By Steve Serby
He watches Saint Peter’s play Cinderella basketball — Sweet 16 basketball next against Purdue on Friday night in Philadelphia — and he understands better than most why these proud Peacocks play the way they play: hard, smart, together and defending every inch on the court.
Greg Herenda understands because he is the man who recruited Shaheen Holloway to Seton Hall.
“It’s a perfect New Jersey team,” Herenda, the Fairleigh Dickinson head coach since 2013, told The Post. “It’s a hard team to play because they’re just used to playing uncomfortably. It’s hard to get parking spots in Jersey City. So they’re used to fighting for every inch of the court. I think Murray State was just like … I don’t think anybody guarded ’em like that all year. Kentucky too.”
Herenda, an assistant at Holy Cross under George Blaney, had just arrived at the Hall with Blaney in 1994 when the mad rush to land Holloway — not to mention Tim Thomas and Ron Artest — began in earnest.
Holloway was playing at St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J., at the time, and soon on his way to McDonald’s All-America honors, considered the best point guard as a senior not named Mike Bibby. The kid from the mean streets of Queens had moved to Hillsdale, N.J., to live with his godmother.
“Getting him was pivotal to Seton Hall’s success,” Herenda said.
Holloway was not an easy egg to crack at first.
“Very standoffish, quiet. … Like hard to get to him,” Herenda recalled. “He was a tough Queens kid. It was kinda like he was checking me out.”
Herenda had started far behind in the recruiting process but managed to close the gap.
“I never told him how good he was as a player,” Herenda said. “I used to kid with him all the time, ‘You gotta shoot it better, man.’ I think he respected my honesty, and I was straight up with him, and he was straight up with me, and that’s the way our relationship’s been ever since.”
Herenda’s wife, Jill, became an important resource.
“He was a night owl, and he knew I was a night owl,” Herenda said, “so I’d say ‘Sha, when you get home, give me a holler.’ That was just like the norm. I was recruiting this kid Josh King in North Carolina that we got, I would tell him to call me after ‘The Sopranos’ on Sunday nights, and every Sunday night at 11 o’clock the kid called me.”
Holloway used to call around midnight. Herenda would talk basketball. Then he’d hand the phone to his wife.
“No matter what, he just seemed like he was happy to talk to me, which most people that age would probably not want to talk to the coach’s wife,” Jill said. “Just a nice, warm, genuine person.”
Herenda, once a 6-foot-2 guard for Merrimack College, traveled from gym to gym watching this dream 5-10 point guard dominate.
“He guarded hard, and he attacked, and he was fearless,” Herenda said. “He was shorter, but played so much bigger.”
Holloway had been considering Duke, Cal and Georgia Tech. Herenda was at his home when Holloway officially committed to the Hall on MSG for the 1996-97 season. “He was like, ‘Let’s go to work, I want to win, man,’ ” Herenda recalled. “He wanted to make his own path.”
He sure would. But Blaney and Herenda got to coach Holloway for only one season before Tommy Amaker was hired.
“If somebody made a mistake, he was pissed off. … He would hold people accountable,” Herenda said. “He was always in the Big East the smallest guy on the floor. He led because he did it — he fought, he scored, he defended, he did everything. But he also led by opening his mouth up and letting people know that they had to play as hard as he did. You gotta be able to back it up if you do it. Sha was able to back it up. He’s grown into a really, really good coach, and I think he was doing that 20 years ago.”
Holloway would will the Hall to the Sweet 16 as a senior in 2000.
“It killed me because obviously I put a lot of time and effort. … I was happy for these guys, but it was hard, because quite honestly, George wasn’t given enough time. It was really tough,” Herenda said.
Herenda is 1-1 against Holloway. “I beat him at FDU, and then he beat me at Saint Peter’s,” Herenda said.
Holloway was 1-0 against Herenda in the recruitment of mustachioed marksman folk hero Doug Edert.
“Me and Sha fought for the kid, and I kept on telling him he can’t play in the MAAC, whatever. I was trying to con him into not taking him,” Herenda said, and laughed.
Herenda spoke with Holloway after the Peacocks shocked Kentucky and the college basketball world.
“I just said how proud I was of him and ‘After the first five minutes I wasn’t surprised, you guys were the better team,’ and just to keep it going,” Herenda said. “He wasn’t like, ‘Can you believe it?’ He was very matter-of-fact.”
Of course Herenda put Jill on the phone.
“It was another one of those midnight phone calls that all I remember is, ‘Wow. Sha has time to talk to me after the night he had?’ ” Jill said. “I just said, ‘Sha, I’m so proud of you, way to go. You’re putting Saint Peter’s on the map.’ And then I said, ‘I love you,’ and he said ‘Love you too.’ ”
Herenda was asked what makes Shaheen Holloway special.
“He’s just got this way about him, I think all the great ones do,” Herenda said. “He’s his own man, he just has his opinion, he has his beliefs, and he sticks to it and he’s loyal as the day is long. You don’t want to compare him to all these guys, but at a local level, like the Alis and the Tigers … they’ve all got it, and Sha’s got it.”
“It would be like a storybook tale, it really would,” Herenda said.
Herenda lost out to Villanova on Thomas. He lost out to St. John’s on Artest. Seton Hall can thank him for Shaheen Holloway.