For the last few years, New Yorkers have had to look across the bridge for their college hoop inspirations.
Saint Peter’s, Fairleigh Dickinson, even Sweet 16-bound Princeton, which is geographically close enough to create a ripple, have given the big town its b-ball buzzes. They are teams stacked with city kids who weren’t quite good enough for big-time programs for one reason or another who came together just beyond the boroughs, sometimes even within sight of the skyscrapers, to create the kind of magic only March can deliver.
It’s been fun watching them, rooting for them. Underdog squads from an underdog state. There is a very Jersey symmetry in their desire to grab a slice of the shine that lands so easily on others’ shoulders.
New York, once the undisputed capital of the sport, has spent most of this century without a program at or even near the top of that world. It has adopted those scrappy and surprising teams while waiting for a rebirth within its own borders.
Even the event that most personifies New York when it comes to the sport — the Big East Tournament — has become clogged with tourists from cities such as Milwaukee, Omaha, Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Only one team from the tri-state area has won that jewel since 2011, that being Seton Hall in 2016.
Yup, from New Jersey.
It’s not right. The center of this area’s basketball soul — the country’s, even — ought to be throbbing in the Garden, not the Garden State.
Rick Pitino may be the man to recalibrate it as such.
St. John’s has turned to the Hall of Famer to be its next head coach, relying on a man who grew up in this area and has built a career out of resurrecting dormant programs to incredible heights elsewhere to finally come home and do the same on his own turf.
Will it work?
There are plenty of reasons to toss about in skepticism and predict why this won’t. Pitino, who will be 71 by the time he coaches his first game for St. John’s, is a relic from another age. He’s three years older now than Lou Carnesecca was when he retired in 1992.
He comes with a lot of squirrelly baggage, including a vacated national title. Some of those barnacles have since been dismissed, or at least detached from him personally, but there still is enough crud to create concern.
And then there is the question of whether he — or anyone — can convince homegrown talent to forego the NIL deals and super-luxe locker rooms that programs elsewhere in the country offer for the opportunity to stay here instead.
For now, though, the Pitino hiring already has accomplished its most important objective. It has made St. John’s relevant. There is excitement about his arrival. His hiring was heralded as breaking news, not just in Queens but on the bottom of the screen tickers of the ESPN mothership.
Once he gets on the court for Phase Two, he certainly will make the Red Storm something they have not been for even longer than since the last time they were competitive: Fun.
Pitino is not only a terrific coach but a stellar showman, and his team almost certainly will be garnering headlines and back pages instead of having its boxscores stuffed deep into sports sections and its results ignored on the radio call-in shows and local TV news.
Mike Anderson wasn’t a terrible coach and certainly was not an awful person, by all accounts, but there isn’t a subway car anywhere in the city where he could ride and be noticed. Pitino, to the contrary, is a recognizable brand.
That’s what St. John’s used to be. It’s what it wants to be again.
Later this week, the basketball world will turn its attention back to New York City. Madison Square Garden will host the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament, with Kansas State, Michigan State, Tennessee and Florida Atlantic vying for a chance to advance to the Final Four.
On Tuesday, before those teams show up, St. John’s will take over the hallowed arena for Pitino’s introductory news conference.
The center of the college basketball universe already is shifting back where it belongs.