The seniors on this year's Red Storm team were probably too young to remember a time when the situation at St. John's hit rock-bottom. Chances are they didn't care. Nobody cared about a basketball program that was going down...and going down fast.
It was February 2004, and the program was already reeling from sanctions and penalties accrued by the wild west mentality of fired head coach Mike Jarvis, when three St. John's players celebrated a 20-point loss to Pittsburgh by hitting a strip club, picking up one of the dancers and bringing her back to their hotel.
Jarvis, who was let go two months earlier, had left the battered team to fend for itself. Suspensions followed and they actually played a game against Boston College with only four scholarship players on the Madison Square Garden floor. A walk-on, Phil Missere, scored 13 points in the 28 point loss that day. The echoing chants of "We Are St. John's" that day were more heartfelt than all of the bandwagon cheers from the glory years put together.
Now it is a time for redemption. It's been seven years since the dignity was stripped from a once proud program and nine years since a St. John's team stepped on to the floor of an NCAA Tournament game. Finally the Red Storm are in the game again.
Former head coach, Norm Roberts was left with the unenviable position of picking up the pieces and, until last year, did a fine job of restoring pride and hope to the embattled program. The ten seniors currently restoring the lost years of the St. John's institution were, and are, Roberts' dependents.
These ten players have weathered the losing and hushed--and some not so quiet--comparisons to other great Red Storm teams for four long years. Now it is their chance to carry on tradition and make some of their own.
Head coach Steve Lavin knows he inherited Roberts veteran charges, and the bleak years that prefaced him, but uses it as inspiration.
"I never really delved into the details of what happened in 2004, during that stretch where the program fell on tough times," he said "But I've always thought of the great history , the great tradition, and how important St. John's is to the city because of the passionate fans that follow basketball in New York."
Lavin may get a lot of the credit for this season's magical ride, while putting St. John's on the college basketball map once again, but it is the players who have been salivating for this chance. They've been imagining themselves on college basketball's biggest stage over the past seven semesters.
In 2000, St. John's had another fantastic ride and now, in the mile-high air of Denver, the team has a chance for a long-waited retribution.
The second-seeded Red Storm's season ended in heartbreaking fashion, 82-76, in the second round against 10th-seeded Gonzaga in Tuscon, Ariz. The Johnnies will face the tough Bulldogs once again.
St. John's (21-11) comes into tonight's game without their swingman D.J. Kennedy although 260-pound Sean Evans has shown he is more than ready to pick up the slack but he'll have his hands and body full. He'll be pounding the boards against Gonzaga's (24-9) seven-foot center, Robert Sacre.
The Red Storm say all this season's air travel and brutal Big East schedule have prepared them well for Gonzaga and the tournament.
Most St. John's fans believe it's more than the tangibles which carry this team. It's heart, pride and a toughness that comes from pulling yourself from the low valley that was St. John's basketball to a higher place.
This team started in the gully, got up and are climbing to a plateau higher than the Denver plains.