This was back in February, long before Brandon Gardner would become a Johnnie, before St. John’s got on somewhat of a recruiting roll, before it became obvious Mike Anderson and his coaching staff were very much an option to land the prized four-star, top-75 forward.
It was on his official visit to the Queens school, a trip that laid the groundwork for Monday morning’s commitment he announced with a video on social media. There was something different about this visit. Gardner loved the adoration he received from fans, who dubbed him, “Madison Square Gardner.” The atmosphere at the Garden, even in a narrow loss to Villanova, stayed with him. During a big late run, Gardner was as into the game as anyone, pulling hard for the Red Storm, celebrating every big play like he was a diehard.
“I just love the program,” he told The Post in a phone interview. “We developed a great relationship with [assistant] Van Macon, Mike Anderson. It was everything.
“The fan base was crazy, honestly, I’d never seen anything like that. I saw [fans holding] posters of me. I just said, ‘This is the place I need to be.’ That stuck with me for real.”
Now, the uber-talented 6-foot-8 Gardner, an electric athlete with 3-point range, had a lot of other options. The Georgia native took official visits to LSU and Auburn. Georgetown and Ole Miss tried to get him to take visits in recent weeks. But St. John’s was his choice — it had been for weeks.
Gardner made the call for a variety of reasons: The bond he developed with the coaching staff, led by Macon with an assist from director of basketball operations Chris Huey; the presence of his close friend AJ Storr, a fellow four-star recruit who will be a freshman this year at St. John’s; the uptempo style of play he feels fits him like a glove; and being able to call New York City home. He likes the bright lights — according to sources. Gardner is expected to finish high school in the five boroughs this fall.
“New York is pretty cool, just the way people act in New York,” he said “The way they talk, the way they move. New York is fast — I like fast.”
Gardner added: “The food is crazy. I like the pizza and gyros.”
Since his official visit, St. John’s fans have been all over Gardner’s Twitter account, rooting for him to pick the Johnnies. It’s rare that one of his tweets doesn’t include a fan writing to him, using the #SJUBB hashtag. He’s a fan favorite before stepping onto campus.
“I love stuff like that, I love interacting with the fans,” Gardner said. “Say I dunk on somebody, I’m going to get the fans involved. I just love energy.”
He later said: “I’m bringing excitement back to Big East basketball.”
Comfort played a major role. Gardner’s mother, Tameka Gordon, and Anderson share a friend who raved about the St. John’s coach’s character. Then there was Macon. He met Gordon during an AAU tournament early on in her son’s recruitment. Initially, she didn’t know Macon was a coach as they watched Gardner play since he wasn’t wearing any school-affiliated clothing. They got to know each other well that way. Eventually that day, after sharing a bag of chips and watching the game, Macon revealed he was a coach for St. John’s.
“I consider him a silent killer,” Gordon said. “From that moment on [after we met], I was like, ‘I like him.’
“He came in the scene out of nowhere. The calls I got from all the other coaches, some were great, some were generic. He really set the tone. He taught me a lot in this recruiting process, a lot of things that I need to look at and pay attention to, not just the glamor of the visits and the weight rooms and all that stuff. Knowing him, his wife Pam Macon who I met, their entire family, it felt warm.”
Landing Gardner is a major recruiting win for St. John’s and Anderson. He is the highest-rated recruit Anderson has landed at St. John’s, the second top-100 high school recruit following Storr and he continues the recent recruiting momentum, after the Red Storm signed top-25 transfers Andre Curbelo (Illinois) and David Jones (DePaul). The Johnnies are also firmly in the mix for four-star Queens forward Brandon Williams of Christ the King and four-star guards Silas Demary Jr., and Carl Cherenfant, along with three-star New Jersey guard Elijah Gertrude. Gardner and Williams have developed a friendship, and Gardner is trying to get him to stay home, according to sources.
“Very good player,” a Division I coach familiar with Gardner said. “Good body. Excellent rebounder. Certainly a high-major big.”
Another said: “Talent level, skill level is high. He’s a very good player. He’s got a lot of offensive game. St. John’s is legitimately getting a top-50 talent.”
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