It was a weekend made for Gotham. Some crude things were uttered behind closed doors and a few were said out in the open. There was some pushing, too, and hurtling of objects, including the timely flinging of a basketball by a guy with a pedigree—hometown, Beaver Falls, Pa.—that any sports-minded New Yorker could love. And when the Big East tournament ended Saturday night with St. John's beating Syracuse 70-69 in a New York, New York finale, a city that holds the game close to its heart had been bewitched by two of its own.
They call Walter Berry of St. John's the Truth and Dwayne Washington of Syracuse the Pearl. Not since the late '50s, when Roger Brown and Connie Hawkins hooked up in its high school gyms and schoolyards, has the city turned out two quite so accomplished contemporaries. Berry and Washington are both juniors, incongruous in physique and unorthodox in technique, who have been touted, trashed and touted again. For these three days in March, each was saddled with a touch of the flu. Yet the Pearl scored 68 points and made 29 assists to win the MVP award. And the Truth snuffed out Pearl's last rush to the basket at Madison Square Garden to secure the come-from-behind victory for the Redmen.
The win gave St. John's the first seed in the NCAA West Regional and raised the possibility that these Johnnies—despite the loss of three starters, including two first-round draft choices, one of whom was College Player of the Year—are better than last year's Final Four edition. Credit must go to coach Lou Carnesecca, who has been criticized for his stodgy system. ( Washington even says he passed up a chance to go to St. John's because of its deliberate style.) This season Carnesecca has unleashed the Redmen, who have scored 77 points a game.
And Carnesecca, realizing he no longer would have 7-foot Bill Wennington to anchor his signature 2-3 zone defense, picked the brain of Arizona coach Lute Olson over the summer. The result: a 1-1-3 defense that keeps point guard Mark Jackson pressuring the ball and takes advantage of the unusual quickness of Berry, Willie Glass and Shelton Jones across the baseline.
On Saturday, the Redmen had to add a 1-3-1 trap to make up a deficit—13 points early in the second half—facing them nearly the whole game. "At half-time, Coach said, 'You know what you've gotta do,' and I said some foul language," said Glass, the swingman from Atlantic City who, when he's off the court, wears several casino vaults' worth of loot around his neck, including an enormous gold key inlaid with diamonds and the words THE WORLD IS MINE.
St. John's had already come from far back several times this season to win. And they had consistently come through foul trouble, despite their thin bench. "It has to be one of my most satisfying teams," Carnesecca says. "They know their roles. No one has delusions of grandeur."
By way of example, Carnesecca called timeout with :19 left and the Redmen trailing 69-68. "He told whoever was in a good position to go ahead and take [the shot] not to look for one guy," Glass said. Added Berry, "Last year we would have set up a play for Chris [Mullin]." So it could have been anyone who found a soft spot in the right hindquarters of the Orangemen's 2-3, who leaped in front of 6'9" Wendell Alexis and gave the Johnnies their only lead of the game with just eight seconds left. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim admitted he was surprised by who ultimately played the hero. "I thought they'd get it inside to Walter. I didn't expect Rowan."
Ron Rowan is the guy from Joe Namath's hometown who was such a legend as a sandlot quarterback that Pitt recruited him in the ninth grade. When his mom wouldn't let him play high school football, he turned to hoops. He had little success at Notre Dame and fared only slightly better after transferring to St. John's, shooting a shaky 46% last season. Now he's a 54% shooter, vindicating the thousands of corner jumpers he lofted at the hoop in the driveway of his parents' rustic hillside home. "If I missed a shot from the right corner, I had to chase it about 80 yards down a hill," he says. So what's Alexis and a little pressure compared with that? Says Villanova's Mark Plansky, "Rowan's the most serene player in the country."
Berry, the winner of the John Wooden award, is the best player in the country, which is quite a bit more than could have been said last season, when one scribe went so far as to write that the Truth should be "fed from a dish on the floor." With the middle to himself, Berry has used the moves of a dervish, a soft and sinistral shot and an illegal right-arm, midair clear-out (which, Villanova's Harold Pressley says, "must be a good move because the refs never call it") to become a force. "He sleazes his way into the middle," marveled Villanova coach Rollie Massimino after his Wildcats lost to St. John's 75-64 in the semifinals.
"Berry is great," said Georgetown coach John Thompson. "But I've never seen a player come as far—from not playing to doing what he's done—as Mark Jackson." Jackson has made a career of playing in shadows, from the Pearl's as a New York high schooler to Mullin's and the Truth's as a collegian. No wonder his mother, who is her son's press agent, insists that he be known by his handle, "Action." "He's like Dick McGuire," says Carnesecca, recalling another era and another St. John's guard from New York. "He's always thinking pass first."