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Accusations fly as season ends for St. John’s Red Storm

A former St. John’s University basketball player alleged last week he had received monthly payments from a university official and was discriminated against because of his race, just as the team from which he was barred weeks earlier wound up the worst season in SJU history.

Abe Keita, who was permanently removed from the team in the wake of a sex scandal following a road loss to Pittsburgh Feb. 4, said through a statement issued by his attorney at a news conference that starting in his first year at SJU in 1999, he began receiving “under the table cash payments” from an unnamed university official.

St. John’s officials vehemently denied Keita’s claims, saying no mention of any wrongdoing on the university’s part had come up during a previous meeting between Keita and school administrators. The officials also called the discrimination charge “simply not true.”

“Despite the NCAA’s proscriptions regarding ‘extra benefits’ and ‘pay,’ Mr. Keita was given any number of under-the-table cash payments, so that he could play basketball at St. John’s,” his lawyers at Gallion & Spielvogel said in a statement at a March 3 news conference.

“In the absence of his stellar basketball skills, Mr. Keita believes that St. John's would have had no interest in him whatsoever,” his lawyers said.

Keita is also claiming that the school violated his civil rights and has authorized his lawyers “to draft a complaint, to be filed in federal court in Manhattan, alleging violations of the United States constitution and federal civil rights laws by St. John's University.”

The lawyers said “he firmly believes that he was the unworthy recipient of racially disparate disciplinary treatment at the hands of St. John's University.”

Keita was one of six team members and a student-manager who were either suspended or expelled following an after-curfew trip to a strip club and what turned out to be false allegations from a one-time Queens woman that she had been raped by three members of the team.

No criminal charges were filed against any team members, but the school took swift action, expelling senior Grady Reynolds, permanently removing Keita and Elijah Ingram from the team and suspending Mohammed Diakite and Lamont Hamilton for the remainder of the season. Freshman Tyler Jones was forced to sit just two games.

“When St. John’s attorney met with attorneys for Mr. Keita to discuss their proposed complaint, they made no reference to any improper cash payments,” the school said. “We are therefore very surprised to learn that Mr. Keita’s attorneys made such allegations...”

St. John’s officials said it would “conduct an immediate investigation of the matter and take appropriate action, if necessary, to meet our obligations under NCAA rules.”

The NCAA does not comment on its ongoing investigations, not even to confirm the existence of an investigation.

Following the team’s loss to Boston College earlier in the week, senior forward Kyle Cuffe told reporters Keita was acting “childish and immature” and that neither he nor any other member of the team he was aware of had ever received cash payments from school officials.

“Never. If something like that ever happened, I was never aware of it,” Cuffe said in one published report. “This is one of the cleanest programs I know. We all get stipends, that’s part of our scholarship. Nothing new. Nothing more.

“You can’t try to bring down other people,” Cuffe was quoted as saying. “We have good character. He’s the first one that says we’re all brothers. That’s not family. Family doesn’t bring its dirty laundry outside. It’s all family. You don’t let things out.”

The much-beleaguered basketball team’s season came to an end Saturday with an 89-62 defeat against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

Playing with only four scholarship players — Kyle Cuffe, Daryll Hill, Curtis Johnson and Jones — the Red Storm managed to stay close in the first half — they were within three before Notre Dame’s Chris Thomas buried a three-pointer at the buzzer to put the Fighting Irish up by six, 39-33, at halftime.

But the second half was all Irish, outscoring the Red Storm 50-29 over the final 20 minutes while running away with the easy 27-point win. Hill led the Storm with 25 points and seven assists, Jones added 12 points and 11 rebounds and Cuffe, in his final game, scored 18 points with seven rebounds.

The Red Storm will not make an appearance in the Big East Tournament — for the first time in history — nor will there be any post-season play at all to speak of. The 2003-04 team’s final record of 6-21 overall and 1-15 in conference play go into the record books as the worst season in the long and successful existence of the school’s basketball team.

Since the start, this past season has been rife with controversy. Senior Willie Shaw was permanently removed from the team after his arrest on charges of marijuana possession, followed quickly by the firing of former head coach Mike Jarvis on Dec. 19, just six games removed from the school’s record sixth N.I.T. championship.

Since the incident in Pittsburgh gutted the team of six key players — including three starters — the team lost graduate student and team captain Andre Stanley to academic ineligibility.

With the season now over, the school is expected to turn its sights on finding the next head coach. Interim coach Kevin Clark is not expected to return.

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

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