As I watched the final seconds tick away in a 93-78 St. John’s win over third-ranked Duke, I kept thinking of Gary Charles.
The longtime director of the AAU Long Island Panthers, Charles is one of those guys you go to when you want to get your arms around what matters and who matters in New York City basketball.
Back in September, I called him and asked him what the most important thing Steve Lavin could do at St. John’s.
“Win back New York,’’ Charles told me. “Everybody’s been waiting for that. There’s nothing like sitting in the Garden, watching St. John’s. People want that back.’’
On television, it sure looked and sounded like they were getting what they want.
The most damning stat for former St. John’s coach Norm Roberts wasn’t in the win-loss column -- it was the dwindling attendance figures and the Red Storm’s steady slide to irrelevance.
In a city that wants nothing more than to have a college basketball team to embrace, St. John’s was little more than an afterthought.
Duke has long played these games at Madison Square Garden for two reasons: recruiting and relating. The Duke brand is massive enough that it need not play Paducah, but it can’t hurt to bring your brand-name game to the brand-name arena to help secure the brand-name talent.
Throw in the furtive alumni base, filled with stockbrokers and other movers and shakers that call the New York-New Jersey area home, versus the pessimistic and disenchanted St. John’s fan base and you could guarantee a home-court atmosphere for the Blue Devils at the Garden.
It had been eight years since the Red Storm beat Duke, eight years of the Blue Devils owning St. John’s and its city.
No more. This win was in front of a partisan home crowd, in front of students that happily stormed the court, in front of a beaming Lou Carnesecca, in front of alumni proud to wear their school colors again, and in front of casual fans desperate for a home team worth backing.
Since Lavin was hired, New Yorkers have slowly and tentatively come back to St. John's. The hope of a new coach does that and the fact that this new coach came with some name recognition, media savvy and panache didn't hurt.
Are they all-in after one win? Of course not. New Yorkers are too smart for that.
But to get a signature victory in the city limits, to give people a reason to really believe? That can't be undervalued as Lavin tries to reinvigorate his most powerful sales tool: the city itself.
I’m not sure what this win against Duke will mean in the immediate future. It certainly boosts the Johnnies’ NCAA tournament résumé, though it doesn’t turn the bubble-riding Red Storm into a lock by any means. It also doesn't mean St. John's will automatically start selling out the Garden for the rest of the season either.
But this has never been about the short term for Lavin or St. John’s anyway. It’s about the long term -- about a resurrecting a program, not building a season.
And in that regard, this win means everything. So does that 2011 recruiting class that is currently ranked No. 2 nationally.
What’s the song say? I want to be a part of it, New York, New York.
St. John’s is a part of it once again.