March Madness: Saint Peter's coach Shaheen Holloway's Sweet 16 moment finally arrives 22 years later

PHILADELPHIA -- Back in the summer of 2009, two 20-something Iona assistant coaches walked out of an Orlando AAU event together. Out of nowhere, Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski approached one of the men, draped his arm around Shaheen Holloway and informed him of his obscure niche in Duke lore.

More than a decade earlier, Holloway had twice visited Duke as a recruit. When Holloway walked into Cameron Indoor Stadium as a high school senior in 1996, a scene he described as being "like a movie" unfolded, as eight students painted the letters of his last name on their chests -- H-O-L-L-O-W-A-Y.

Holloway would become the MVP of the 1996 McDonald's All-American game, besting Kobe Bryant, Richard Hamilton and Mike Bibby. But he ultimately decided to turn down Duke, Kansas and Syracuse to attend Seton Hall.

That prompted the friendly parking lot headlock from Krzyzewski. "This is the only guy not to commit to me after taking two visits," former Iona assistant Dan McHale recalled Krzyzewski saying that day.

As Krzyzewski walked away, the defiantly understated Holloway shrugged his shoulders and said to McHale: "I just couldn't leave my barber in Jersey."

This week, Shaheen Holloway has joined Coach K on one of college basketball's grandest stages through the unconventional path he forged by staying home and staying loyal. Holloway, 45, has guided Saint Peter's into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, one of the most improbable stories in the history of the event.

The 15th-seeded Peacocks toppled No. 2 Kentucky and then thumped No. 7 Murray State, advancing to play Purdue in the East Regional in Philadelphia on Friday night. The victories have thrust the gritty commuter school in Jersey City, New Jersey, into the role of America's darlings.

"Let's keep going," Holloway told ESPN in a phone interview this week. "I don't [want to] wake up. I want to keep dreaming. It's an unbelievable dream. Let's keep going."

Holloway's real reason for choosing blue collar Seton Hall over those blue bloods stuck with him throughout his career. "I wanted to go to a place that I could change around," he said.

He turned St. Patrick's High School into a power with his play, led Seton Hall to the Sweet 16 in 2000 and now has Saint Peter's defying the school's historical and economic realities to be one of 12 remaining contenders for the national championship.

Those who have witnessed Holloway's rise from point guard phenom to college star to precocious young coach aren't surprised by his success. The theme of extreme loyalty has permeated Holloway's rise, as he's planted himself firmly into each institution and watched each one bloom.

"That's who I am," Holloway said. "That's me as a person. When someone is loyal to me, the loyalty is [given] right back. I'm the type of person who wanted to go for challenges."

IN MARCH OF 2000, Shaheen Holloway's senior year at Seton Hall unfolded in storybook fashion. He led the Pirates to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994, hit a game-winning coast-to-coast layup against No. 10 seed Oregon in the first round and had the Pirates poised for an upset of 2-seed Temple.

After pushing through four years of adversity to reach that moment, a freak injury ended his college career and changed the trajectory of his professional life. Holloway still recalls the play vividly -- Seton Hall big man Samuel Dalembert blocked a shot, then Holloway sped out on a 3-on-2 break and Eurostepped into a layup attempt.

Holloway stepped on the foot of star Temple guard Pepe Sanchez, which led to an awkward takeoff and landing. Holloway tumbled under the basket and writhed on the floor in pain. "You could almost hear it from the sideline," former Seton Hall assistant Chris Collins said. "He jumped up and landed and you could tell it was one of those bad ones. He was so tough, you knew it wasn't a normal roll."

Holloway left the game, which Seton Hall won on an overtime 3-pointer by backup Ty Shine. He never played again at Seton Hall, sitting out a Sweet 16 loss against Oklahoma State that saw the player he likely would have guarded, Doug Gottlieb, dish out 12 assists, and teammate Darius Lane shoot 2-for-18 from 3-point range.

"It was really heartbreaking," Collins said. "He'd really carried that team. He was the leader of that team. To not be able to play in that game. I know how much that hurt him."

That game has drawn attention this week because it's the last time a team from New Jersey -- or any New York City-area team -- reached the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament. This time, Holloway will have a chance to get the ending right.

What's forgotten is that the ankle injury also derailed Holloway's shot at an NBA career, which hastened his entry into coaching. Holloway said that he "ripped 10 different ligaments" in his ankle. He couldn't work out for NBA teams and he played in the Chicago pre-draft camp at only about 75%. At a listed height of 5-foot-10, Holloway was never going to be a lottery pick, but he also never got a chance to show he belonged.

"I don't know if it ever fully healed," Collins said. "He never really got back that burst. He was so quick and explosive. It took a half-step off his game. At that size, he really needed that to be pro."

Holloway tried out with the Knicks, but ended up getting cut and bounced around Europe from 2000 to 2005 before eventually moving back to spend more time with his daughter, Shatanik, as she began approaching high school age. (She was born when Shaheen was a sophomore in high school.)

Once Holloway's playing days had ended, he was able to show that he'd been preparing for years for his next phase.

What people around Seton Hall remember about that run to the Sweet 16 as much as the injury was a scene in Syracuse as the team was preparing to play Oklahoma State. Holloway was getting treatment nonstop to try and get the ankle ready, and at one point was getting tutored in English literature to prepare for a midterm while sitting in the whirlpool.

Holloway had forged a strong bond with Robin Cunningham -- the team's tutor, who worked at Seton Hall in various roles inside and outside the athletic department for 37 years. On Holloway's recruiting visit, he spent two minutes on an essay Cunningham asked him to take 20 minutes to write. By the time he was a senior, he'd spend three hours perfecting an assignment that only should have taken two. "He certainly worked on a Plan B the whole time," Cunningham said.

The whirlpool scene cut to the essence of Holloway. Instead of bemoaning an injury that robbed him of his final career game and hindered his NBA chances, he stayed focused on becoming the first person in his family to graduate college. And, in turn, set up this return trip to the Sweet 16 more than two decades later.

"That's just who I am," Holloway said. "I don't let things bring me down."

THE CLIP FROM Shaheen Holloway's news conference went viral -- both new-age and old-school viral. When Holloway was asked about No. 7 Murray State pushing around Saint Peter's, Holloway could only smile.

"I've got guys from New Jersey and New York City," Holloway said. "You think we're scared of anything?"

The quote was retweeted like an endless slot machine jackpot, flashed up on countless Instagram stories and even made it on a New Jersey Turnpike billboard after a column by NJ.com's Steve Politi suggested the words should be immortalized in that most New Jersey manner.

Holloway has long referred to New Jersey as his "adopted" home, as he moved there from Queens at around age 14 to attend St. Patrick High School -- now known as The Patrick School. Holloway moved in with a host family in Hillsdale, which precipitated the rise of the first New Jersey program he helped transform.

"It was a move I knew I had to make," Holloway said. "It was nerve-wracking a little bit, as 14-year-old kid leaving everything that he knows to go somewhere else. But it turned out to be the best move I ever made."

Prior to Holloway, St. Patrick had a modest basketball history. But his magnetic play, charisma and reputation is viewed as a turning point for then-coach Kevin Boyle's program becoming a national power and eventually luring top talent, including Al Harrington, Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

"He was ahead of his time," said Chris Chavannes, The Patrick School's current coach and president who helped recruit Holloway there in the early 1990s. "In today's game, with social media and everything, he'd have been amazing."

As a player, Holloway was so feared that Hall of Fame former St. Anthony's coach Bob Hurley -- a devout purveyor of man-to-man pressure defense -- started out a game against St. Patrick's in a 1-3-1 zone. Hurley said it's the only time he can recall doing that to attempt to stop an opponent.

"The 1-3-1 is the zone you play when you don't think you can control penetration and his ability to create shots," he said. "It was totally ineffective."

St. Anthony's got down 17, ditched the strategy and came back and won. While Holloway's reputation grew and St. Patrick's began blooming into a power, he impressed the administration there by remaining grounded. (To this day, Holloway never brings up his playing accomplishments to his players.)

"He was really, really impactful at St. Pat's," Chavannes said. "He was a handsome guy with a great smile who everyone loved -- students, parents, teachers and administrators."

Holloway could have bounced to bigger high schools, much like he could have transferred from Seton Hall or taken higher-profile assistant coaching jobs while at Iona and Seton Hall.

But Holloway's fidelity to the area is more than a sound bite, which is something Hurley appreciates after he spent 39 years at St. Anthony's. "It's in his blood to be here," Hurley said. "I see it."

FORMER SETON HALL coach Tommy Amaker, now the coach at Harvard, calls the relationship between Shaheen Holloway and Seton Hall "a true love affair."

Holloway committed to Seton Hall over a host of blue bloods during a time when the program had dipped from its crescendo under P.J. Carlesimo in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Holloway then stuck around after the school fired George Blaney, the coach who recruited him, after his freshman year.

Holloway's numbers initially dropped under Amaker before everything coalesced. He finished his career having evolved into, as Amaker describes, "not only a scorer but also a quarterback."

Holloway put up 1,588 career points, still holds the school's all-time assists record and captained that Sweet 16 run. Along the way, as he earned his degree in communications and planted his roots in North Jersey, the love affair blossomed.

"He's on the Mount Rushmore of that school in my opinion," Collins said. "Not just the player he was. What he meant to people. That he believed in the program when he did. For his ability to bring the program back to national relevance."

Holloway is quick to point out that as much as he poured into the school, the school poured back into him. Holloway met his wife, Kim, in Xavier Hall, and that's partially why one of their sons is named Xavier.

Holloway also credits Cunningham for being his rock during his four years in the school. "Oh man, she meant everything," he said. "She pushed me to believe I could do things I couldn't do academically."

Not only did Holloway graduate from Seton Hall, but he's since watched daughter Shatanik graduate from the school. "That was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life," he said. "Having her have the opportunity to walk across the stage with that degree. ... I'm not an emotional person at all. It brought tears to me."

That full-circle moment showed just how much Holloway's faith in Seton Hall has been rewarded.

"He demonstrates the promise of what Seton Hall offers," said Pat Hobbs, the former dean of the Seton Hall law school who is now the Rutgers athletic director. "Not everything goes perfect. You go and put in the work. ...

"In this world of NIL and free agency in college sports, he's an example of someone who picked a college and people help you, they help you grow and mature. It really set him on the path that he's on today."

IT'S HARD TO overstate how unlikely this magical March run is for Saint Peter's. The university has long been regarded among the least invested and resourced of the MAAC schools, set in a hardscrabble Jersey City neighborhood.

Saint Peter's is famously cash-strapped, as a viral thread on Twitter by a former staffer this week detailed a Spartan environment -- leaky roofs, flooded offices and a computer that wheezed through film sessions.

Holloway's last listed salary in tax documents was nearly $266,000, or less money than at least four assistant coaches and multiple players on Kentucky were reported to make this season.

The Peacocks have won by taking on Holloway's personality -- focused, defensive-minded and unflinching. Undersized big-man KC Ndefo, who is No. 12 in the nation in blocks at just 6-foot-6, has been a defensive anchor. Reserve guard Doug Edert has been a sniper (9-for-13) and guard Daryl Banks III exploded for 27 points against Kentucky.

And it showed that Holloway, in his fourth season, could bloom exactly where he's planted just as he did when choosing Seton Hall more than two decades ago. He has a team that doesn't flinch and doesn't make excuses.

"I think this weekend was a culmination of the last 25 years of his life," said McHale, who became close to Holloway while at Iona.

Saint Peter's has an interesting matchup with Purdue, as the Boilermakers have the second-best offense in the country, according to KenPom, and Saint Peter's has the country's No. 5 effective field goal percentage defense. Purdue is cartoonishly large in the post, with 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and 6-foot-10 Trevion Williams. Saint Peter's has grit, nothing to lose and the potential to get Purdue to pucker.

However long this run does last, it's destined to be bittersweet. Holloway brushed aside a question that alluded to the Seton Hall job opening in a news conference on Thursday, dismissing it as "rumors."

The reality is that whenever it ends, Holloway is widely expected to become the next Seton Hall coach. His old boss there, Kevin Willard, has accepted the Maryland job and openly politicked for Holloway to get the Seton Hall job days before leaving. As a player on the school's Mount Rushmore, with a daughter who's a graduate and a son named after a campus dorm, if Holloway is not named the Seton Hall coach after this electric run, it would alienate a generation of former players and fans.

"I think he took a chance on Seton Hall when not a lot of people were doing it and stayed invested," said former Seton Hall assistant Greg Herenda, who recruited Holloway to Seton Hall and is now the coach at Fairleigh Dickinson. "I think he'll [try to be stoic] and try to pretend like he's got this. But if it were to happen, I think it'll hit him hard."

More than two decades after turning down Coach K, that expected next move would show Holloway had a plan in mind all along. "I think he's ended up," Cunningham said, "exactly where he wants to be."