St. John's coach Steve Lavin returns to sideline

Head coach Steve Lavin of the St. John's

Head coach Steve Lavin of the St. John's Red Storm talks to his players during a timeout against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the second round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament. (March 17, 2011) (Credit: Getty Images)

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To start his first game day coaching at St. John's since being sidelined early last season while recovering from prostate cancer surgery, Steve Lavin reverted to his roots and had the Pac-10 version of the Breakfast of Champions.

"Coach [John] Wooden always said that was the best way to start your day," Lavin said of the Wizard of Westwood, whom he befriended while coaching UCLA from 1996-2003. "But I had it the European way, with some brown sugar and croissants. I don't think Coach was a croissant guy."

That's the way they serve oatmeal at the breakfast buffet at the Hudson Hotel in Manhattan, where Lavin and his wife, TV actress Mary Ann Jarou, checked in on Tuesday because of superstorm Sandy. "We just checked out [Saturday]. Our power finally came back on at 6 a.m."

After coaching St. John's to a 73-55 win over Sonoma State Saturday in an exhibition before a crowd of 3,324 that greeted him warmly during a pregame introduction at Carnesecca Arena, Lavin was back on the culinary trail. Once again, the motivation was those California roots.

"I want to take Pat out to Ecco, one of the oldest restaurants in New York City," Lavin said, referring to Sonoma State coach Pat Fuscaldo, who was a graduate assistant coach at San Francisco State when Lavin played there from 1982-84. "A little old-world Italian and we'll catch some of the Oregon-USC game. A little Pac-10 football."

Between oatmeal and pasta, he had a little of the agita that comes with coaching. Before the game, he made the decision to keep God'sgift Achiuwa and Felix Balamou in street clothes because he is considering redshirting them. He also kept Marc-Antoine Bourgault and Orlando Sanchez out while awaiting an NCAA ruling on their classification and eligibility.

No wonder he found comfort on the court named for another coach who loved old-world Italian restaurants, the legendary Lou Carnesecca.

"I'm enjoying working with this group, even if we have the youngest team in America and the youngest team in school history," Lavin said. "This was probably a good indication of what will happen most of the season. There were things that were frustrating from a coaching standpoint -- fouling a three-point shooter, gambling and lunging on defense. But there were some runs of really good basketball. I like the unselfishness of the team and the fact that they are looking for the open man."

Phil Greene, who scored 17 points Saturday, noticed the difference between the Lavin who coached only four games last season and the current version. Clearly, he was more like the guy who guided St. John's to a 21-12 record in his first year at the Jamaica school in 2010-11 and recruited Greene from Chicago.

"It was great to have him back. He brings a lot of energy," Greene said. "He gets us ready to play. We feed off him. When he had the cancer, he really couldn't do much. You could just tell. Now he's full of life."

Lavin was the commencement speaker last May, enthralling a crowd of 19,000 people on the campus' Great Lawn.

The entire coaching staff of both teams, as well as the St. John's sports information staff, followed Lavin's lead of wearing suits with open-necked white shirts and trademark white sneakers. For Tuesday's Coaches vs. Cancer exhibition against Concordia of Chicago, whose coach, Tyler Jones, also is a prostate cancer survivor, all fans are encouraged to "Dress like Coach Lavin" with sport coats and sneakers. Both coaching staffs will.

That trend started in Lavin's first season at St. John's, when he sported that casual look during the Coaches vs. Cancer week's events. Then St. John's went on a long winning streak and the outfit became the norm. On Saturday, it was a blue-gray window-pane plaid suit with the matching white shirt and sneakers. Lavin was as dapper as he ever was when he was the commentator his players know from ESPN.

"They know me from the visibility of television, and the parents and high school coaches know me as the former UCLA coach," he said. "So we kind of have all the bases covered. It works out well."

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