Jumping To Conclusions: The Wheels Are Coming Off The St. John’s Rebuilding BusPosted by mlemaire on December 9th, 2011
In 2010, after six lackluster seasons — including zero NCAA Tournament appearances — under head coach Norm Roberts, St. John’s basketball needed to make a switch. But the program didn’t just need a coach who could develop players and win games. They needed a walking, talking defibrillator. Someone who could inject some life and enthusiasm back into one of the country’s most storied programs. What they got was Steve Lavin, an affable former television personality with plenty of coaching pedigree and the desire to talk to everybody he ran into.
It didn’t matter that Lavin hadn’t coached college basketball since he was relieved of his duties by UCLA in 2003, the buzz was back. Red Storm Athletic Director Chris Monasch said, with Lavin, “St. John’s is poised to recapture its legacy as New York’s college team.” Lavin wasted no time, hitting the recruiting trail running and accepting every interview that came his way. He assembled an experienced and energetic staff and recruits took interest.
Last season, coaching a roster that boasted nine seniors, including the team’s top six scorers, Lavin earned plenty of praise and accolades as he led the Red Storm to a 21-12 record and its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2002. Everyone knew the team would take a step back this season due to the mass graduation but most figured it was merely a bump in the road. After all, Lavin was bringing in the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class, a nine-man behemoth that had a player or two at almost every position. And thanks to Lavin’s effusive personality and charm, high-ranked recruiting classes were expected to become the status quo at St. John’s in short order. Then, rather quickly, the bus started to break down.
First, in May, just one month after Lavin announced that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, Lavin’s first recruit and a player who started 27 games for the Red Storm as a freshman, Dwayne Polee, announced he would be transferring back to the West Coast to be closer to his ailing mother. Then in September, three highly touted members of the monster recruiting class —Norvel Pelle, Amir Garrett, and JaKarr Sampson — were all ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA. Both Sampson and Pelle have officially de-committed from St. John’s since, although both claim the Red Storm are still in the running for their services. The recruiting news got worse last month when Ricardo Gathers, a consensus top-50 recruit for the class of 2012, also announced he was de-committing.
Then, just when Red Storm fans thought the news couldn’t get any worse, this year’s starting point guard and the team’s third leading scorer, Nurideen Lindsey, announced yesterday that he planned to transfer out of the program at the end of the semester. The implications for this year’s team are obvious, but it’s his reasons behind the decision that tell the unfortunate story of why St. John’s long-term rebuilding project has ground to a halt.
“I was attracted to playing for Coach Lavin and playing in NYC with my teammates,” Lindsey said in a phone conversation with RedStormReport.com . “I understand Lavin’s situation right now. One of my close friends passed from leukemia. But I want to move on to another University. I also want to get a little closer to my mom,” said Lindsey.
Leaving aside the perfectly acceptable family reasons to transfer, Lindsey is basically saying that Lavin’s battle with prostate cancer played a role in his departure without actually saying it, and many can’t help but wonder if he isn’t the only one who has those feelings. It was widely known that Lavin, who underwent prostate removal surgery in early October, was going to need to scale back his team responsibilities while he worked his way back to full strength. So when the team announced Lavin would miss the season opener against William & Mary, no one seemed unduly worried. Then, after four games back, the school announced that he wouldn’t be on the sideline for the November 22 game against St. Francis (NY), and still no one seemed very concerned. The team has played three more games since the win over St. Francis, all of them losses, and Lavin hasn’t been on the sideline for any of them. Now the whispers have started.
No one is going to begrudge Lavin for putting his health before his profession. On its own, running a college basketball team heaps plenty of stress on a coach, but to do it while also recovering from prostate cancer is something only people like Lavin are crazy enough to consider. There is also every indication that Lavin will eventually make a full recovery, return to coaching the team full-time, and will be as good as new. But such indications aren’t enough for short attention-span young men who often make their college choice based on the relationship with a coach.
Only Lindsey has actually come out and at least partially admitted that the instability surrounding Lavin’s health has concerned him, but it wouldn’t be too far a leap to say that other players like Gathers, Pelle, and Sampson weren’t at least thinking about it as well. Assistant Mike Dunlap has good experience in the coaching ranks, but no one committed to St. John’s to play for Dunlap; they came for Lavin. Let’s not kid ourselves, New York City is a big draw for recruits and St. John’s has plenty of history, but Norm Roberts had all of that going for him too and he never was able to lure top-flight recruits. Lavin is the face of this program now, and his presence is the reason many of these recruits are pledging to play in Queens. You’d hate to think that programs are out on the recruiting trail using Lavin’s battle with cancer against the Red Storm, but sketchier things have happened in the cut-throat world of college basketball recruiting and will continue to do so.
In a few months, Lavin may have made a full recovery and the St. John’s rebuilding bus will be up and running again. But for now, the bus has stopped and pulled over to the side of the road. As it sits there idling, everyone on board is waiting for Lavin because, frankly, there is no one else who can drive it.