NEW YORK — What's a nice team like Loyola Marymount doing in a place like this?
The place is St. John's University in New York City, birthplace of Al McGuire and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The time is Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The game is basketball, which has near-religious status in the Big Apple.
The quest: Beat St. John's in its own Alumni Gym in its own season-opening Lapchick Tournament, take the New York news media by storm, establish the Loyola program as nationally competitive, take a bite out of the Big Apple and get out alive.
Loyola goes into the four-team tournament at less than full strength and has to beat Tennessee Tech on Saturday for the right to play St. John's on Sunday. (St. John's has to survive its Saturday opener against Harvard). The Redmen have never lost a game in the Lapchick Tournament.
Still, Loyola goes into New York with high hopes and its most talented team in recent years, and a chance to make a big impression in the East Coast media center.
An official alumni group is traveling to meet with New York City-area alumni. They'll be staying in Manhattan and doing Broadway. A good number of parents, students, cheerleaders and team followers will be making the trip.
Athletic Director Brian Quinn said a game this early "is certainly not a life-or-death situation" but added, "It's important to do well, impress ourselves on the Eastern writers. It will be a chance for some people to see us who don't normally see us on TV. It could help our athletes. If we were to win the tournament it would be a tremendous accomplishment. . . . It would provide us with a national media base. People would recognize us as a legitimate team. It's a very important game for us."
The players who have been around a while know what's at stake.
"It's our chance to get some national recognition. If we can win this tournament it would be a nice boost," said senior co-captain Mike Yoest. "We're going to New York, St. John's, the Big East. It's got all the flavor of big-time. Thanksgiving in New York."
Senior Corey Gaines' parents are making the trip. "They feel this year's team is going to win a lot of games," he explained. "They don't want to seem like they're jumping on the bandwagon later."
Junior Enoch Simmons said he relishes the underdog role. "I'm looking forward to the competition level we face when we get to New York," he said. "For us to put up a good game will get us recognition as a scrappy team that can play these guys. It would do a lot for our program as far as recruiting and guys' confidence. . . . When you beat somebody you're supposed to be an underdog against, it makes it more fun."
Hank Gathers, one of two Philadelphians on the team, will see his family in New York, as will Bo Kimble, who is sitting out with a knee injury.
Gathers said, "Hopefully we'll get a chance to play St. John's and open some doors for some exposure nationally. We knock those two off, people will be aware we've got a team."
Kimble was pulling no punches, though he'll be on the bench. "We have the potential (to win)," he said. "I think if I was in there we'd easily beat St. John's. Now maybe it'll be a more even game."
That's the kind of talk they love in New York--if you can back it up. Coach Paul Westhead, who is fearful of the dazzling effect the bright lights of the Big Apple could have on his team, is downplaying the importance of this early tournament. He decided to let the team stay home for Thanksgiving, and the squad won't arrive in New York until this evening.
"That was a basketball decision I made," Westhead said. "Early in the season like that, it's better not to sit around too long. I feel the guys have more of a tendency to
get spooked if they sit around and supposedly rest.
"What comes to mind was Ogden Nash's 'First rule of thumb: Too clever is dumb.' "
The team will do little in New York besides play ball. They arrive tonight, play on Saturday and Sunday, and Westhead is considering flying out Sunday night. They'll stay at a La Guardia Airport hotel near St. John's. Someone else will have to give their regards to Broadway.
"For us it's business as usual," he said. "It's not any more than if we're going to Santa Clara."
Underneath the understatement, though, Westhead knows a game with St. John's could be a big step.
"It has the potential to be," Westhead said. "Anytime you play in New York City and play a high-quality team like St. John's--which has been a Top 20 team, it seems like, forever--no one can dispute if you do well against them. Nothing's a fluke if you play St. John's in New York.
"Of course, there's an obvious downside. We hoped to have Bo Kimble and all our players in full force."
Despite the lack of Kimble, who is expected back in uniform in a few weeks, and 6-10 center John Veargason, who has an ankle injury, the Lions should have an explosive offense.