St. John's University, otherwise known in the box scores as St. John's, parenthesis, N.Y., parenthesis, has long been an anomaly in college basketball: the plain team in the glamour town, a heavyweight tradition with a lightweight rep. Geographically, St. John's of N.Y. in truth is St. John's of Queens, which is altogether different. Historically, the Redmen have won more games than all but three schools, have a higher winning percentage than all but two and have played in more postseason tournaments than anyone. Still, this season is the first time, according to Coach Lou Carnesecca, that "our butts are hanging in Macy's window."
Translated from the Italian or the Manhattanese, or whatever, this means that grand things are expected of the Redmen—and they had better produce, beginning with last week's home-court season-opening Joe Lapchick Memorial tournament.
Carnesecca is a twinkling, ebullient sort—"our paisano leprechaun," the St. John's people call him—whose 232 victories in 11 seasons are testimony to his coaching skill. Yet his eternal expressions of pessimism concerning the fortunes of his team annually impede the Redmen's progress in the rankings, if not on the court.
With all five starters returning from a team that jelled in the second half of last season, won 21 games and came within a missed open jump shot—followed by misses of two desperation shots—of beating Penn and advancing to the NCAA final four, there was reason to believe that this winter Carnesecca would field another in his long line of nice, polite, smart, well-drilled, dull outfits. Then last Friday night crafty Looie unveiled two brand-new, high-profile weapons, and the reverberations could be heard all the way out to the teeming expressways by Alumni Hall.
During the introductions for the first game of the tournament, St. John's vs. Oral Roberts, the Redmen's 6'4" junior, Curtis Redding, came roaring off the bench with his arms spread and his fists clenched. A Brooklyn kid who had played his first two varsity seasons for Kansas State and then transferred, Redding was telling the world he had come home. Then lefthander David Russell, an angular 6'6" freshman from-Bellport on Long Island, where a nearly shaved head must be all the rage, entered the game with seven minutes gone, scored two tip-ins, blocked a shot and unloaded a savage dunk, making everybody but the visitors ecstatic that he had stayed home.
With Russell and Redding scoring 26 points and controlling 16 rebounds between them, St. John's went on to defeat Oral Roberts 90-78. They did so without their leader, Reggie Carter, who was sitting out a one-game suspension imposed by the NCAA for playing in a nonsanctioned playground game last summer.
"Even without Carter, St. John's doesn't have any glaring weakness," said Oral Roberts Coach Ken Hayes. "This Russell is awesome. I don't know where he came from on the dunks. They may have to invent a new foul: in air too long."
Too long is the time New Yorkers have had to wait for a team such as this edition of the Redmen, a tribe of good home-grown players. In the past such lads usually up and hightailed it to bigtime schools far away. Three of these Redmen did, too, but they've all come home to roost. Carter played a season at Hawaii. He came back. Bernard Rencher, the other starting guard, played a season at Notre Dame. He came back. Redding, a backcourt sub at least for the moment, spent two seasons in Kansas' Manhattan, scoring more than 1,000 points, making the all-Big Eight team, leading cheers and engaging in Fights, getting hot dogs showered on him at away games. He came back, too, talking a blue streak.
"The reputation can work for me or against me, but I'm starting over," says Redding. "I'm here to prove it's all true. Coming off the bench? Hmmmmm. Now that bothers me. But the coach says I'll play a lot anyway. So I figure we'll make the final four."
Brash outbursts are not the norm at St. John's, but for Redding an exception obviously has been made. "Curtis is a basketball junkie, a fanatic," says Assistant Coach Carmine Calzonetti. "Remember he sat out a whole year. What anxiety! This week he's been like a Casanova who hasn't made love in a year." (This particular simile was weakened considerably the day before Thanksgiving when Desiree Redding gave birth to a baby daughter.)