NEW YORK -- At 11 a.m. on a chilly Sunday morning, the plaza outside Madison Square Garden was rather empty. Just a few people milling around. If you didn't look up at the JumboTron, you wouldn't have known a college hoops game was slated to tip off there in an hour -- a Big East clash between Boston College and St. John's ... well, what's left of St. John's.
Inside, 20 minutes before tipoff, the arena itself was pretty empty when the Red Storm took the floor. The eight players still wearing a uniform filed onto the court one by one, all looking deadly serious, or maybe a bit stunned from the events of the last few days. They did some stretching, and then had just enough people for a decent layup line. The Boston College team across the way appeared like an army in comparison.
By now everyone knows the story. St. John's booted three players off their team, including their top two scorers, because of an incident in Pittsburgh Thursday night, when several players went to a strip club and brought a woman back to their hotel to have sex with. Three other players were also suspended -- meaning the Red Storm, 5-14 and winless in the Big East -- had to field a team of four scholarship players and four walk-ons against Boston College.
The St. John's starting lineup included two regular starters -- forward Kyle Cuffe and guard Daryll Hill. The other guard, Andre Stanley, is a former walk-on himself. The center, Curtis Johnson, is 7-foot-3 but had averaged less than six minutes per game this season. The other forward? Phil Missere, a walk-on who had played a grand total of one minute this season.
What crowd there was -- 7,453 (officially) in the nearly 20,000-seat Garden -- applauded mildly as the starters were announced. But they, too, seemed to still be reeling from the events of the past week, unsure of how to act, perhaps dreading what was to come. In fact, several St. John's students even refused to comment on the game, the team or the scandal.
When the game began, St. John's settled into a 2-3 zone on defense, trying to conserve some energy. Boston College looked sloppy and uninspired, not scoring until over three minutes had passed. Missere, of all people, scored the first bucket of the game. But as much as the St. John's cheerleaders tried to get the fans going, most just sat back and took it all in quietly.
As the first half wore on and the Red Storm hung close, the crowd started to come alive. When Johnson, a fan favorite because of his imposing size and unimposing skill, finally scored, the fans cheered loudly. And when Hill, whose nickname is "Showtime," made a sweet behind-the-back dribble move on a fast break and scored, cutting the BC lead to six, the Garden was officially alive.
And, apparently, the St. John's program also still had a pulse.
St. John's only trailed by seven at the half, 34-27 -- and when they cut the lead to 35-32 early in the second half, suddenly it seemed that all 7,453 had joined the cheerleaders in booming chants of "DEE-FENSE!" But BC finally just wore down the Johnnies and blew the game wide open down the stretch. The Red Storm were running on fumes. Stanley, Hill and Cuffe all played the full 40 minutes.
But even as BC's lead ballooned, the St. John's players never quit. And the crowd could tell.
When Johnson fouled out, he received a standing ovation -- quite possibly the first for a player who's box score read: 18 minutes, 2 points, 5 rebounds.
When Missere fouled out, he received even more applause. And he deserved it: 27 minutes, 4-for-6 from the field, 5-for-5 from the line, 13 points, 5 rebounds.
And when freshman walk-on Devin Mayo knocked down a 3-pointer at the buzzer the whole team received a huge ovation. The score -- Boston College 89, St. John's 61 -- didn't seem to matter.
After the game, everyone wanted to talk about St. John's. Boston College coach Al Skinner appeared in the interview room first, and was bombarded by questions about his team's opponent. Then something quite unusual happened. Normally the coach and a key player or two will come to the interview room after the game to answer questions. But St. John's crammed interim coach Kevin Clark and the entire team into the already-cramped interview room. Clark sat at the middle table, flanked by Stanley and Cuffe. The other players sat at tables on either side.
"I'm extremely proud of the men sitting around me here," Clark told the press. "Their effort was tremendous, especially under adverse circumstances ... if only the game had been a little shorter."
Gathered together, the nine of them looked like a real tight unit. Like a team. Even like a family. "We gave it our all, and we left nothing on the court," Missere said. "I wouldn't want to wear any other uniform than St. John's."
Stanley, clearly the team's vocal leader on the floor, was already looking ahead. "I still think we can get something out of this season," he said.
Yes, these eight Johnnies are probably not going to win another game or play in the Big East tournament. No, they won't likely play in front of packed houses. And, yeah, they're probably going to set a school record for losses in a season.
But this is a bunch of guys you can root for. These are the Johnnies, who no matter how good they are on the court, weren't among the bad off the court. Most of them weren't heavily recruited, or even recruited at all. But in the middle of a nightmare, they're living out a dream. And they showed a ton of guts against Boston College.
Sunday's lineup was about as far as St. John's could get from its glory teams of yesteryear. It's still a program that has to hire a new coach to revamp the program. And that man will have to figure out a way to get the top New York City high school players to come to St. John's again.
But those who thought Sunday's game against Boston College would be the lowest point in the 97-year history of this program were wrong. The lowest point came a couple of days ago.
On Sunday, this group began, in its own small way, to bring the program back.
"Obviously this whole incident has made the season even worse than it already was," said longtime St. John's fan Tim O'Connell, who was sitting in his customary courtside seat. "But these guys gave us something to be proud of. We've just got to support the kids that are here."
They deserve it.
Kieran Darcy is a writer for ESPN The Magazine who contributes to ESPN.com on a regular basis.