St. John's icon Lou Carnesecca (inset) was at the Garden...

St. John's icon Lou Carnesecca (inset) was at the Garden on Tuesday for Rick Pitino's introductory news conference.  Credit: Noah K. Murray

The old man could barely see and his hearing is even worse these days as he approaches a milestone age that will soon turn his odometer to triple digits, but he noticed something that was as recognizable as a childhood memory. He didn’t know the person, but the flash of red he wore on his head made him an instant friend to the nonagenarian. The white logo with the letters “S” and “J” and “U” stood out against the cardinal background.

“I like your hat,” the old man tried to shout in his ancient voice that once carried effortlessly across massive arenas but now stumbles after just a few feet.

The passerby in the cap heard it, though. He stopped, smiled, and doffed it at his complimentor.

There was a lot of talk — and even more subtalk — about institutions at Tuesday’s news conference in Manhattan. The Garden. St. John’s basketball. New York City basketball. Rick Pitino and his Hall of Fame career itself. All of them have been dragged down in different ways over the last few years. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to lift them back to and even beyond their old heights. It’ll be a heavy heft to do so.

But the true institution was that old man sitting there in the front row his brown suit, and every person who attended or spoke at Tuesday’s event rightly made sure to genuflect properly in his presence.

It’s been three decades since Lou Carnesecca last coached a game for St. John’s, and three decades that St. John’s has been trying to replace him. There have been a handful of hopeful moments such as the return of Looie’s own boy, Chris Mullen, to take over the program, but none of them have shaped up into anything resembling the long-term success and status St. John’s once carried.

The program has become a shell of its former self. Almost unrecognizable.

Rick Pitino was introduced as the new head coach of the St. John's men's basketball program on Tuesday at a news conference at Madison Square Garden. The 70-year-old praised the legacy of the program and promised that better days are ahead. NewsdayTV's Roger Rubin reports. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp

Carnesecca is still around, though, and as long as he is, St. John’s will always have a little bit of St. John’s left inside it.

That’s why it was so important, so viscerally poignant, that the most beloved college basketball coach in the city’s history was on hand to help usher in one of the most successful in the long line of those who have attempted to replace him.

And why it is vital for the school to at least feel like it is headed back toward the level of competence and competitiveness he once oversaw before that last ember of its greatness is extinguished.

It took 30 years to pass it, but Carnesecca said he believes the torch has finally been put in the hands of a worthy successor. Hall of Famer to Hall of Famer.

“He’s coming here at the right time,” Carnesecca said. “We needed an injection, and he’ll give that. I know he will. It’s a gift. He has the ability to teach and he has a great desire. And he’s a local guy. There are a lot of qualities that are important to coach at St. John’s. I think it’s a home run. That’s the best way I can put it.”

In many ways Carnesecca, 98, still sees Pitino as the youngest and flashiest of the Big East’s Big Personalities on its sidelines during its heyday, the sparkplug who took outmanned Providence to a Final Four before embarking on a zig-zagging route through the NBA and college and even Greece before finally returning home.

“He’s a nice kid,” he said, one of the few in the room — or in any room — who could refer to the 70-year-old in that regard.

Pitino, for his part, still sees Carnesecca as all of us do: The noble, humble pillar of that tight knit coaching community. He told stories not only about games against St. John’s but how Carnesecca stood up for the have-nots in the conference when it came to such laughably archaic negotiations as splitting the few thousand dollars that came to some of the schools for playing with a particular brand of ball.

Carnesecca wanted it divided evenly. And so it was.

“All of us young coaches learned so much from Coach Carnesecca,” Pitino said. “Everybody loved him, everybody revered him. We all take a page from his book.”

Moments later Pitino looked directly at Carnesecca and conjured up the past glories of St. John’s.

“We will get back to those days,” he said, “by exemplifying everything he taught.”

As the official ceremony coronating Pitino began to break up, Carnesecca remained seated in his place. Folks who hadn’t seen him in years — he’s been understandably cautious about making public appearances since the start of the pandemic — took turns approaching him, hugging him gently but warmly, chatting with him as best they could, and taking pictures with him.

It was a chance to pose with St. John’s basketball in the flesh.

He obliged, of course.

“This is a great day,” the old man said to no one in particular as he pushed his walker out the door. “A great day.”

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