It was an absolutely bizarre atmosphere at St. John's University Saturday. It was Senior Day, a day that was supposed to be about the four Red Storm players who were making their final appearance at Alumni Hall. It was supposed to be a good day, a nice day. Instead, it was anything but.
When I walked into the press room before St. John's was to take the floor against Boston College, my fellow Times/Ledger crony, Dylan Butler, came up to me and said simply, "You should sit down for this."
At first I felt like Olympia Dukakis in "Moonstruck," whose first lines of the movie were "Who's dead?" when she spied her husband and daughter standing next to her as she slept.
"What?" was my response. Though not nearly as funny as the actress, surely got to the point. I did not sit, but should have, for I nearly fell over.
Dylan handed me a press release, distributed to the members of the media just moments before. It said, more or less, that point guard Erick Barkley was "reluctantly" declared ineligible by the university for what had been determined by the NCAA as an infraction of its general regulations.
If being at Alumni Hall at 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday was not surreal enough, the atmosphere suddenly turned into something out of "The Twilight Zone."
Seldom have I seen so much press at an Alumni Hall game. The sharks were out in numbers Saturday, all wondering and searching for the real reason Barkley, an almost sure bet to turn pro at season's end, was suspended.
The truth of the matter is no one really knew Saturday and those that did were not saying.
Without Barkley in the line-up, St. John's barely squeaked by Boston College, a team that had lost its previous seven games but had a chance to win before freshman Troy Bell's shot went awry in the final seconds.
No matter how good and close the game was, however, the real show did not start until well after the final buzzer had sounded. My fellow reporters and I made our way to the theater, the site of all St. John's post-game press conferences, and sat for what seemed like an eternity in almost shear darkness.
The lights, you see, would not come on in the auditorium, leading one reporter (not me unfortunately), to say aloud, "Well, they've been keeping us in the dark all day," which to me was priceless.
Troy Bell and coach Al Skinner represented Boston College, but they stayed away from any Barkley discussion. And of course, when head coach Mike Jarvis and his three seniors, Lavor Postell, Bootsy Thornton and Chudney Gray, came in, they would only take questions relating to the game.
For at least a half hour or more the members of the press were feeding on appetizers, salivating for the main course, which came just before 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon.
Director of Athletics Ed Manetta, Jarvis and Barkley, decked out in black denim, sat side by side before a hungry pack of reporters. But in a wild turn of events, it was Jarvis and Manetta that came out biting.
The head coach, who has always struck me as measured and careful with his words since the first time I interviewed him more than a year and a half ago, could hardly contain his anger. He used words like "rape," "communist" and "Gestapo" when referring to the NCAA and its hand in Barkley's suspension.
"I hope and I pray to see a day when there is no NCAA," he said. "Enough is enough and it's time for a change."
These were not the words of a measured man. In fact, the day after the press conference, St. John's issued a release that had Jarvis apologizing for the use of the word "rape," even though the school received no complaints.
Manetta seemed more calm, though also visibly upset. He strongly disagreed with the NCAA's interpretation of the rule in question. According to various sources, Barkley's suspension stemmed from his exchanging a car with a longtime family friend. No money changed hands.
Jarvis intimated that perhaps someone was out to get his team, saying, "Maybe somebody is afraid of St. John's."
Manetta and Jarvis vehemently denied there was an ongoing NCAA investigation involving the university and even declined to be exact in pinpointing how they became aware that the NCAA was looking into a possible rules infraction on the part of Barkley.
"The NCAA is a business that can do basically whatever it wants, a business that can come in and conduct investigations whenever it wants," Jarvis said.
Apparently the university found out Thursday, when it was asked to act by the NCAA - forcing the SJU brain trust to rule Barkley ineligible or roll the dice and take its chances by playing, thereby opening the school up for further sanctions if the NCAA deems it warranted.
When the press conference came to an official end, instead of heading for the doors, the reporters lurched forward toward the dais, surrounding Jarvis and Manetta, while Barkley, who did not answer any questions, quietly left.
The feeding frenzy continued and Jarvis and Manetta obliged, answering question after question, but not able to fully discuss the details, for fear of further NCAA penalties.
I finally left at 3:30 p.m., shaking my head all the way home and feeling like Steve Buscemi in "Fargo," as if I had just been through a wood-chipper.
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