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Bosco’s Corner: Red Storm’s season ends on sour note

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I can’t help but feel bad for those eight guys — the eight remaining players who made up the 2003-04 St. John’s University men’s basketball team and took the court at Madison Square Garden Saturday to battle the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Those eight individuals will forever be linked to the worst season in the history of the legendary program. But they should be able to hold their heads high for the remainder of their lives for the way they have handled themselves throughout this wretched and otherwise forgettable season.

It is not Daryll Hill’s fault that Willie Shaw and former SJU great Marcus Hatten were arrested on charges of marijuana possession, nor was it walk-on Phil Missere’s fault that Mike Jarvis became the first head coach in Big East Conference history to be fired mid-season.

The last person anyone would blame for the Pittsburgh sex scandal that removed five team members from the roster for the rest of the season is gentle giant Curtis Johnson, the size of whose sneakers is equaled only by that of his heart.

These eight players, Hill, Missere, Johnson, Kyle Cuffe, Tyler Jones, Devon Mayo, Nygel Roach and Joe McDonald, have endeared themselves to Red Storm fans for their valiant effort, hard work and desire, and those who return next year should be the perfect foundation for a new coach to build on.

Unfortunately, not everyone will see it that way. Some will continue to tear down a program that has taken a beating all year long. And while I think the school and administration must take some of the blame for what has transpired, those eight kids shouldn’t have to and, as far as I’m concerned, they deserve their own standing ovation.

And if there were a polar opposite to the sentiments I have for the eight who remained on the team, that’s how I would feel about the allegations made against the university by former basketball player Abe Keita.

Keita went public last week, claiming he had received cash payments of $300 from an unidentified university official since he began attending the school in 1999 in a statement issued by his lawyer from the law firm Gallion & Spielvogel. He also accused the school of violating his civil rights, citing racial discrimination against foreign-born student-athletes.

I’d laugh if it were not so serious.

Keita, who has to be one of the biggest busts in the history of the program, never developed into a legitimate Division I player, never earned quality minutes or praise and was a starter by default on a team that hasn’t had a decent big man since the days of Jayson Williams. (I’m sure that has to sting a bit.)

I mean, really, how can anyone be expected to take these kind of allegations seriously when Keita had willingly and freely attended and played for the school for five years?

It’s not like anyone was forcing the guy to accept his free college education or to play basketball on national television, affording him incredible and priceless media exposure.

If he had developed his game even a little bit and stayed in bed on Feb. 4 instead of breaking curfew, venturing to a strip club and bringing a woman back to the team’s hotel in Pittsburgh with some teammates, maybe Keita would have been able to play basketball in the NBA.

Instead, Keita has made a mockery of his career at SJU.

“In fact, there is absolutely no recorded indication that St. John’s intended to do anything other than to exploit Mr. Keita for whatever benefit he might, in the short term, be able to lend to the university’s basketball program,” his lawyer’s statement said.

Good grief. If being exploited means getting a free college education while playing basketball on national television, all I have to say is, “St. John’s, please exploit me.” I mean, I couldn’t do a heck of a lot worse on the court than Keita did. And I’m a 5-foot-9 Italian-Cuban with no outside shot at all.

I had to read his media statement twice to make sure I was not suffering from some sort of delusion. Keita admitted accepting what he contended were cash payments and clearly had no intention of giving the alleged money back.All of a sudden after being kicked off the team, he said he believes that “such cash payments constitute an inarguable and incontrovertible violation of the most fundamental rules promulgated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.”

The lawyer for Keita, a native of West Africa, also claimed the school “should have realized that Mr. Keita, given his background of abject poverty and lack of a support network in the United States, would have been extraordinarily vulnerable and susceptible to accepting NCAA-prohibited cash from the university.”

The statement also said that “to the extent that any of St. John’s cash payments to Mr. Keita permitted him to do so, he remitted such surplus monies to his impoverished mother in war-torn West Africa. To date, it has been seven years since Mr. Keita has seen his mother.”

Yes, poor Abe. He came to the greatest city in the world to get a free education and to play basketball and allegedly got paid to do it, but somehow he is the victim here.

I’m just glad this season is over, Keita’s career at St. John’s is over and the search for a new coach can begin. I hope by next year this whole sordid affair will be nothing but a miserable memory and those remaining eight players get the credit they deserve for reminding us just what the St. John’s tradition should be.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

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