The snow is falling so violently, and so steadily, that even New York City is made to stand still. LaGuardia Airport has closed. Cabbies have gone home. St. John's University, like every other school in the area, has locked its doors, except to the gymnasium where the men's basketball team would commence practice, three hours early.
Inside primeval Alumni Hall, where red-and-white banners tell of St. John's basketball heritage, Coach Lou Carnesecca is struggling to shake the flu. As a result, he won't breathe on anybody and is calling himself "Typhoid Louie." His voice is more a whisper than it usually is. But he peps up a little when he gets down to the floor and looks at all-America Chris Mullin and Bill Wennington and Walter Berry, all ready to get on with their mid-winter dream.
Carnesecca might be recovering from a virus, but his Redmen are quite healthy, thank you. St. John's, which has gone to a postseason tournament for 16 straight years under Carnesecca, might have its best team ever. This year's Redmen have won nine straight and are ranked third in the nation, coming into Saturday's game at sold-out Capital Centre with top-ranked and undefeated Georgetown (WDVM-TV-9, 2 p.m.)
It is probably only the millionth "big game" for Carnesecca and for St. John's basketball. And that, in itself, is worth exploring. There are 15 or so schools with Division I basketball teams located in the New York metropolitan area, yet none has enjoyed the sustained, high-level success of St. John's. It began long before Carnesecca or the Big East came along.
Rutgers, Fordham and Iona have had their moments. St. John's has been to the NCAA tournament eight of the last nine years. Ask Carnesecca why he and his school have been more successful than the rest and you first get a mini-lesson in St. John's history.
"It's a great tradition here," he said. "You don't become the third-winningest school ever (in number of victories and winning percentage behind only Kentucky and North Carolina) unless there's a commitment to it. It's our heritage. It's important to us. You go back years and years, and basketball was their thing. In 1942 and '43 on the West Coast, they knew St. John's because of our basketball.
"You've had great coaches here, like Joe Lapchick (whom Carnesecca succeeded) and Frank McGuire. I'm just going along with the times, playing my tune and going along. Somebody else will come along and do the same thing."
Maybe. But right now, this St. John's team is a Carnesecca creation, and at times wonderful to watch. Mullin and Berry are certified players, high first-round draft choices when the time comes to turn professional. Wennington, a 7-foot Canadian center, has come much farther than many expected.
Those three form the core of the team, which is filled out for the most part by Mike Moses, a quick-thinking little point guard; sophomore forward Willie Glass; Ron Rowan, a reserve guard who transferred in from Notre Dame, and guard Mark Jackson.
First, there's Mullin, 6-6, guard or forward, 1984 U.S. Olympian. He's averaging 18 points and could be scoring a lot more. He is one of the prolific shooters in college basketball, now or in any other era. In addition to having always been a great shooter, Mullin spends what seems like unreasonable hours in the gymnasium -- or the laboratory, as Carnesecca refers to it -- practicing his shot.
Mullin frequently sneaks into the lab around 10 p.m., when alumni functions are just about over. Hardly anyone knows how long he stays there because everyone has long gone home to bed. Mullin, in a now famous story, once spent the night in Alumni Hall during a snowstorm. As Carnesecca said, "He spends his time in the laboratory." Someone remembers him making 80 of 90 shots in a pre-Olympic filming session.
"You get a player like that once in a lifetime," Carnesecca said. "Chris is an unusual player. In the opera, they have a saying about Tomano, who sang Othello: 'There'll never be another guy who can sing it that well again.' And I wonder if we'll ever have another guy who can do it as well as Chris. He's not the best scorer I've ever had (Rick Barry, who played for him in the ABA), but Chris is the best shooter."
Moses said of his back court mate, "What he does, for that moment, is fantastic. But then he comes back and does something else. This year, he's showing he can play defense, and he's leading the team in assists."
Mullin went through a "shooting slump" earlier this year that took him all the way down to 49 percent. Carnesecca, asked the last time Mullin had a slump, responded, "I'm sure it had to be seventh grade."
Mullin is talkative, even expansive, when the subject is something other than Mullin. He has to know he's good. But he doesn't let anybody else know he knows, which is the attraction. "If I have a really good game, I can truthfully say I did a lot of things wrong," Mullin said. He made the statement before scoring 29 points Wednesday in an 82-80 victory over Syracuse, but probably repeated it afterward.
Believe it or not, it certainly had to be easier to defend against Mullin before Berry arrived. Berry, a 6-8 sophomore forward, had been trying to get to St. John's for a while. He finished New York's Ben Franklin High School without a diploma, but enrolled in a longstanding program that granted a high school equivalency diploma. During a lengthy battle with the NCAA, Berry sat out one year. Last season, he averaged 29 points and 14 rebounds per game at San Jacinto (Tex.) Junior College.
It is said he relies too much on his left hand and makes too many mistakes. Probably. But he's also averaging 16 points and nine rebounds, and is shooting 60 percent.
Even with Mullin and Berry -- both of whom probably will be first-team all-Big East -- Carnesecca swears that the man his team couldn't make it without is Wennington, a former swimmer who is known sometimes as "Big Bill" and as William when he writes feature stories for St. John's Today, the campus paper. His wit is precious -- a match for Carnesecca, even. And his game has improved: he averages 12 points and six rebounds. He's no Patrick Ewing around the basket, but he does give St. John's one of the nation's few good 7-footers.
"I say this and people think I'm crazy: We could not win without Bill Wennington," Carnesecca said. "We could not, I'm serious. He's the one guy we could not do without, not in this league. He's improved every year. And like all the big men, it doesn't come right away. He's made progress, he sees the game now. The game is still in front of him."
Moses, a senior, says his job is to "get those guys the ball in the right position, (because) they're going to do something constructive."
The players seem to like each other. Carnesecca knows which button to push on each player. After a grueling Monday night home game with Villanova, the Redmen were scheduled to have off the next day. Carnesecca said, "See you Wednesday" to just about everybody except Berry. "See you tomorrow, Walter," Carnesecca said.
"But Coach," Berry said, "I thought we had tomorrow off."
"Well, I was hoping to see you in the laboratory working on the free throws a little," Carnesecca said with a pleading look. Berry, killed by such kindness, smiled and said, "Okay."
There are those who have said that Carnesecca has not gotten along so well with many of his players. One acutely critical story -- many say unjustly critical -- in a recent issue of Inside Sports magazine strongly suggests that Carnesecca has not always been aboveboard in getting those players.
Those who know Carnesecca say he was more hurt than angered by the story, which in the most critical parts quoted unnamed sources. St. John's might indeed have a upper hand in attracting players, especially from the New York area. Since St. John's does not have dormitories, NCAA regulations allow a student-athlete who has to live and eat in facilities that are not regulated by the university to be paid by the institution a sum equal to the school's room and board fees.
The three St. John's players who live at home obviously could spend that money almost any way they choose. The other players, who live in apartments, still have money to allot as they wish. Some people, certainly a few of them being opposing recruiters, see that as an advantage. The story went on to allege that certain players get money on top of that, and painted a picture of many of Carnesecca's former players having left disgruntled (Carnesecca counters: "Come in my office some time and look at all the guys going in and out"). St. John's has denied any wrongdoing.
To Carnesecca a man is no more than his word and his handshake. And the story was a shot at his credibility. "It was a vicious attack," Carnesecca said just after the story was published. But he said it softly, almost without emotion. "But if in this country they can criticize the president, the governor, the mayor, who am I as a basketball coach not to expect or be able to handle criticism?"
And since that time Carnesecca has been just as cooperative, just as expansive and affable with journalists as he always has been.
Certainly, this week, his mind and his team have been focused on a four-day stretch of basketball that includes playing Syracuse and Georgetown. St. John's, in many ways, will look and play like it always has. Lots of ball movement on offense, some running, and almost always man-to-man defense.
"No doubt I've been influenced by the Eastern style of basketball, where the ball does the work," Carnesecca said. "Great emphasis is placed on moving yourself and the ball, rather than the shot. The Celtics, Joe Lapchick and Frank McGuire -- that pretty much dictated basketball to me. I know I'm pretty much one of the last Mohicans with this man-to-man defense. I did all that stuff with triangle-and-twos and box-in-ones in high school. But I came back to the laboratory. I think it's the best defense, and the hardest. It's beautiful when you get it down."
The same thing can be said about this group of Redmen, when they are in synch, both on offense and defense. Even if they aren't, one of the things Carnesecca has been able to do, win or lose, is to realize how much he loves the game. "Basketball has been a bonanza to me, in every sense of the word," he said. "I don't know what I'd do if I didn't coach. This life, this team. It's a lot of fun."