Those in attendance on the ninth floor of the New York Athletic Club looked more ready to greet a high-profile political figure for a swanky fundraiser than a group looking to cover Big East basketball.
The suit-and-tie event on a rainy day in mid-October brought together players for the conference’s annual Media Day.
Sitting adjacent to a window that overlooks the southside of Central Park, St. John’s assistant coach Mike Dunlap and special advisor Gene Keady take questions from the media that surround their table.
“Our team is young and talented,” says Dunlap, with a rather textbook response. But, no one expected the punchline. “And we have a strong coaching staff, too. Coach Keady is like having Yoda around.”
The crowd around him bursts out into laughter and Keady, himself, cracks a smile.
That’s the knowledge hierarchy that exists in St. John’s basketball.
If Keady is Yoda, the elder statesman, that makes Dunlap or head coach Steve Lavin Obi Wan, the great, older minds, which would, seemingly, make the spry, young group of first-year players one, collective Luke Skywalker.
Keady’s legendary head coaching career spans 26 years, including six Big Ten titles with Purdue and six National Coach of the Year awards, along with experience in the Olympics and at the NBA level.
As a good friend of head coach Steve Lavin, Keady was brought on as a special advisor last season, and the importance of that move is showing itself this season, as Lavin recovers from prostate cancer surgery.
“I wanted that grandfather presence with our team,” Lavin said last October when Keady was brought onto the staff. “Coach Keady has the experience, energy and a great deal of perspective to offer us. He was the most influential person in developing my coaching philosophy.”
Keady, who must speak to the players through Coach Dunlap and fellow assistant Rico Hines because of his status as a “special assistant,” is integral in planning and observing practices, much of which information is passed along to Lavin, as he recovers.
The 75-year-old makes lists of positives and negatives in practice and communicates those to the coaching staff, which is then imparted on the players. He also works with game and practice film.
“He’s helped us a lot,” says freshman forward Moe Harkless. “He doesn’t talk much during practice, but he’s real observant. As Coach Dunlap says, he has better vision than 20/20.”
Despite his extensive and illustrious career as a Division I head coach, this season brings unique challenges that Keady has not encountered at the collegiate level.
“I’ve never been a part of a team with this many freshmen and junior college transfers,” he says. “The biggest thing for them is going to be adjusting to life in the Big East, playing at the arenas and traveling and the competition.
“Malik [Stith] is already starting to tell them the things they should expect, but the only real way to get used to it is to experience it.”
Though a timetable is still not set and is based on Lavin’s healing and the recommendations of doctors, Keady and the rest of the coaching staff await his return.
“Believe me, he wants to be back and we want him back.”