The minutes that preceded St. John’s matchup with Lehigh on Wednesday night at Carnesecca Arena seemed rudimentary.
Despite a student section that was filling in nicely, general attendance was still sparsely populated and the few that were scattered through the seats collectively added to the low hum of voices that filled the arena.
The Red Storm continued to warm up, all while knowing something that would change the course of their season, holding onto a secret that they, themselves, had just found out not a long while earlier.
At 6:52pm, a great swell, just over one month in the making, washed with such force over those in Carnesecca, from one end to the other, inundated with a rare mixture of pride, relief, and, most prominently, a sense that this was when the season would begin, right here, because of this.
Walking across the baseline in a navy blue suit, white shirt, white Nike Air Force 1’s, and, of course, no tie, with an expression that tried to downplay the importance of this moment – a moment he had created by merely stepping onto the floor — was St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin.
“Naturally, once you’ve been away for a period of time and you’re able to come back home and join forces with your basketball family, it’s special,” he said of his return, after St. John’s 78-73 win.
To some surprise, Lavin wasted no time transitioning to his trademarked humor.
“But, of course, when you’re down 16 [points],” he continued, jokingly citing St. John’s first half deficit. “You’re thinking maybe you should have waited until Sunday [against UMBC] to come back.”
Lavin says that it was assistant coach Mike Dunlap who advocated the idea of his returning to the floor one game earlier than planned.
“It was inevitable that I was going to return, and so the thinking was, the sooner we begin that transition, the better,” he said. “By about 3:30 [Wednesday] afternoon, that logic won out.”
So, with ESPN’s national television cameras squarely transfixed Wednesday night (at times, ESPN had a Lavin picture-in-picture running, tracking his every move) the triumphant return of the Red Storm head man was broadcast to the nation.Lavin was quick to dispel rumors that the return was a message to recruits. This coming just a day after Class of 2012 forward Ricardo Gathers decommitted from the Red Storm and said he will sign in the spring.
But Lavin’s return means more than any one thing that can be boiled to a point.
For as good a job as assistant coaches Mike Dunlap, Rico Hines, and Tony Chiles, along with special assistant Gene Keady, have done in handling this team, there is little substitute, morale-wise, for the head coach, especially with a team so young.
Steve Lavin is the Hollywood recruiter; the former high-profile coach at UCLA and ESPN television analyst, and born-to-be-a-salesman personality who could sell an igloo to an Eskimo.
He was the one who came into their living rooms and pitched the St. John’s program to the parents of his recruits and is, ultimately, the reason they chose to play for the Red Storm.
“I was actually in the training room getting taped up,” said freshman forward Moe Harkless of seeing Lavin for the first time, when he returned to practice Tuesday. Harkless was Lavin’s first recruit from the Class of 2011. “I jumped up and ran over and gave him a big hug. It’s a great feeling to have our coach back.”
And Lavin was not just physically back, standing on the sidelines.
On one sequence in the second half, as the Red Storm made their comeback, Lavin bounced off the sideline and assumed a full defense stance, imploring his team to do the same.
St. John’s played lock-down defense in the final six minutes to get the victory.
Whether a comeback like that would have been possible without Lavin is speculatory, but the infusion of life that he has given to this fan base, as is evidence by the deafening crowd noise at Carnesecca during the Red Storm comeback, is much-needed fuel for the team’s winter grind.
“Nothing is ever easy,” Lavin said he told coaches on the bench in a wry manner during the game against Lehigh. “To [Keady and Hines] a couple times I did say… “Why do we make it so difficult?’ Those kinds of rhetorical questions, it’s kind of like therapy.”
With news of ineligible players, decommitments, and health problems, the base was looking for something to grab onto, something that could bring promise for the future, and Lavin delivered.
Sunday’s game versus UMBC precedes Thursday’s marquee matchup with 16th-ranked Arizona at Madison Square Garden. From there, the Red Storm take on either Mississippi State or Texas A&M, then have December dates on the road at Kentucky and Detroit, and the schedule marches on.
It may not be measurable, The Lavin Effect; not “quantifiable” or “able to be solidified with empirical evidence,” as the wordsmith, Lavin, might say.
But, it is there. It– whatever “it” is– is most certainly there.