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
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
SUNDAY, JAN. 24, DUKE PREGAME
February 8, 1999
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
outsized 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, pin-striped 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
"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."
THE DUKE GAME
The coaches know a lot of things have to go right for St. John's
to win without Grant. A lot of things do. Thornton, who's
actually more of a scorer than a classic shooter, makes 7 of 11
three-point shots and finishes with 40 points. Duke gets its
share of help from the officials, but Avery fouls out on a
ticky-tacky call, and the Blue Devils play the final 4:27 of
regulation and all of overtime without their floor leader.
Jarvis has drilled into his team's head the concept of "locating
number 21 [Langdon]," and the Johnnies do a good job. Langdon
finishes with only two three-pointers and 15 points. For all of
Thornton's scoring, it is Artest who makes perhaps the most
indelible impression with his late-game heroics. During a
40-second stretch that almost defies belief, he 1) makes a
diving steal and calls timeout in midair before falling
out-of-bounds; 2) makes another steal and, all in one motion,
draws a three-shot foul on the same play; and 3) sends the game
into overtime with an off-balance three-pointer with 1.1 seconds
Ultimately, though, depth is the difference, just as Jarvis had
warned. Even without Avery and Brand, who fouled out at the end
of regulation, Duke has five bona fide offensive options in
overtime; St. John's has only Thornton, Artest and perhaps
Barkley, who plays a steady all-around game at point guard but
lacks a consistent outside shot. Final: Duke 92, St. John's 88.
In the locker room there is understandable grumbling about the
refs, but it is muted. "Got the 'Cuse on Wednesday," Thornton
keeps saying. "We've got to forget this. Got the 'Cuse on
Jarvis motions the team to a corner of the locker room, pulls up
a chair and talks quietly. "You guys played with tremendous
emotion, poise and belief," he says. "This game will help us win
more games down the road. I'm proud of this team, and you should
be proud of yourselves." He smiles. "I know, there's a birthday
party tonight, so we're looking for some...some.... "
"Moderation," Artest answers.
"Amen," says Jarvis. "Moderation."
MONDAY, JAN. 25, SOMETIME AFTER MIDNIGHT
Grant has chosen for his party site a downtown club where
patrons are patted down for weapons as they enter and where
Mariah Carey is said to often make the scene. She doesn't on
this night, but, at 1:30, Grant finally does. "Hey, I don't have
any classes on Monday," he says. Center Albert Richardson and
Thornton, accompanied by Baltimore homeboy Sam Cassell of the
New Jersey Nets, are already studying the beautiful people
inside the club, but Barkley is among a small group of St.
John's players and managers morosely congregated outside.
"They won't let me in," Barkley says. Twelve hours earlier, in
one of the world's basketball meccas, this freshman had played
in one of the best college basketball games in recent history.
Super-fan Spike Lee had worn a number 12 St. John's jersey
bearing Barkley's name. But none of that matters on the club
scene if you're not 21.
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 27, SYRACUSE PREGAME
Jarvis is trying to convince his team in the locker room that
getting two points in a spacious Dome is no different from
getting them back at Alumni Hall, St. John's on-campus gym. "The
hardest time to shoot at a place like this is right now, when
there's no one in it," says the coach. "It'll get warmer when the
fans start packing in. And, remember, these big, wide-open
facilities are the kind where they hold tournament games."
The team seems a little tighter than it had been on Sunday at
the Garden. Suddenly a persistent ringing disturbs the quiet.
Thornton and backup point guard Collin Charles stare at each
other before they begin rustling through their clothes in search
of their cell phones. It turns out to be for Charles. You may
recall that cell phones helped drive Magic Johnson out of
coaching, but Jarvis accepts them as a way of life. "I have one,
too," he says, "so I'd be a hypocrite to say my players can't."
Jarvis's one pregame worry is this: Syracuse will storm out of
the gate, and 20,000 fans will take the Johnnies out of the game
early. "Don't let them jump on you," he tells his players as they
head toward the court.
THE SYRACUSE GAME
Well, the Orangemen jump. With both feet. Just over seven
minutes into the game Syracuse leads 25-10 and the Dome is
rocking. But St. John's never stops plugging. Barkley plays a
steady floor game and finishes with four assists, three steals
and only two turnovers. Thornton, finding his outside touch
cold, looks for openings along the baseline--"I had to find my
way down among the trees," he would say later--and scores a
team-high 21. Junior guard Lavor Postell, the team's sixth man
and a defensive stopper turned saturation bomber, is all over
the offensive boards and scores 18 points. Artest, simply the
best player on the floor--and on a lot of other floors,
too--contributes a key steal, then a key blocked shot late as
St. John's comes back to win 75-70.
Afterward, Artest (19 points, five rebounds, four assists, two
blocks, two steals) stretches out wearily on a sofa in the
locker room. "Hey, we could use this couch in my mom's house,"
he says. Jarvis is elated. Getting out of the Dome with a W
after trailing by 15 points is like a win-and-a-half. He holds
an ice bag to his bald scalp. During the game he got so excited
that he bonked himself on the head with the 1993 Sweet 16 ring
he earned at George Washington. "Let's get the heck outta here,"
the coach says, "before they change the score."
FRIDAY, JAN. 29, ST. JOHN'S CAMPUS
Practice the day before the UConn game is not going well.
Sophomore forward Reggie Jessie is the only player who is
communicating on defense. Then Artest goes into one of his
sudden funks, directing a stream of invective at a teammate for
not getting him the ball. Jarvis stops practice, gathers his
players around him and talks softly for a few minutes. "Now, are
you ready?" he says to Artest. He repeats the question until he
gets the answer he is looking for, which is not a nod or a
sullen "Yeah" but a simple "Yes."
Artest, a 19-year-old sophomore, is on the one hand the
quintessential inner-city player, a complex and moody young man
from a rough neighborhood in Queens, whose demons appear from
time to time. But he is also St. John's savviest player, the one
who points teammates to the correct spots on the floor, the one
with a point guard's mind for the game. Indeed, is there another
player in the country who can post up low so effectively, then
bounce outside to run the offense? He is unselfish almost to a
fault and works harder than any of his teammates. But he is
immature at times, and Jarvis believes it would be beneficial
for him to stay another year. Though Artest is coy about it, the
feeling on the team is that--ready or not--he will turn pro
after the season.
THE UCONN GAME
Down 16-3 just a little over four minutes into the game. Up
53-41 three minutes into the second half. Tied at 65 with five
minutes left. St. John's can be praised for never quitting when
it gets behind. At the same time it can be excoriated for its
inability to hold a lead, something it had also failed to do
during early-season losses to Stanford and Purdue. The Johnnies
walk a thin line. They play with tenacity when they're trying to
catch up, but they play recklessly when they're trying to hold a
lead. "We seem to be at our best when we're behind, because then
we are the aggressors," says Jarvis. "When we get a lead, I
think we try to catch a little rest." Connecticut, a much more
seasoned team--and, not incidentally, a much deeper one--plays
with both heart and intelligence down the stretch and pulls out
a 78-74 win.
In the heat of battle Artest again blows up at his teammates.
Barkley, who fears no one, goes back at him verbally. Artest's
frustration is perhaps understandable. He played 39 tough
minutes, sometimes being deployed at the perimeter of the zone
defense, sometimes wrestling underneath with UConn's 6'11"
center Jake Voskuhl, and he felt that some of his teammates let
him down. But he has to learn that they're playing just as hard
as he is, though not, perhaps, with skills that match his.
Artest is not the only one with lessons to learn. Barkley, a
throwback point guard whom any coach in the country would be
glad to have, has to shoot better--he was 8 of 33 from the field
during the three-game stretch. Postell has to select better
shots; his gunning sometimes upsets his teammates. The big men,
Richardson and backup Donald Emanuel, have to realize that they
are not offensive options and instead should increase their
effort at the defensive end. Jessie has to take better care of
After the game a frustrated Artest first decides to blow off his
scheduled appearance in the interview room and heads for the
exits, then thinks better of it and returns to face the press.
Jarvis is already at the mike. "These three games are the games
that either make you or break you," says the coach, "and I
really believe they're going to make us."
St. John's isn't Duke and it isn't UConn, but it's a little
closer to both teams than it was when hell week started. As
Jarvis works his way smoothly through the questions, four of his
players--Artest, Barkley, Jessie and Thornton--sit beside him.
They are disappointed and sullen, but they're there, and as
Bootsy knows, representing is important. All things considered,
these Johnnies represent pretty well.
The St. John's players like and respect Brand, but they don't
fear him. "City players are different," says Grant. "I'm not
saying we're superior or anything, but we just don't approach
things out of fear."
As Jarvis sees it, getting out of the Dome at Syracuse with a W
after trailing by 15 points is like a win and a half. "Let's get
the heck out of here," the coach says, "before they change the
The Johnnies walk a thin line. They play with tenacity when
they're trying to catch up, but they play recklessly when they're
trying to hold a lead. "We seem to be at our best when we're
behind," says Jarvis.