Last Wednesday night was a revealing one for any baller named Barkley, as a pair of knee injuries brought into sharp focus their precise place in the basketball universe. As the NBA was left to ponder life without Charles Barkley after he ended his career with a ruptured tendon, St. John’s was forced to imagine a star backcourt without half of its starting lineup as Erick Barkley went down with a meniscus injury against St. Francis. The Red Storm will be without their Brooklyn-bred point guard for about a month.
While the other half, shooting guard Bootsy Thornton, remains healthy, and the schedule appears soft enough for St. John’s to weather the loss, the Storm will need a fully functioning backcourt once the Big East season begins if a third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament is in the offing.
In the college game, dynamic guard duos have become essential for making the leap from good to great. Look no further than the top spots in the coaches’ basketball rankings, where Cincinnati, Stanford, and Arizona have ridden the explosive first-year play of their guards to the top of the poll. St. John’s was hand-delivered the message only a few months ago by Ohio State’s Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd in the NCAA’s South Regional final. Combining for 42 points, the Buckeye backcourt dissected St. John’s zone defense before forcing Barkley into a turnover with 5.5 seconds left to seal a trip to the Final Four.
In the sober postgame blame that Barkley heaped upon himself after committing his only turnover that day, the then-freshman took a giant leap toward assuming the leadership of a team that was about to lose its most accomplished and vocal player, Ron Artest, to the NBA. For it was Barkley’s admission that put the words behind a backcourt that had already established itself in deed as the team’s rudder.
Back together this season, Barkley and Thornton had steered the Red Storm into the smooth waters of a 5-1 start before Barkley’s injury sidetracked a tandem combining for 30 points, six assists, and five steals a game. Before they were paired up at St. John’s, each followed a jagged, but increasingly familiar, path to big-time college hoops.
Rated among the top point guards in the country while attending Queens basketball power Christ the King High School, Barkley closed out his secondary education at Maine Central Institute, a de facto finishing school for Division I blue chips in need of classroom seasoning. Thornton, meanwhile, possessing a power forward’s limited range in a shooting guard’s body, found himself in junior college. But two years at Tallahassee Community College yielded a National Junior College Athletic Association Player of the Year award and a ticket to national exposure.
With a nod to family geography, each arrived in Jamaica, Queens with a poise and consistency uncommon for Division I rookies. In 37 games last season, the duo combined to average less than two turnovers a game; this for a run-and-gun team that launched 63 shots a contest.
That the marriage of high school phenom and junior college star would be productive was expected. That a backcourt led by a freshman would impress almost every night was not.
“A lot of times with a freshman,” says Michael Bradley, a college basketball analyst with the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, “they come in and they have a real good start and they kind of fade a little bit as people figure them out a little bit. That didn’t happen with Barkley.”
In fact, Barkley appeared to relish the assassin’s role more with each game. Against a Maryland team that had shown little interest in recruiting a player who had shown interest in them, Barkley dropped 24 points and handed out nine assists to send the Terrapins packing in the NCAAs.
“I think Barkley’s a killer—in an affectionate way,” says ESPN and CBS college basketball analyst Bill Raftery. “He seizes the opportunity. He knows when to stick it to the other team in every possible scenario, whether it’s the pass or the shot. It really makes you a team leader.”
But leadership—true leadership—has to derive from an ability to do the job and an ability to sell the notion that you can do the job. After a year that earned him Big East Co-Rookie of the Year honors and a summer spent running drills at the home of Nets guard Stephon Marbury, Barkley’s knack for splitting a defense or keeping one off balance with the three-point shot continues to bring many a gray hair to opposing coaches.
“Open the court for a great player like [Barkley], he goes through it like a [hot] knife through butter,” says Virginia head coach Pete Gillen, whose Cavaliers were torched for 27 points and three treys by Barkley. “And if he hits his first shot, then watch out. I don’t think there are two point guards better than him in the country.”
But before Gillen’s team arrived a week ago, that first shot, and most others, were not falling for Barkley. The sophomore began this season converting only two of 27 shots from behind the three-point arc. While most observers expect Barkley to shoot well enough to spread out opposing defenses, the Johnnies’ most important observer, coach Mike Jarvis, doesn’t seem too concerned. “His job is to share the ball, run the offense and play defense 94 feet,” says Jarvis. “If he gets points on top of that, that’s gravy.”
Averaging an astounding 36.3 minutes a game, Barkley has done the job so well that he essentially has become an extension of Jarvis on the court, constantly retreating to the sideline for instructions before calling out plays to his teammates.
“I think [Barkley’s] leadership role is unquestioned,” says Raftery. “I think Jarvis trusts—and that’s a big word—his decision-making and relies on his steady play. It’s like football. [The coach] doesn’t talk to all 11 players, he talks to one.”
If Barkley’s demeanor is that of a head coach, then Thornton appears comfortable as a supportive assistant, gathering the team together after an opponent’s basket or patting a teammate on the back after Jarvis has imparted some stern wisdom to the player. “He’s probably one of the calmer guys,” notes St. John’s assistant Kevin Clark. “He remains pretty level.”
Thornton’s on-court demeanor is indicative of his maturity and work ethic, which were needed to convince a coach who had initially passed on him in high school. A forward at Baltimore’s Dunbar High School who relied strictly on slashing to the basket, Thornton initially failed to impress Jarvis, then coach at George Washington, who recruited Thornton’s teammate, 5-4 guard Shawnta Rogers instead.
In his time in Tallahassee, Thornton developed a jump shot enticing enough for former Red Storm coach Fran Fraschilla, who brought Thornton back up north. Enter Jarvis again, now confronted with a player who had once made 17 consecutive three-pointers in practice. “I remember talking with Mike Jarvis before last year,” recalls Bradley. “And he told me Thornton can be good if we get him to play defense. Well, he did play some defense and then he just erupted.”
Look at the statistics. For all the ink understandably spilled on Artest and Barkley, it was Thornton who led the Red Storm in scoring last season (14.9), while adding 4.5 rebounds a night. This year, says Raftery, “Thornton’s a guy you have to gear a lot of things to. He posts up, he’s got terrific range and he’s got an air about him, a confidence that if he misses some [shots], it’s not going to deter him.”
Having improved individually in the past year, the duo has been working on creating a backcourt chemistry that could carry the team to the upper echelons yet again. “It’s definitely better [than last year],” says Barkley. “Bootsy knows where I’m going to be on the court—where I’m comfortable shooting—and I know where he’s comfortable shooting. I know his defensive stance and he knows mine. It’s just a matter of time before we click.”
For Mike Jarvis and a St. John’s team facing almost a month without Barkley, that time won’t come soon enough.