St. John's finally had the extra pair of Air Force 1's it was looking for on the sideline Wednesday night.
The normalcy of pregame warm-ups and introductions became rather abnormal when the Carnesecca Arena crowd went into a frenzy. After weeks of questions and uncertainties, Steve Lavin appeared through the floor-level doors in his usual sharp blue suit.
Lavin, who had missed all practices and games since undergoing prostate cancer surgery on October 6th, coached his young Red Storm squad for the first time in the 78-73 win over Lehigh. But when he said Tuesday that his health was progressing, no one expected such an immediate return. Even him.
More below the fold.
When Steve Lavin woke up on Wednesday morning, he was mentally and physically preparing for a few more days of rest. Although he never addressed his intentions to the team while at practice Tuesday, Lavin independently plotted to return on Sunday afternoon when St. John's will host UMBC.
Then the head coach experienced a touch of peer pressure.
"It was inevitable that I was going to return," Lavin said after Wednesday's victory. "Coach Dunlap kind of nudged me to come back one game earlier. The decision was made at about 3:30."
By the sound of it, Lavin legitimately made the decision spontaneously. He may even have been rushed out of his Soho apartment.
"I showered, shaved, put on the Air Force 1's, and went to campus," he told ESPN's Len Elmore following the game. Now, that's efficiency.
Why did Lavin ultimately choose to make this the game to come back? Along with citing the inevitability, he admitted that the transition back won't be effortless. The sooner he began coaching this team in person, the better. DVDs and texts can't do face-to-face communication justice.
A reason for an accelerated return could be a way to salvage the program's current image. Lavin, one of the most prominent recruiters in the country, most likely feels that prospective athletes want security in knowing the charismatic leader is healthy.
Though Lavin looked as healthy as ever Wednesday jumping out of his seat and shuffling along the sideline, there is no way the physical demands of the job make the transition comfortable.
"I've been texting [Jim] Calhoun the last couple days. He reached out yesterday," Lavin remarked. "When I asked him how long it took to get back to full strength, he said it took about three months."
But there Lavin was, just 34 days out of the operating room, giving instructions and physically reacting to the flows of the game. He commended his group's resiliency, but probably should have attributed the compliment to himself as well.
Calhoun wasn't the only one to connect with Lavin during his recovery process. Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker and NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci also reached out to the St. John's coach.
As with anyone who is away from something they love for a period of time, Coach Lavin was certainly relieved to be back. It couldn't have been easy for him to bottle himself in a room watching practices and games on a television screen.
"You definitely miss the camaraderie, the competition, as well as the games. That was a challenging aspect," he said. "But you're also aware or mindful that nothing is more important than health, so I was able to temper that disappointment."
As surprising as Lavin's return was for the fans, it was equally as unexpected for the team. Both Maurice Harkless and God'sgift Achiuwa mentioned that they had no idea that their coach was coming back. But interactions were pretty normal.
"Like when any member of your family comes back, we just give dap or high five - or whatever the terminology is today," Lavin joked.
Did I mention that we have been craving some Lavin Lines for quite some time?
The Johnnies will continue their transition from taking orders from Mike Dunlap to doing so from Steve Lavin in the coming days and weeks. They won't get much time to get used to the 'Chief' before they host UMBC on Sunday.
And so begins the ole' arduous task.