LAVIN LARGE: The Red Storm Are Back!
Maybe coaching matters after all
By DANIEL BUSH
One afternoon a few days before flying to Denver for the start of the NCAA tournament, Steve Lavin paused to reflect on the extraordinary turnaround of the St. John’s men’s basketball program. Tailor-made for the spotlight, the former ESPN analyst-turned Red Storm head coach was dressed head-to-toe in red and black Johnnies gear, following a long team practice at Carneseca Arena in Jamaica.
It was the height of March Madness, but Lavin appeared well-groomed, even rested. “You can sense the buzz in the St. John’s community,” Lavin said. He added, the school’s “base has been energized.” For a man known for making large pronouncements, this might have been the understatement of the college basketball season.
Since taking over last summer, Lavin, 46, has made college hoops in Queens – and New York City – relevant again through a combination of good hires, recruiting and a pile of victories.
The team finished 17-16 in 2009-2010. Under Lavin, this year’s squad – anchored by standouts D.J. Kennedy and Dwight Hardy – went 21-12, good for a third place finish in the Big East Conference and a birth in the tournament – the school’s first trip to the Big Dance since 2002.
Sure, the Red Storm lost in the first round to Gonzaga University. But that almost seems beside the point. For the first time in years, long-suffering fans around the borough had a reason to watch basketball in March. The way Lavin sees it, that’s a pretty good start.
Coaching at St. John’s has been “one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” he told It’s Queens. That’s saying something, considering Lavin’s remarkable journey from the hardwood to the small screen to the world’s most famous arena.
The son of a former high school basketball star, Lavin was raised in San Francisco and caught his first break as an assistant coach at Purdue University in the late 1980’s. He moved on to UCLA, where he was named head coach in 1996. In his seven-year run with the Bruins, Lavin compiled an overall record of 145-78, and was one of only two coaches with five Sweet 16 finishes in six years. But the high-profile assignment ended abruptly in 2003, when Lavin was fired after the Bruins sank in the standings.
Instead of fading away, Lavin used the setback to land a position as a basketball analyst for ABC and ESPN, where he would work for the next seven years.
He considered cutting his television honeymoon short to take a head coaching position at N.C. State in 2006, then changed his mind. When St. John’s athletic director Chris Monasch came calling in the summer of 2010, the two signed a deal within 72 hours.
New York is a tough sports town, but Lavin never seemed to miss a beat. While he couldn’t have scripted a better first season, Lavin is the first to admit there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do. It begins with a strong recruiting drive to replace the team’s core group of seniors.
Lavin also faces a more personal challenge off the court in the form of his fight against prostate cancer. He said he kept last fall’s diagnosis a secret in order to focus on basketball.
“I didn’t want to distract our team,” Lavin said. But now that the season’s behind him, the coach is preparing to undergo treatment for the early-stage cancer. His prospects are good; Lavin’s docter said he expects “a complete cure.” And his coaching duties won’t be affected, which means Lavin can continue to build on the Red Storm’s surprising turnaround.
His long-term goal?
“Returning St. John’s to its place as the crown jewel of basketball in New York City.” Carmelo Anthony has a fight on his hands.
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