St. John's brings back nostalgia
Going to watch a basketball game at Madison Square Garden was a real downer
Once a college basketball power, St. John's has been relegated to has-been status
A lady never reveals her age. But since I've been known to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon straight out of the can while watching NASCAR with a horde of foul-mouthed dudes, the classification has been understandably questioned from time to time. So here you go: I'm turning 30 this year. And yes, it's a bit of a problem.
I've enjoyed my 20s, despite working incredibly hard, and would very much like to remain here. It's been quite a nice place to live. Successes in one's 20s are seen as laudably premature, and mistakes are lovingly forgiven. But I've been assured by dozens of famous actresses and countless self-help gurus that my 30s and 40s will be even better, and I think they're all lying. Right to my still un-botoxed face.
Getting older is a clumsy and disheartening process. I no longer have the energy for all-night benders, and everyone around me is suddenly procreating. Increased fiscal responsibilities and a whole new set of medical exams I'll now need annually are constant reminders that I am, in fact, mortal.
But nothing has been more of a downer than a recent trip to watch a college basketball game at Madison Square Garden.
When I was in high school I'd watch Marcus Camby at UMass, Tim Duncan at Wake Forest, and Elton Brand and Shane Battier at Duke and think, these are men. They were massive and lumbering, and carried their bulging muscles up and down the court with the weight of grown-ups who had far greater responsibilities than I. And even though Battier and I were the same age (and we went to middle school together) on television he looked 40 to me.
But as I sat courtside the Garden on Sunday to watch St John's play Louisville, I was the one who felt 40. Coming face to face (and at one frightening point, ball-to-face) with these elfin collegians, who seemed to flaunt their uncanny agility and boyish swagger, felt unnecessarily mean. Kudos on the boundless energy, and enjoy the frivolity of 14 tattoos. And thanks very much, adorable, pint-sized Red Storm cheerleaders who don't look old enough to babysit, for piling on. Is it too much to ask that my front-row seats don't come with a big gulp-sized ration of depression?
Thus in order to refrain from walking out of the Garden and throwing myself in front of an oncoming cab (driven by someone who's also probably younger than I am), I decided a change of seat was imperative. I needed to immediately recreate the comforting distance of watching these infants on television. So I hauled my aging betrayal of a body up a few flights to sit with Nick and Dan Marino, a father-son team who are diehard, lifelong fans of St John's basketball.
Nick, a Long Island attorney, inherited season tickets from his father, a St John's alumnus who started taking his son to games back in 1962, just three years before the great Lou Carnesecca would descend on the Queens campus. Dan, a 23-year-old Albany graduate who works for the government, has been going to games for the past 20 years. And Dan's friend George Layer, a 24-year-old high school math teacher, has been their constant companion.
At the onset, meeting up with two twentysomethings may not have been the best plan. As I sat down next to them, I worried that Dan and George could see in me the fragile mania of a woman on the verge. But as they began to wax poetic about their favorite team like grandfathers ushering their offspring's offspring into the storied corners of their world, I knew I had found just the right fans to turn this day around for me.
They spoke with the gravitas and well-worn fandom of loyalists who had been through a war. There had been serious carnage in the two decades that Dan and George had been going to St John's games, and, as a New York Mets fan, I could relate.
"I've been through the scandals, all the troubles," said Dan.
In 1983, St John's established the Red-White Club to help support the basketball team, and Nick's seats were moved a dozen rows back to accommodate club donors.
But through it all, they have remained devout. "I just hope they get better," said Dan. "We're not fair-weather fans. We have loyalty. We're rooting for them for the name across the jersey."
As the game wore on, and Rick Pitino's boys held St John's to a fractional lead that would become a growing deficit, Nick, Dan and George alternated tales of regret and disappointment with ones of awe and pride.
"I was here in 1999 for the best college basketball game I've ever seen," said Dan. "It was the overtime game against Duke when Ron Artest had a three-pointer at the buzzer to put it into overtime."
They talked about old traditions that made games great. "They used to have 'flag boy' in the 90s," said Dan. "He would run back and forth down the court and the fans would count how many times he could go. All those rituals are gone now."
They recalled games against UConn, which is still a great rivalry no matter what their records.
They discussed the successes of Norm Roberts -- "Well, he's better than Mike Jarvis," George said. And they sunk into a nostalgic reverence for the legend that is Carnesecca.
"There was a time, a long time, that New York was St John's basketball," said Nick. And of course he's right. In 101 years of basketball, St John's is the seventh-winningest team in college basketball history, and has sent 59 players to the NBA draft. The school has two Wooden Award winners and six players in the Basketball Hall of Fame. And this team that plays in the greatest arena on earth, they hope, can be great again some day.
"The coaching staff really cares," George said. "They're honestly trying to turn the team around." But he's not a kid anymore, and George has seen it all, so he adds a careful and cautious caveat for good measure. "Next year they should be better, but not where they used to be. They'll be rebuilding for a while."
In the end, St John's lost, 60-47, but I knew that the score didn't tell the whole story for Nick, Dan and George, who would be back for the next home game to watch their team fight the good fight. And I remembered that there's something about the experience and wisdom that comes with age, and that the accumulation of memories only makes a fan better, less naive, more passionate.
They had stories to tell, and the stories made me want to be a part of their Red Storm experience. And thanks to some twentysomethings who seem to be far more mature than I am, for one day, I was. So I can forgive the basketball team for their rude awakening -- really, I'm just jealous. But next time, I'll remember to sit a few rows back.