breakthrough blue-chipper he so desperately needs, 6-5 Brooklyn guard Lance Stephenson. Unfortunately, Stephenson won't decide where he's going to college until the spring.
Roberts might have had better results early on if he had hired a local AAU coach to be his assistant, but he was reluctant to step into the internecine turf wars that are endemic to the city's basketball culture. "The first time I mentioned I might hire [a certain coach], I got five calls from people saying, Do not hire that guy. I was like, I thought everybody liked him," Roberts said. "The bottom line with New York is, everybody has an agenda. Everybody thinks he can coach the Knicks. So no matter what you do, people are going to be unhappy."
This fall, Roberts finally plucked two young coaches from the local AAU ranks. Oswald Cross, who coached Burrell and Lawrence when he was with the Long Island Panthers, was hired as an administrative assistant; and Kimani Young, who ran the up-and-coming New Heights program in the Bronx that has several highly regarded prep underclassmen, was brought in as head team manager and video coordinator. The hiring of Young raised eyebrows because eight years ago he served 12 months in a Pennsylvania prison for possessing 96 pounds of marijuana with intent to distribute. Monasch, the athletic director, said that after looking into Young's conduct in the years since he left prison, the St. John's administration "at the highest levels" gave Roberts the OK to bring him on board.
The suggestion has been quietly made in basketball circles that Roberts may simply be too nice to succeed as coach at St. John's, that his reputed refusal to operate in recruiting's gray and not-so-gray areas is hindering him. Upon hearing this, Roberts delivers a passionate response. "We have to do it the way we're doing it right now and stay true to who we are," he said. "If it doesn't work, I won't be here, but nobody is going to say Norm Roberts got down and dirty. I am not going down like that."
In the end, Roberts knows this is a results business. The people who support St. John's basketball don't want to hear excuses about why the team isn't winning. They just want the winning. Roberts can only hope that he has built up enough good will to buy himself the time he needs to turn things around. "He needs people to have patience, and that's very hard to get today," Carnesecca said. "I've always been impressed with him. I think he's demanding, he's an excellent tactician, he's a tremendous hard worker. I have no doubt that he has the ability to coach."
Times may have changed since Carnesecca roamed the sidelines in his trademark sweater, but the fundamentals of basketball are timeless. When asked what advice he would give to Roberts, Carnesecca doesn't even need a New York minute to think about it. His reply is quick and easy, and it's as old as the game itself.
"Get good players," he said.