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Friday, September 17, 2010
Updated: September 18, 10:51 AM ET
Steve Lavin's difficult task at St. John's

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- When Steve Lavin thought about exchanging his catbird perch in the analyst's chair for the hot seat of the head coach's chair, he called the two men whose opinions he values more than anyone's: his father and his coaching mentor.

Steve Lavin
Steve Lavin will seek to inject new life into a St. John's program mired in mediocrity.

Cap Lavin, an English teacher by trade and a Renaissance man by birth, reached into his bag of linguistic tricks to try to express how he felt without being harsh.

"Let's see, let me put it this way -- he knew that both his mother and I liked the pattern he was in at ESPN in contrast to the craziness of coaching," Cap said. "For seven years, we've been enjoying good basketball and the biggest question was where will we eat dinner with Brent [Musburger] after the game? It was a nice aesthetic distance. Now? Well now I'll have my nitro [tablets] handy or my glass of wine."

Gene Keady, a coach by trade and a coach by birth, also reached into his bag of linguistic tricks to express how he felt.

"I said to him, 'What, are you crazy?'" Keady said. "He's one of the best analysts on television. He gets to watch good games. Why would he want out of that?"

But after listening to Lavin talk about his belief in what St. John's could be and his own passion for coaching, two converts were born. Cap Lavin already is planning to come East to see his son coach some games, and Keady is headed to New York on a more permanent basis, as Lavin's executive assistant.

Now for the real hard sell: Can the same charms that sold two dyed-in-the-wool retirees on St. John's work on teenagers?

The school is betting on it.

"The elements are all here," Lavin said. "We just have to build the argument of St. John's as an attractive place to achieve what you want to achieve. We have everything you need."

Norm Roberts was a good man who did much to pull the Red Storm out of the morass created by the Mike Jarvis NCAA disaster. But he was never quite good enough to put the Johnnies back on the map. The once proud and prestigious program has been dropped into that most hellacious of all places to New Yorkers: mediocrity. In the past five years, St. John's has two postseason trips on its résumé, and neither of them (NIT or CBI) spells NCAA.

Lulled to sleep by the underachievement, the fans had all but abandoned the program. Last season, St. John's averaged just 5,478 people per home game. That's 14th in the Big East, from a city that embraces good basketball. The only conference schools that drew fewer fans were wheels-flying-off Rutgers and habitually disinterested South Florida.

What's missing, besides people in the seats?

Simple.

Players.

Since 2002, the last time St. John's appeared in the NCAA tournament, the Big East has produced 27 first-round NBA draft picks from 11 different teams.

The Johnnies' last first-rounder? Erick Barkley in 2000.

To convince New Yorkers he is the man to turn the Red Drizzle into a legitimate Storm, Lavin needs to get players.

Five months in, he already has his fair share of Big Apple converts.

"There's no way you're going to get players if you don't recruit them and [Roberts and his staff] weren't going after them," said longtime New York Panthers AAU director Gary Charles. "They were settling for guys. Steve is trying to change that culture. If they say no the first time, he keeps coming. He's saying, 'I'm going to go out and get anybody I want,' and whether he gets them all or not, he has a shot."

He's getting plenty. On Aug. 31, Maurice Harkless, rated the 60th-best senior by ESPNU, committed to the Red Storm. And on Thursday, the 23rd-ranked Jakarr Sampson followed suit.

It is the first time in almost a decade that St. John's has commitments from such high-caliber players. That Harkless hails from Queens, N.Y., and Sampson from Ohio only adds more credence to what Lavin is selling: namely that the Red Storm can win their own backyard, but also go elbow-to-elbow with the big boys nationally.

"I'm bringing basketball back to New York," Sampson said on Thursday's televised announcement. "I heard back in the day St. John's had real good basketball and I'm ready to bring it back to St. John's."

Lavin's reported wish list also includes Amir Garrett (Nevada), God's Gift Achiuwa (Erie Community College by way of Nigeria), Dom Pointer (Quality Education Academy in North Carolina by way of Michigan), (Phillip Green (Chicago), Tyler Harris (New Jersey), D'Angelo Harrison (Texas) and Norvell Pelle (California).

Of that group of players, four -- Harrison, Pointer, Pelle and Harris -- are ranked in ESPNU's top 100, and all are considered four-star or better prospects.

"What he's facing is a huge mountain," said ESPNU director of basketball recruiting Paul Biancardi. "He's going up against programs that have been deeper-rooted in New York for a long, long time -- Syracuse, UConn, Villanova, West Virginia, some of them as far back as when he was at UCLA. But that said, he's already climbing the mountain."

Lavin Musburger
Lavin will make the transition back to the sideline after working as an announcer for the past seven years.

As a new head coach, Lavin is in a peculiar spot. He is rebuilding a program, yet people believe the Red Storm could actually make the tournament this season. They finished 17-16 last season and return virtually the entire roster.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino even tabbed St. John's the favorite, prompting Lavin to recall a favorite line from "Casablanca."

"That Rick is a difficult customer. One never knows what he'll do, nor why," Lavin said, quoting the famous Sydney Greenstreet.

The reality is, yes, the Red Storm were better and yes, they return their roster. But that's the same roster that finished tied for 13th last season, with just a 6-12 record in the Big East.

"As a coach it's hard to get your arms around tied for 13th place and then people talking about you in the top part of the league," Lavin said. "I mean, I finished eighth one year and got fired."

In truth, how St. John's fares on the court this season ultimately will pale in comparison to how Lavin does in the living room over the next year.

He will have as many as 10 roster spots to fill, a necessary haul that has led to what Lavin calls his "Noah's Ark" recruiting strategy -- he needs two of everything.

But it is more than just finding bodies. It's about finding the right bodies, which is why the pedigree of that wish list is so crucial.

"Their plan is to go after guys who can help them win -- not to just take guys to take guys," Biancardi said. "That's what you have to do. It's easier said than done and that's where you have to separate yourself from the hoopla. If it's a guy from New York that can help you win, you take him. But if it's just a guy from New York, you don't."

To cultivate relationships in the city, the 46-year-old Lavin has opened his office doors and his cell phone to all of the "players" who control the players in the city.

And they are plentiful.

New York's basketball history is rivaled only by the history of the basketball underbelly here.

"I remember during warm-ups at the old Garden, there were these guys hanging around the basket, these guys with cigars," said Cap Lavin, who played for the University of San Francisco. "I didn't think about it at the time, but this was around the time when the point-spread scandals broke. A guy said to me, 'Make your free throws, kid, and you'll beat St. John's.' He probably had something on the game."

The more things change …

Gene Keady & Steve Lavin
Lavin will lean on his mentor, former Purdue coach Gene Keady, who will act has Lavin's "executive assistant" at St. John's.

After Roberts' firing, The New York Times wrote an article in which city coaches flat out said the coach didn't survive because he refused to bend the rules -- "At St. John's, they're not getting certain types of players because they're doing things the right way," Kenny Wilcox, a junior college coach in Brooklyn, told the Times.

Lavin doesn't discount that there are problems in New York, just as there are everywhere. But he believes you can get the job done without getting dirty.

"Every city has a cast of characters and you have to know how to respectfully deal with them," Lavin said. "You have to listen and let them air out their grievances and frustrations. They're like parents. They all think their guy is the best guy and you have to understand that. You listen, you thank them and you make your decision. It's like Coach Wooden used to say: We can disagree without being disagreeable."

There was a time when a New York kid would never have considered leaving the boroughs to play elsewhere. Playing at the Garden was akin to playing the Apollo.

But the drop-off at St. John's, coupled with the nationalization of the youth game thanks to summer-league ball, has led to wanderlust. Top-25 rosters today are dotted with New York/New Jersey kids.

Now Lavin is trying to put the New York back in St. John's, not only by adding homegrown names to his roster but by injecting the city's verve and flair into his program as well.

Those who argue that Lavin has little to sell are overlooking the happy little metropolis of 8 million that many consider the epicenter of the country, if not the world. From California to the Catskills, New York resonates.

Lavin and his wife, Mary Ann Jarou, just moved into a SoHo loft, a choice Lavin made intentionally to help brand the Big Apple on the Red Storm.

He also has talked to people at the Garden about putting more of a St. John's stamp on the building. In the past, the Red Storm have used a small, auxiliary locker room for home games, but Lavin has asked that his players be given the Knicks' palatial space, temporarily subbing out the NBA accoutrements for St. John's carpet and nameplates.

While that may seem insignificant for a program facing far bigger challenges, it's not.

Tricked-out locker rooms impress players.

And Lavin is in the business of impressing players and selling the naysayers -- one parent and one mentor included -- on St. John's.

"After I got done chewing him out, I called him back and told him not to listen to me," Keady said. "If you've got a dream, you've got to go after it. You have to fulfill it. This is his dream."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.