CK grad’s grit is showing at St. John’s

In 2007, Christ the King won the CHSAA intersectional championship, Bob Oliva was the victorious coach, and a high school senior named Malik Boothe was voted MVP.

Things can change quickly in two years. Oliva left the Royals program after dealing with a controversial lawsuit and a heart ailment within a matter of months. Christ the King succumbed to Sylven Landesberg’s Holy Cross and Scott Arias’ Rice in two years of failure in the intersectional title game. And Boothe went from the highs of Queens’ premier high school basketball program to the alternating highs and lows of Queens’ most controversial basketball program. He is a point guard for St. John’s.

“Malik is old-school,” Oliva told the Daily News years ago. “There is no one tougher than Malik Boothe, on and off the court. He’s the guy you want in the foxhole with you. He takes players out. He [at 5’9”] takes those 6’5” guys that lead their teams in scoring out of games. He’s just tough.”

Tough is right. Boothe spent his 2008 off-season endlessly practicing his jump shot and working out in the St. John’s gym to boost his perimeter shooting. He jumped right back into his starting role one month after undergoing surgery in December to fix a torn tendon in his left thumb. His numbers (6.4 points per game) are on the way up; his spark is already there.

Boothe has quickly earned a reputation as one of the Red Storm’s emotional leaders, underscored on March 10 when St. John’s upended Georgetown, 64-59, in the first round of the Big East Tournament. The ghosts of 1980s rivalry games were in attendance, but more importantly, so was Lou Carnesecca, the legendary former St. John’s coach.

Boothe says he wasn’t fazed.

“I noticed [he was there] during the game, but I didn’t pay any mind,” he said. “I knew the tradition before the game started. … We had the task at [hand].”

In the first half, with St. John’s rallying from a seven-point deficit, Boothe found teammate D.J. Kennedy with a laser-sharp pass toward the sky. Kennedy dunked the alley-oop emphatically; Boothe snarled audibly and shouted “Let’s go!” for all the press section to hear, even over the cheers of the home audience.

The Red Storm pulled away largely thanks to drawing late fouls and making late free throws. It didn’t hurt, either, that Georgetown’s final play to tie ended with a three-point attempt that bounced over the backboard.

“The first thought, I said I thought it was a great team victory,” Boothe said. “There were some moments in our game we could have hung our heads because Georgetown could have got it. We pulled out a win. That was great for the whole team.”

Sports success is fleeting, of course, and St. John’s followed its impressive, aggressive display against Georgetown with an embarrassing loss to Marquette a day later. The Golden Eagles eliminated St. John’s from Big East contention with a 74-45 blowout in which the Red Storm scored the fewest first-half points (10) of any team in Big East Tournament history.

Just another up-and-down chapter of a fickle sport. That’s why Boothe believes it’s up to the player to stay focused.

“We go into every game thinking we can win,” he said. “We just knew that coming into the [Georgetown] game we were going to have to play 40 minutes. We couldn’t let little things affect us.”