When Steve Lavin decided to return to college coaching in 2010, he referred to his new job at St. John’s as his "second tour of duty."
The first tour, of course, came at UCLA. Even though he won 145 games in seven seasons there, he never could fully satisfy the Westwood fan base that desperately craved an updated version of the John Wooden era.
So, after seven years in the analyst chair at ESPN, Lavin decided to set sail into what he called the perfect storm. Actually it was a Red Storm at St. John’s, where fans also longed to see their once-proud program become relevant again. The golden age of Lou Carnesecca, Chris Mullin and Walter Berry had become history-book legend, there had been trouble with the NCAA, and image problems sent recruits fleeing from the Big Apple, only to scatter across the college basketball landscape.
But Lavin had a vision. He evaluated the risk/reward equation and decided it was an ideal opportunity.
"Clearly, it’s going to be an arduous task to get St. John’s back to a position where they can be competitive nationally on an annual basis," Lavin said as he headed into his first season at St. John’s. "But the potential is clearly there."
Lavin had no way of knowing then that he would encounter a detour sign along the path to that opportunity. In April of 2011, just weeks after the conclusion of an intoxicating 21-win season that brought the crowds back to Madison Square Garden, Lavin revealed he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had postponed treatment through that first season because his doctors told him it was low-grade cancer and a full recovery was expected.
On Tuesday, you might say Lavin entered his third tour of duty. He was back on the sideline again, resuming his quest at St. John’s after coaching just four games last season because of his prostate surgery. The celebration of that moment seemed in jeopardy when the Red Storm trailed Detroit 60-53 with just over nine minutes left in the game. But behind D’Angelo Harrison’s 22 points and a special debut by talented freshman Chris Obekpa, St. John’s rallied to win 77-74.
Steve Lavin directs his team during their season-opening win over Detroit.
The result put a smile on Lavin’s face -- during the game and after.
"I think so much of the way I feel is a result of (the) team and their energy, and feeding off of that synergy," Lavin said when asked how he felt about his comeback during his postgame press conference. "Similar to a parent -- if your children are lined in the right way and they seem well adjusted and they're contributing in a meaningful way, then you feel better as a parent. And as a coach, I feel good because this team found a way to get a gritty W."
As recently as last month’s Big East media day in New York City, Lavin was still exercising caution in his comeback. It has been a process filled with yoga, brisk walking and cardio work on a stationary bike. Coaches need stamina and Lavin has gone through a vigorous rebuilding process not unlike the program itself at St. John’s.
Lavin clearly is back into the grind. St. John’s next plays Thursday against the College of Charleston in the Charleston Classic. By Nov. 21, when the Red Storm play Holy Cross, Lavin will have five games under his belt this season -- in just nine days.
That path to opportunity has become a different type of journey. Lavin was seen attending games last season but only as an observer. He kept appointments for public appearances and mingled with boosters. Lavin even made recruiting trips. But the routine on the sideline is a different animal -- physically and mentally. After losing those 10 seniors he inherited for a magical first season, St. John’s struggled to a 13-19 record last season under assistant coach Mike Dunlap, now the coach of the Charlotte Bobcats.
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Tuesday, Lavin and the Red Storm stepped onto a new stage. And it was a promising start in many ways.
Harrison, a sophomore, is the most experienced player on the youngest team in Division I. Lavin has eight newcomers and 11 underclassmen. So when Harrison didn’t live up to the leadership expectations Lavin had for him, he was booted out of practice. Harrison played limited minutes in the first St. John’s exhibition game and logged a DNP in the second.
But Harrison came off the bench to key the victory over Detroit, a team that made the NCAA tournament last season and starts two seniors and two juniors.
"Across the board I was really impressed," Lavin said of Harrison. "D'Angelo, from the time we threw him out of practice and took away his starting position, he's been outstanding."
The need to exercise tough love so soon in his return to coaching couldn’t have been easy for Lavin. But that’s what coaches do.
It was a lot easier to watch Obekpa, a 6-foot-9 native of Nigeria, score seven points, grab 11 rebounds and set a school record with eight blocked shots. Lavin calls him as unique as anyone he has seen in any of his tours of duty -- as a broadcaster or a coach.
"I just play basketball," Obekpa told reporters after the game. "It’s a gift."
And gifts certainly seemed appropriate on this occasion at Carnesecca Arena, the Red Storm's other home court.
Welcome back, Coach Lavin.