PADECKY: Sonoma State basketball team witnesses Sandy aftermath first-hand

By BOB PADECKY
PRESS DEMOCRAT SPORTS COLUMNIST

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 NCAA Division 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.

“In the four days we were there,” said forward Justin Herold, “I bet we spent a full 24 hours waiting around, sitting in traffic, standing at rental counters, waiting for the subway.”

Did the players gripe? Not after they spent a few hours on a New York highway.

New York freeways have service station islands in which drivers do not have to exit the freeway to get gas or grub.

“We passed this line,” Herold said, “in which three people were pushing a car that had run out of gas.”

How far were they from the gas pumps? Miles, Herold said. How long were the longest gas lines he saw? Four or five miles, Fuscaldo estimated. Because service station islands were both on the left and right side of the freeways, New Yorkers would pull off a little on either the left or right shoulder for gas. A two-lane freeway became a one-lane road.

“I felt I was running a gauntlet,” Fuscaldo said.

When the SSU caravan exited the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut Thursday, Fuscaldo with full confidence told the driver of the mini-van behind him, assistant coach Rich Shayewitz, to follow him. This is where he grew up. He knew the area like his own name. It was going to be a quick trip from there to Stamford and the hotel.

“And then I saw the downed power lines and the downed trees,” Fuscaldo said. Nearly everywhere, he said. No straight line to the destination existed.

“I felt like Sacagawea leading Lewis and Clark,” said Fuscaldo, the driving route full of left-hand, right-hand and U-turns.

SSU’s players were well-fed by Fuscaldo’s family, friends and at where-the-locals-go. They had plenty of time to savor and digest all that Italian food because the usual 45-minute trip from Stamford into NYC now took six hours both Thursday and Friday, according to Fuscaldo.

The game itself was a success Saturday night. Fuscaldo could play only nine healthy players — Herold had sprained his ankle in practice. SSU trailed St. John’s by only four points at halftime and lost, 73-55 — not that the final score will be the first thing the players remember about this trip.

“It made me realize how impermanent our lives are,” Herold said.

Warned by Fuscaldo of the intemperate nature of New Yorkers, everyone was surprised by what happened Sunday when his players spent a couple of hours visiting lower Manhattan.

“I had like normal conversation with people,” said Olsem, noticing the contrast from 2008. “We didn’t talk about the storm. We talked basketball. We talked about life in California.”

Of course Fuscaldo was stunned.

“I expected New Yorkers to be resilient,” he said, “but I didn’t expect them to be nice.”

Especially after Sandy blew their doors off. Fuscaldo kept wondering why and then came up with the same concussion Olsem, Herold and the rest of the guys did.

“We represented to them a return to normalcy,” said Fuscaldo, 56. “Everywhere we looked people were walking around dazed and confused, not knowing what to do. There was a sense of panic.”

“We represented the way things used to be before the storm hit,” Olsem said.

Meaning: Those out of towners, those SSU kids, were seeing the New York sights, gawking, wide-eyed, totally impressionable about the Big Apple.

“They couldn’t act like they otherwise would have,” Olsem said, “because they needed a helping hand.”

New Yorkers asking for help? The uniqueness of that, and the scenes of destruction, Fuscaldo said, will impact his players both now and long-term.

“This is a game-changer for them,” he said. “They will be better people for this. Seeing New York for the first time always makes a lasting impression but under these circumstances they have found there is more to the world than texting, e-mails and their cell phones. They will become better people, better citizens, more resilient, more compassionate and tougher mentally because of what they saw.”

That was Fuscaldo’s ultimate reason for not canceling the trip (providing it would be safe, of course). Adversity comes from many directions. From the sky. From the water. From the guy across from you beating you on his dribble. From chunking up five straight air balls. From circumstances still unimagined. Yes, Fuscaldo admitted, his team grew up a little bit this last weekend.

“And I hope,” he said, “they never have to go through anything like that again.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.