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.
December 10, 1979
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.)
Carter, who, like Redding, married a local lady upon returning to the Big Apple, says, "For lots of high school guys who have lived in New York all their lives, getting out is the dream. Only by going away do they appreciate what they left. It took Hawaii to make me realize the East Coast existed in college basketball."
The starting St. John's frontcourt, intact from last year, is also solid New York; this threesome simply never wanted to be anything else but: Ron Plair, 6'4", from East Elmhurst, and Frank Gilroy, 6'5", of Whitestone at the forwards; Wayne McKoy, 6'8", from Bayside and Carter's teammate at Lutheran High, at center. Which points up the fact that St. John's does have a weakness, a lack of size up front.
Nevertheless, against Oral Roberts, Plair knifed into the lane for 11 points in the first half, while McKoy scored 16 with jumpers, hooks and jump-hooks. Early in the second half, McKoy, as is his wont, began fouling. Carnesecca sat him down with four personals, but upon returning to the lineup with 4:50 to go, it took McKoy only 13 seconds to commit his fifth, and foul out for the 14th time in his career.
"His fouls are like arthritis," said Carnesecca. "I have to live with the pain, but thank God I'm getting used to it."
And thank somebody for Russell, who replaced McKoy and merely dominated the backboards. "Playing the pivot I thought I'd foul out, too," he said, "but it was just like a high school game."
In the tournament final the following night who should be waiting for St. John's but defending NCAA champion Michigan State. In the first round, the Spartans hadn't seemed to need the departed Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser in beating Princeton 60-46, mainly because the always-disciplined Tigers, after leading 42-35 while playing like Bill Bradleys, suddenly came up dry and scored only one basket in the last seven minutes while turning into Mr. Bills.
The Spartans came to New York eager to prove they are more than just a second-division Big Ten club, which is where they have been picked to finish. Yet Jay Vincent, Terry Donnelly, et al., admitted the road down might be short. "It seems strange to be playing without Greg out there dunkin' and Magic flash-in' and the crowd gettin' off," said Vincent. "What we'll all miss is the enthusiasm," said Donnelly. "Even if you were having a bad game, Magic could bring you out of it."
In that respect, Donnelly—the same little guy who shot 5 for 5 and scored 15 points in the 1979 championship finals—desperately needed Magic last weekend when he took the collar, shooting 0 for 9 in two games.
The erratic play of the Spartan guards—Kevin Smith, a transfer from Detroit who is Johnson's replacement, is shaky in a structured game—left it up to Vincent to carry the Spartans practically by himself. This isn't an impossibility considering the 6'8" Vincent's 240 pounds, but the huge center is still bothered by the stress fracture in his right foot he suffered just before last year's NCAAs, and his preseason practice was limited to barely six days.
With his slicked-back haircut and barrel tummy, Vincent looks like a sideman for Dizzy Gillespie, but he is one tough customer when his team is in trouble. "A Wesley Unseld with a shooting touch," Carnesecca called him.
"Jay's in deceptively terrible shape," Spartan Coach Jud Heathcote said. "He could weigh 300 pounds and still be quick enough to beat you."
Well, Vincent did beat Princeton with 23 points, and against St. John's he kept beating McKoy until Carnesecca was so concerned his center would foul out again he switched the skinny, shorter Plair onto Vincent. More beating up.
In the first half, Vincent, who had 30 points for the night, made seven baskets and singlehandedly kept the Spartans close. Carter, meanwhile, had returned to the Redmen with a bang, knocking down his first four shots and scoring 14 points by halftime.
St. John's figured out Michigan State's bewildering matchup zone better in the second half and raced to a 12-point lead, after which Redding and Russell were shuttled in and out of the lineup. Still, Vincent kept curling his enormous frame around defenders for soft one-handers off the glass. He scored four baskets to cut St. John's margin to 58-55 with 10 minutes left. Three more times the Redmen pulled away, and three more times Vincent scored to reduce the deficit to three.
But he couldn't do it forever. After St. John's had edged ahead 68-61 with 4:56 remaining, Vincent again started his move into the key, but this time Carter sneaked up from the blind side and stole the ball. Lunging after Carter, Vincent fouled him; Carter converted both free throws, and St. John's never looked back from there, winning 88-73.
That wrapped up quite a weekend for the Redmen. They had shot 70 for 120—58%—in the two games, had beaten two name opponents and had discovered an explosive new R 'n' R factor, namely Redding and Russell. Heathcote said the Redmen are legit, that they are as good as the best teams in the Big Ten, that they deserve to be ranked in the national Top Ten.
"I'm really proud to beat the champions," said Carnesecca. "But it's only the second game. I'm not taking my hat off to anybody. You understand? I take my hat off, the sun might get me."
Which was just another Looieism, meaning that St. John's had to play Tennessee next on the road, and that the Redmen's rear ends were now hanging in the window of Gimbels as well as Macy's.