Some days, there's so much news in one place that you run out of room to fit it all in. That's what happened Thursday when St. John's honored its 1985 Final Four team at a time when coach Norm Roberts' performance is coming under close scrutiny. The opponent, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, was making plenty of news in his own right, denying reports of his interest in coaching the Nets and later offering a vote of confidence in Roberts while admonishing St. John's to make a greater financial commitment to its basketball program.
All the newsy developments left little room to reflect on the full extent of what former coach Lou Carnesecca and stars Chris Mullin and Bill Wennington had to say about their magical time together at St. John's. The aging Carnesecca was particularly touching as he recalled great teams from the school's past by years like vintage wines. He mentioned the 1942-43 team with Fuzzy Levane that won the NIT, coach Frank McGuire's 1952 NCAA runnerup, coach Joe Lapchick's 1959 and 1965 NIT champs and his own 1982-83 team that tied for the Big East regular-season title and won its first Big East tournament.
"Then, you come to the Final Four," Carnesecca said of the 1985 NCAA semifinalists. "If we didn't go to the Final Four, that year would have been a terrible disappointment to all of us. People expected us to go. We had a lot of these fellows coming back, and then you add Walter Berry. The main thing about that club, they were a good team to coach. They were a wonderful team. I didn't have to coach these fellows. I've said my mother could have coached them, and she didn't know the difference between a bocce ball and a basketball.
"They got along well, not only on the court but off the court. They had a feeling for each other. They played against each other in high school. So, the chemistry was there. All we had to do was beat who? That big guy (Patrick Ewing) from Georgetown. That was it. We had great games with them, but you can't win everything. Don't ask me why, but you can't. But coaching these guys was just a delight. Wonderful."
Wennington and Mullin each said they came to St. John's to play for Carnesecca, who truly was able to create a family atmosphere in a more innocent time. "He made it fun to come and play every day," Wennington said of Carnesecca. We really became a family. Has it been 25 years? It goes by really fast. Time flies, but it was definitely some of the best years of my life, and I hold them near and dear to my heart all the time."
Mullin recalled attending games as a kid at Alumni Hall, which is now Carnesecca Arena, and he said he would do it all over again if he could go back in time. "Playing for coach, he taught the game," Mullin said. "They changed the rules (limiting practice) because we were there from 3:30 to 7:30. The law students used to come in and beg us to get off the court, and coach was like, 'One more. Run one more.'
"It was some of the best years of my life for sure. Fun stood out. Even in pressure-packed games, coach had a way of making it light. I think it was our freshman year, we played Georgetown here at the Garden, and I think we were down 41-9 at the half. I remember that halftime speech. We were braced. We figured he would come in and rip up the lights, and he just came in and said, 'You just ------ on the Garden floor. See if you can go out and clean some of it up in the second half, and we'll have a good practice tomorrow.'
"I do think that catapulted us the rest of the year. We went on to win the next eight or nine in a row. He had a unique way of keeping things in perspective. Always teaching. Expect a lot, but deal with reality."
The reality back then was that St. John's was able to recruit some of the best players in the nation from its own backyard in the New York-New Jersey area. That was the bottom line as far as Mullin was concerned.
"You've got to get players," Mullin said. "That's at any level, too. You can have great facilities, but if you don't have the right people using them, that's what it gets down to. We talked earlier about kids staying home and wanting to be here, and I do think it's key to find one of these kids to be the key guy to turn it around. A kid that says, 'You know what? I'm good enough to do this. I have opportunities to go other places, but I'm going to do it right here.'
"You need to have players. When we played Georgetown, we weren't comparing GPAs. We were going for blood. And the Big East is getting stronger and better every year, so, you've got to have the players."