The message was passed to SSU basketball coach Pat Fuscaldo. From parents. From some of his players. The message was always the same, quite direct and strong in force. Don't go, Pat! Stay! Keep the team here! Why take the chance? Superstorm Sandy had hit New York City on Oct. 29, a Monday, and SSU was to play NCAADivision I powerhouse St. John's in Queens three days later.
"People thought we would be flying into the Atlantic Ocean," said Fuscaldo after news reports surfaced of 11-foot storm surges that hit the eastern seaboard, especially New York City itself, flooding subways and roadways. Electric power was out and pictures of Manhattan skyscrapers revealed a pitch-black silhouette, a darkened Gotham from a Batman movie was the eerie and unsettling image.
"People thought we would be flying into a hurricane," said Fuscaldo, reflecting the unsettling words and pictures from the region.
Steve Lavin is the St. John's coach and a close Fuscaldo friend, their relationship dating back to 25 years when both were at San Francisco State. Lavin called Fuscaldo mid-week and said the game still could be played but not on Thursday but Saturday. Queens wasn't as smashed as some of the other New York boroughs, Lavin said, but don't expect you or your players to be on a junket either. Devastation is everywhere. Ten of the 13 people in the SSU traveling party had never been to New York and there would be the usual first-time gawking at New York City but, in this case, for very different reasons.
Burdened with a logical uncertainty and concern, SSU administrators didn't approve the trip until 4 p.m. Wednesday. The team flew out of San Francisco Airport 6 a.m. Thursday. Fuscaldo noticed in the three days prior to their departure, team practice was anything but eager and positive for a trip that once offered no downside. St. John's a basketball powerhouse in the basketball powerhouse Big East conference, even sending Fuscaldo $15,000 to cover expenses.
"It was like a cloud was hanging over everyone's head," he said.
After landing at JFK airport it took SSU two and half hours to rent two mini-vans. The team would be staying at a hotel in Stamford, Conn. As the two mini-vans crossed the Whitestone Bridge, Fuscaldo felt his first twinge looking back at Manhattan.
"Boats were up on highways," he said, "and it wasn't a dry-dock."
Fuscaldo is a New York native, having spent his first 23 years at Cos Cob, Conn., his hometown near Stamford. As a kid he worked events on the Jersey shore, spent a lot of time in New York City itself. To this day it's easy to see the uptempo New York City influence on his personality.
"I told the kids they were going to see a lot of people wave at them," Fuscaldo said. "But I told them people weren't really waving at them. They were telling them where to go."
One of the SSU players, guard Will Olsem, had been to New York in the summer of 2008, and came away with an indelible memory.
"Just get out of my way," is how Olsem remembered being treated.
Maybe New York City still was afloat but the inhabitants' legendary reputation for intolerance made more than a few people anxious, given the exceptional circumstances.