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St. John's coach knows he can't rest

5/1/2010

If you see St. John's coach Steve Lavin on a New York street this weekend, tell him Happy Anniversary. He's been on the job 30 days as of Friday, or just enough time to rip through three cell phone chargers, hire a coaching staff, travel coast to coast a couple times trying to land his first recruit, and, answer most of the 1,500 emails he got in his first three days, and shoehorn in a trip to throw out the first pitch at a Mets game (it got rained out). He also caught a nasty chest cold that, Lavin jokes, left him secluded in his room "like the English Patient" after he fell sick, uh … was it two days ago? Three days ago?

"Wait -- what day is this?" Lavin asked Thursday, in all seriousness.

Lavin was sipping coffee and speaking in a room just off the lobby of the Manhattan hotel he checked into the first night he interviewed with St. John's.

He took the job the next day -- March 30 -- and went to work, and he's been living at the hotel ever since.

To say it's been a whirlwind for Lavin doesn't cover it. There are easier college jobs he could've taken. The early questions raised by his surprise candidacy and quick hiring are understandable: Why would a West Coast guy who had been out of coaching since 2003 when UCLA let him go from his only career head coaching gig suddenly want to shake up his life? He had a nice TV analyst job with ESPN and a nice home in Venice, Calif., with his actress wife, Mary Ann Jarou. Jumping back into the game at all, let alone jumping in at a St. John's program that's been down for nearly a decade and plays in the Big East, the toughest conference in the country last season, made no sense, right?

But Lavin's hiring has also created excitement in the city. Plenty of people who love or care about St. John's saw landing Lavin as a coup that rescued a search process that looked off the rails when Florida's Billy Donovan never entertained the school's overtures and Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt was offered the job but turned it down.

Even now, a lot of people who are solidly behind Lavin's hiring admit they have no idea what kind of coach he'll be after seven years out of the game, even if he did pile up a 145-78 record at UCLA and six trips to NCAA tournament after he took over the program at age 32. Many folks just seem happy they can look at Lavin after the other two snubs and say, "You like us? You actually want to coach here?"

"The response we've gotten so far has been overwhelming, just great," Lavin said with a smile, "but it's like I joked to my wife, 'Just wait till we lose a few games in the Big East.' This is the honeymoon period now. I know that. It's never going to get any better than this."

So Lavin's plan is to work. And work. He terms his seven-year broadcasting career with ESPN a "sabbatical" that he wisely used to pick up wisdom and strategy from all the great coaches he got to drop in on before working games. Lavin is a coach first, all right. When describing his wife, the first things he mentioned weren't the roles she's had on hit TV shows like "Entourage," or how the New York Post gushed about their good looks and dubbed them "The Brangelina of college coaching." ("Hysterical," Lavin admitted.) No, this is his thumbnail: "She went to the same high school in Flint (Mich.) as Mateen Cleaves."

Only a coach talks like that. Though it's only been 30 days, Lavin has definitely moved the needle since arriving in Queens. A school spokesman says the school's website video of Lavin's introductory press conference was downloaded 40,000 times in the first two days. Season-ticket sales have spiked. Alumni and corporate sponsors that drifted away from the program are now taking a second look, hoping St. John's can finally get the city's best recruits to stay home.

Lavin has begun rebuilding bridges with local AAU and high school coaches who used to gripe that the program was too remote or arrogant. Lavin intends to fight for the best recruits in the city. But he will recruit nationally and even internationally, too.

He hopes to hear any day now if Dwayne Polee Jr., a 6-foot-7 swingman from two-time state champion Westchester High in Los Angeles, who visited St. John's last week, is coming. He said he wished he had more time in the past month to spend with the nine players returning from last year's 17-16 team and their parents.

Lavin wishes he just had more time, period.

Asked to recap his encounters so far around town, Lavin smiled and mentioned the many strangers who have welcomed him. He smiles about the Johnnies fan who implored him to "do something!" about the city taxis driving around with rooftop ads touting Big East rival Syracuse because "this ain't Syracuse country." Some other St. John's fans noticed Lavin entertaining a recruit at a Harlem restaurant and hurried over, uninvited, to ask the kid with typical New York bluntness, "Are you coming here or what? Are you gonna rock the Garden? You know there's nowhere like New York, right?"

That unrequited yearning to see the Garden buzzing again is one answer to the "Why now?" and "Why here?" questions about Lavin.

He could be ending his coaching sabbatical right on time.

Everyone knows it's been a down decade for New York basketball. But if Lavin gets the Johnnies rolling again and LeBron James comes to the Knicks this summer, can you imagine what the city and Madison Square Garden would be like?

"We keep saying it's the mecca," Dick Vitale said when Lavin was hired. "Let it be the mecca again."

Lavin knows that won't come easy and it won't happen overnight. All St. John's coaches the past 20 years have been shadowed by the heyday of Louie Carnesecca and Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson and Walter Berry -- but not nearly as suffocatingly as Lavin and others were shadowed by John Wooden's legacy at UCLA.

When asked what advice Carnesecca gave him during their sit-down talk the day he was hired, Lavin smiled and said, "Well, you know how Coach can make everyone feel so calm and reassured, how he pats you on the arm as he's talking to you? He was doing all that, and he was telling me, 'You're gonna be just fine here, kid. You're gonna do just fine.'

"Then he looked at me and added, 'Just make sure you get the horses, kid. You gotta make sure you get the players.'"

Lavin laughed and shook his head.

Seven years out. Just 30 days back in. And the game hasn't changed a bit.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.