Sports

Manhattan College Plans a Basketball Revival. But First, Some Chaos.

As the final seconds ticked away Friday night, Steve Masiello tucked away his scouting notes and rose from the Iona men’s basketball team’s bench.

He followed the head coach, Rick Pitino, to center court, where he offered a fist bump, but little else, to a line of Manhattan College players and coaches. There were no heartfelt embraces or poignant words. Not even a pause along the handshake line.

“It’s a business trip,” Masiello said.

Perhaps. But a clue about how Masiello really felt about his return to the Bronx was visible in less conspicuous gestures — the bear hugs he exchanged with a couple of Manhattan fans — after Iona escaped with an 84-76 overtime victory at Draddy Gymnasium, which had been jumping when the Jaspers clawed back from a 15-point deficit.

Those greetings hinted at what surely bubbled beneath the surface for Masiello, who was fired by Manhattan on Oct. 25, less than two weeks before the start of his 12th season as the Jaspers’ head coach. He joined the staff of Pitino, his lifelong basketball guru, at Iona almost immediately.

On the opposite bench on Friday were the players Masiello had recruited and taught and the young coaches, including Manhattan’s interim coach, RaShawn Stores, he had mentored.

“I’m sure it’s mixed emotions,” said Billy DeVito, a Bronx native who grew up with Masiello and who was among several fans holding up signs with Masiello’s smiling, bearded face on them behind the Iona bench. “There’s probably some passive-aggressive things going on.”

As volatile as the coaching profession can be, the timing of Masiello’s dismissal was stunning. October is not the firing season. On the rare occasion a coach is fired on the cusp of a new season, it’s often for something untoward — Jim Harrick getting dumped by U.C.L.A. for lying to his boss or Pitino being booted at Louisville in the wake of an F.B.I. corruption sting.

Masiello, who was a Knicks ball boy when Pitino was the team’s coach and who then played for him at Kentucky and worked under him at Louisville, said it had been therapeutic to work under Pitino again. “Everything I’m feeling, he knows what I’m feeling and helping me,” he said. “It’s different circumstances, but when you’re fired, you’re fired.”

At Manhattan, there had been no hint of scandal. The graduation rate has hovered just below 100 percent. And this season’s team was expected to contend for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title with four starters returning, including guard Jose Perez, the preseason conference player of the year.

But with a new university president and a reshuffled board of trustees, Manhattan envisions bigger things in basketball — as Iona did in hiring Pitino, and another league rival, St. Peter’s, did with its magical run to an N.C.A.A. tournament regional final last spring.

Masiello, whose contract ran through this season, was rebuffed when he sought an extension last year. He had not had a winning season since 2015, when the Jaspers advanced to the N.C.A.A. tournament for the second consecutive season.

“Look at the record,” said Marianne Reilly, the athletic director. “That’s all I’ll say.”

When Masiello was fired, he was not the only one who exited. Perez transferred to West Virginia, but the N.C.A.A. denied his request for a waiver to be eligible immediately. Also leaving were guard Omar Silverio, a transfer from Hofstra, who plans to play next season at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, according to his former youth coach, Cory Underwood, and forward Samba Diallo, a key reserve who remains at Manhattan working on a graduate degree.

Suddenly, a team with big dreams had been thrown into chaos.

Entering Sunday’s game at Rider, Manhattan had a 6-11 record, which included a loss to Monmouth — the Hawks’ only win this season — and a 40-point shellacking at Providence, which is the Jaspers’ only television appearance this season. But they are 4-4 in conference play and had won two in a row before losing to Iona.

Manhattan is a peculiar team. It is old, with nine seniors, but not necessarily experienced. And Stores, 31, a former captain who grew up in the Bronx, played on two N.C.A.A. tournament teams at Manhattan and then coached under Masiello, is the second-youngest head coach in Division I.

Whereas Pitino has the gravitas to throw his arms out to raise a grievance with the officials, Stores put his hands together when he spoke to a referee, as if he were asking for permission.

For much of Friday night, the Jaspers played messy basketball and seemed ill-equipped to hang with Iona, trailing early in the second half, 49-34. But James Jewell, a freshman wing from Louisville, Ky., who enrolled this semester and was playing in his fourth game, provided a spark with his tenacity.

In a flash, the rest of the Jaspers were digging in on defense, fighting for rebounds and had found a cause. It was not long before the capacity crowd of 2,345 joined them.

When Samir Stewart, in his fifth season at Manhattan, knocked in a game-tying 3-pointer with 20.6 seconds left, he pointed to an imaginary watch on his wrist — it was his time — as the crowd erupted. The Jaspers got to overtime and even claimed the lead, but Iona regrouped and played like a team expected to win the league, pulling away.

Stores, who shrugged off questions about Masiello — “we’re not going to worry about that,” he said — was pleased that his players had played in an atmosphere like Friday’s, where they could feel that people were behind them. He acknowledged he was still processing how events unfolded a few months ago — and the players were, too.

If the loss knocked the Jaspers down a peg in the standings, it also provided that essential quality for any team that hasn’t given up on its ambition — hope.

“If we can put it together, we can make a beautiful story,” Stewart said, describing a team that is finding its way.

As for the start of the season, he added: “It was definitely shocking news. I’d played for Mas for four years and I thought it was going to be a fifth, but it’s OK. It’s a business. I’m glad Ray is in that position now. The guys all look up to him — it’s like we’re playing for our big brother.”

Reilly, a former star player at Manhattan and college coach, appreciates the Jaspers’ effort and how they have stayed together. She said Stores would be a finalist for the job, which at its best has been a springboard to the Big East for previous coaches: Steve Lappas (Villanova), Fran Fraschilla (St. John’s) and Bobby Gonzalez (Seton Hall).

A basketball revival is part of the plan to revive the school, whose enrollment had dipped nearly 10 percent since the start of the pandemic. Last year, the college slashed $6.4 million in salaries and benefits and froze at least 70 jobs, according to the student newspaper, The Quadrangle.

As for what the next coach will be walking into?

“We’re a small Lasallian school,” Reilly said. “We are not L.S.U. We are not Arkansas. We are not Kentucky. Our resources are not like that, either. So what we do, we do well, but we know our limits. The person that comes in here has to understand that. While we all want to push the envelope, you have to be happy with what you have.”

Stores happily counts himself in that number.

He has never felt the need to venture far from home. He arrived at the college as a walk-on, became a captain, earned two degrees and hasn’t left. And New York has not yet run out of basketball talent.

“I grew up in the Bronx, so I love New York,” Stores said with a laugh in the basketball coaches’ offices, whose only recent accouterments seemed to be a stack of empty pizza boxes on a table. “When you’re winning in New York, everybody knows who you are, no matter where you at. When you win in New York, anything can happen.”

When he was the Manhattan coach, Steve Masiello urged on his players in a 2015 N.C.A.A. tournament game in Dayton, Ohio.Credit…Joe Robbins/Getty Images

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