Last season Steve Lavin breathed new life into St.John’s proud men’s basketball program. Lavin made his presence felt in his first season leading the Red Storm to an NCAA tournament bid and at one point a top 25 ranking. For all the high points of last year for Lavin professionally in his first year back on the sidelines, his personal life was dealt a stark blow when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer last spring.
Lavin recently has been recovering from what appears to be successful prostate cancer surgery. But the former UCLA head man wants to point out that he may have been pushing his body a little too far by trying to come back and coach this early. The Johnnies head coach is fully confident in his staff while he takes all the time he needs off recovering from his surgery.
This will be some season for the Red Storm after losing all their starters from last year and their head coach now being out for an indefinite period of time. To make matters even more trying, St.John’s only has eight athletes on scholarship competing in the Big East this season, one of which is a former walk-on, Jamal White. It will be a season of growing pains for the Red Storm, but look for power forward God’s Gift Achiuwa to be a bright spot on this young squad.
Steve Lavin joined WFAN in New York with Mike Francesa to discuss his health status coming off prostate cancer surgery, what his doctors have told him about coaching this season, whether he thinks he’ll be able to coach from the sidelines at any point this season, the status of top recruits Amir Garrett/Norvel Pelle/JaKarr Sampson and the likelihood of any of them ever being eligible for St. John’s, and the impact that God’s Gift Achiuwa will bring to the Red Storm this season as a top recruit.
How are you feeling first of all?
“On the mend and gradually improving in terms of my health. The big picture – the headline – is cancer free and naturally that was the objective and the goal of going to Sloan [Kettering Hospital], the cancer center there, and working with Dr. Peter T. Scardino, and his team of experts. The surgery was a success and I am cancer free. The blood work reflects that, but I had a setback after coming back for those four games and it was the conditioning, the stamina, the energy level was just not there yet. The doctor [Dr. Peter T. Scardino] is not overly surprised. It’s not as though that is uncommon in terms of having that challenge when it comes to your energy levels and in particular when it is coaching. That’s an experience when you are letting it all hang out trying to give your team everything that you got in terms of giving them juice and trying to keep them jacked up – bringing the intensity and passion and the teaching of what it takes to be successful at this level. That stretch really set me back, but now I am back recuperating on the recovery trail. The healing process is what will determine my return date and also working with the doctors. Naturally I am going to follow their advisement and direction because they are experts when it comes to something like this, but I am just very pleased we got great leadership from Mike Dunlap, who’s taken over in my absence and of course, Gene Keady, the wise old owl who is on the bench bringing his Hall of Fame perspective and 900th win perspective and Rico Hines, Tony Chiles and Mo Hicks. We have a more than capable group that’s moving our team forward and of course I am still working at practice and recruiting and doing other things that it takes to keep the Johnnies- to keep our program moving in the right direction.”
What have the doctors told you about coaching? Tone it down for now? Be your own judge?
“No they work in close concert. There’s a great team over there – Christine Ferrari – who is Dr. Peter Scardino’s right hand is in constant contact and I keep in touch. I even have the cell phone of my doctor Peter Scardino, so they are aware. Of course they have watched a couple of ball games and they now recognize that I just came back too soon. You don’t know until you jump up on that horse, whether or not you are at that point where you are ready and naturally the competitive side of me wanted to come back as soon as possible and the adrenaline gets going in those games and each game the energy was diminished, the stamina was diminished, and the bigger concern was that I was not recovering between games and having been in this business 25 years and moving towards 50 now I have a pretty good sense and feel as we all do on the intuitive level when it comes to health. You are more mindful of that I think as you get older. You’ve had family members and I have who have fought cancer and so it is just not worth at this stage jeopardizing the long term health or future and to be honest not fair to the kids. If I am not at full strength then they are not getting a fair shake and in particular when you have capable, competent people like Mike Dunlap and Gene Keady and Rico Hines and Tony Chiles and Mo Hicks. A really capable group over there. They are really better served and the program is better served to have people at full strength fighting those fights then I will recover and recuperate and join forces. In the mean time I’ll be getting things done in this 2012 recruiting class and things we can do strategically in terms of fundraising and generating energy and what not with our fan base. So we are still at work. I just have to be mindful of stepping aside from the coaching aspect because the rigors and demands are just too great at this point for the body.”
Do you think this could be a couple of weeks out of coaching or the whole season?
“You know because I learned a valuable lesson the first time around by coming back too soon and getting caught up in the dates or the calendars or certain opponents and trying to time things I am not going to avoid that. Probably may be a little more patient. I am just like our players I am learning as I go. This is the first time for me having cancer – first major surgery of my life, so I am learning as I go along and clearly I need to avoid putting any dates on calendars or projecting or looking down the road because I think that’s the danger. You have to really let healing, the doctors, and where your strength is at to determine a return date.”
What’s the status of the three young men [Amir Garrett, Norvel Pelle and JaKarr Sampson] who aren’t with St.John’s any longer?
“They didn’t qualify to come to St.John’s as they go back into being recruitable prospects. [Mike Francesa: All three of the players are fair game for any team to recruit now?] Yes. They are back in the hopper and that is about all I can say.”
God’s Gift Achiuwa has some ability. No question?
“He’s one player that is already physically prepared for Big East play because of his junior college experience and just the blessing of a very strong and sturdy body. He’s still learning. He’s gotta get under the basket more. He’s getting his post up just too far away from the hoop. In the Big East you gotta establish the lane – the basket area – like the line of scrimmage in football and he tends to move out too far and then we have to make a concerted effort getting our guards to look inside for him and search or investigate or probe out the post touches for God’s Gift as well, so we are in that stage where we are still learning the game and watching game film and walking them through what we call ‘moving the chess pieces’ at practice to explain things. One of the difficulties of having the 8 walk-ons is that the players don’t get to simulate game situations.”