He only missed 34 days. It felt like an eternity.
That's how much head coach Steve Lavin means to the St. John's program. In just 20 months, Mr. California Cool has become the face of the most prominent New York City college team. But that's nothing new. He was the Red Storm's showman from day one.
On Thursday, Lavin will be absorbing the spotlight - you know, his usual deal. In a game where six Johnnies are expected to make their Madison Square Garden debut on national television, it will be the former UCLA coach and ESPN analyst that will alleviate personal pressures.
Lavin, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in September of 2010 and underwent surgery last month, will headline the 2K Sports Classic benefitting Coaches v. Cancer. The focus may be on the game and the opponent, but you can bet it will be something special for the recovering Steve Lavin and his team.
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If there was anyone who could make a navy-blue pinstripe suit and white Air Force 1's look cool, it would be this guy. Steve Lavin started what became Red Storm tradition last year against Duke. It stuck, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
The belief was that Lavin and his staff continued the look as a ploy of superstition. After all, the Johnnies did win 10 of its next 12. But what wasn't out to the public was his diagnosis of prostate cancer. That suave look was actually Lavin's own way of raising awareness.
The Red Storm travel into Manhattan to meet the 16th-ranked Arizona Wildcats at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. Undoubtedly the most high-profile game thus far for Lavin's young group, the game will be the first true test.
"Coaches and athletes are creatures of routine in terms of preparation," Lavin said on Wednesday. "The mindset is to focus on the task at hand and to block out all the other dimensions that can distract you from performing at a peak level against your opponent."
That's how Lavin began his response to the question of what Thursday's game means to him. He didn't end it so cliched.
"My grandmother passed to pancreatic cancer, my father is a prostate cancer survivor, both my parents have dealt with skin cancer, and most recently my personal battle with the disease," he continued. "I understand the importance of fighting the good fight."
Prostate cancer, which roughly claims the lives of 30,000-35,000 men in the United States every year, is a serious matter. Lavin is lucky that his cancer was discovered in the early stages and the time away from work was short-lived.
The St. John's players acknowledge the importance of Thursday's game in terms of the issue, but claim that their coach has kept their focus centralized on the game itself.
"It's a side note knowing that our leader dealt with it," junior guard Malik Stith said. "It's a good cause, but we still have to go out there and play the game."
The annual November Coaches vs. Cancer event has been raising money and awareness for cancer since 1995. Not only does it often bring extremely talented teams to New York, but it illuminates a much larger threat to men's health.
"It's important to help raise dollars and awareness for the dreaded disease and work to find a cure for it," Lavin remarked. "This event gives coaches an opportunity to put basketball in its proper light, in terms of prioritizing what really matters."
Lavin may tell you Thursday is all about Arizona, but there's no one better than he to understand the true magnitude.
Fight the good fight, everyone.