Steve Lavin often speaks of coaching icons he respects. There is St. John’s legend Lou Carnesecca. And his current assistant Gene Keady, who Lavin calls “Mr. Miyagi.”
D’Angelo Harrison’s three-pointer with a little over two minutes remaining, gave St. John’s a 65-63 lead, that they would keep, in what Creighton head coach Greg McDermott called “a great college basketball game.” It was the 10th win against a ranked opponent for the Johnnies in the Lavin era.
St. John’s was coming off a 2010 season where they finished 13th in the Big East when Lavin was brought in to replace Norm Roberts. It was an impressive hire. A coach who won 145 games in seven years at UCLA, and made five sweet sixteen appearances left his job at ESPN to come to Utopia Parkway.
Although he wants to win every game, Lavin feels that the reason to be coaching is “to see growth and development in young people.”
There were tough times. Critics in Westwood said he was getting by on talented players and that his Xs and Os were lacking. A number of Red Storm fans were ready to read last rites for a team that had lost five in a row, now winners in six of their last seven games.
“I’ve never come off my position of liking this team,” said Lavin. “They’re an enjoyable bunch to coach on a daily basis.”
Even for a coach that has made the NCAA tournament eight times, this St. John’s team stands out.
“I’m as proud of this group as any I’ve coached in terms of…resiliency, gumption, fight back, character,” he said.
There was his first season at UCLA, 1996-97, when the Bruins made the Elite Eight. Several times his Bruins beat the top-ranked team in the country. There was his first season in Queens, when the Red Storm won 21 games and made the tournament for the first time in nine years.
“It’s significant because this particular group has worked so hard from the halftime of that Georgetown game forward,” he said.
Lavin believes that “sports is a metaphor for life.” Maybe it was this attitude that kept Lavin strong when he was diagnosed with cancer, which limited him to four games on the bench in 2011-12. Since returning, Lavin has added 32 wins.