Going into this season the St. John's basketball clock had all but stopped on March 24,1985, the day the Johnnies defeated North Carolina State 69-60 in the West Regional to reach the Final Four. Oh, there had been isolated moments to celebrate since then: a trip to the Midwest Regional final (and a 78-61 loss to Duke) in 1991; the 500th victory for lovable coach Lou Carnesecca, who retired in '92; a redemptive senior season in '97-98 for Felipe Lopez, who seemed destined to make the list of can't-miss players who missed. But by and large, the Red Storm—should we add the adoption of a politically correct nickname in '94 to the short list of highlights?—has been struggling to make it back to the top of the heap, alongside teams such as Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Arizona and Connecticut.
This season under first-year coach Mike Jarvis, a self-professed dreamer who wants to make St. John's an elite program again, the Storm had gotten off to a 16-3 start through Jan. 20, good for the No. 8 ranking in the country. But could the Johnnies make the leap to rarer heights? That question would almost certainly be answered during the seven days from Jan. 24 to Jan. 30, a stretch so tough it would've bleached the colors right out of those awful sweaters Carnesecca used to wear.
The week began with a game against No. 2 Duke at Madison Square Garden on the 24th. That was followed by a Big East war three days later against No. 17 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. The climax was a conference game against top-ranked and undefeated Connecticut back at the Garden last Saturday. During this journey of discovery, there were moments of exhilaration and tension, there were heroics and disappointments, there was laughter and anger and—for some—there was even a bit of hanging out at a trendy New York City dance club. SI was on hand to chronicle it all.
SUNDAY, JAN. 24, DUKE PREGAME
Marvis (Bootsy) Thornton, St. John's shooting guard and leading scorer, boards the team bus bound for the Garden wearing Baltimore Orioles orange and black from cap to sweats. "Yo, Cal, what's up?" asks assistant coach Mike Jarvis II. Thornton doesn't attend many games at Camden Yards, but he must, he says, "represent" his hometown. On each of his sneakers is written the word Travis, in honor of his half-brother, who is in prison in Baltimore. "Gotta represent my brother," he says. Representation being important to Thornton, he will on this day represent the growing number of junior college transfers who are having an out-sized impact on the college game this year.
In the locker room the team is loose. This is not an act. Though there is much talk in the media about the fearsome specter of Duke's 6' 8" Elton Brand, the best big man in the country, to most of the St. John's players Brand is just another homeboy. Three of the Johnnies—Ron Artest, Erick Barkley and Reggie Jesse—played with Brand on New York City's famed Riverside Church AAU team. They like Brand and certainly respect his no-nonsense, power-oriented game, but they in no way fear him. "City players are different," says Tyrone Grant, who is from Brooklyn. "I'm not saying we're superior or anything, but we just don't approach things out of fear."
Grant is wearing a black, pinstriped leisure-suitish getup that looks like something out of Austin Powers. More to the point, he is wearing a hard cast on his right hand that protects a broken wrist, which he injured Jan. 9. That means the Johnnies will be going against Duke without their leading rebounder (8.9 per game) and fourth-leading scorer (11.5). Grant is at once a mature leader and class clown, a Jayson Williams in training. When his cell phone rings, which is more often than usual since today is his 22nd birthday, Grant puts his nose in the air, lifts the pinkie on his left hand and effects a high-pitched voice as he answers, "SHA-loooo!" Even his teammates, who have seen the act before, crack up.
After the players leave to warm up, Jarvis sits alone in the locker room, next to the greaseboard listing the man-to-man matchups. Jarvis, 53, left a comfortable situation at George Washington, where he'd been offered a lifetime contract, to take over a program that was in disarray after the dismissal of Fran Fraschilla, with whom university administrators had the dreaded "philosophical differences." The players Jarvis is coaching were all recruited by Fraschilla, but Jarvis has drawn much praise for the way he has brought them together. This game, before a CBS audience in a sold-out Garden, is his biggest test to date, not to mention the tone-setter for the coming make-or-break stretch.
"This game would be horrible, horrible, horrible, if we desperately needed to win it," says Jarvis. "But that's not the case. So I look at it as an opportunity." In the days leading up to the game, the coach had steadfastly refused to mention Grant's absence, not even a We've got to hit the boards harder without Ty. But in the moments before the game he's thinking about it. "We're a couple of years away from having the depth you have to have," says Jarvis. "If an injury like Ty's had happened to Duke? They'd just get another body and go on."
The players file back in and sit quietly in front of the board. Jarvis II, or Deuce as most people at St. John's call him, handles the specific scouting tips: "Stay on [point guard William] Avery's right shoulder. Brand likes to spin back to the baseline after he catches. [Trajan] Langdon likes to pop [off screens] and shoot."
Dad handles the motivation. "You can't let them think they're better than you. Set a tone, send a message." Then Jarvis sends them out with these words: "As my sister Trudy told me when I was considering this job, 'Don't take it if you don't think you can win.' We can win. We're going out to win."