NEW YORK - As he stepped past the crystalline doors of the famed concrete arena that overlooks gloomy Manhattan last week, the one where Ali beat Frazier, where legends swished nylon and the Big East conference came to do battle, it was over.
He took a long sigh of relief. It was over. Isaiah Whitehead had finally made it.
He was just happy to be there. Whitehead was finally back home. Playing in Madison Square Garden was one of the reasons he stayed close to New York City. And being able to sit next to some of the country's elite players was good enough for him.
For once, it wasn't about the hype, the build-up. It was about living in the moment.
"It was an amazing feeling. I really felt like I physically made it," Whitehead told SB Nation during the Big East's annual media day. "Just being a college player, this is the top thing for a Big East college basketball player right now, it's just a great honor to be here."
And while Whitehead was basking in his first of many moments, the country had already taken notice. The guard was the highest-rated recruit of any New York player since 2009. He's from Abraham Lincoln High School, the hub of prep talent in the Big Apple that's produced Charlotte Hornets guard Lance Stephenson, Sebastian Telfair and Stephon Marbury.
He texts Stephenson frequently and looks up to him as one of his mentors. But the "hype" surrounding himself and the Pirates hasn't cracked his beam. He picked the Hall for a reason. The Pirates aren't going to falter while Whitehead is there. The optimism on campus is soaring.
They want to go dancing again. They want to see the NCAA Tournament.
"We work hard for [the hype]," Whitehead said. "I'll be surprised if we don't give the fans what they want this season. Our work ethic so far, makes me feel like we will be a great team."
Teammates are propping Whitehead up
The one thing Brandon Mobley has that's more valuable on the hardwood than Whitehead is patience.
The senior forward and team captain played on Seton Hall's last 20-win squad in 2012 when it took a trip to the NIT Tournament. But after injuries and a subpar conference campaign last season, the Pirates were back at the bottom of the conference. They've always been lacking something that hasn't given them the push they needed to stay at the top of the Big East.
Luckily, as Mobley put it, Whitehead has brought that secret ingredient back to the Hall.
"He brings that swagger back that Seton Hall hasn't had in a while," Mobley said with a grin. "He has a lot to live up to as well. But I've always told him: ‘This isn't high school. This is college. You are going to play against a lot of guys that are just as good or even better. Just keep working on your game and trust in the system.'"
And it's Kevin Willard's system that has kept the players on their toes so far this season. The Pirates bring in a six-man class, the biggest since Eddie Griffin and Andre Barrett balled back in the early 2000s.
Last September, Whitehead started a trickle-down effect that brought high school teammates Desi Rodriguez, Trevonn Morton and more to Seton Hall's quaint North Jersey campus. Although the spotlight will be on him for majority of their freshman campaign, it hasn't gotten to his head.
He's one of the calmest freshmen in the sport.
"He's very down-to-earth and more mature than the average freshman," said Haralds Karlis, a senior guard from Latvia. "This has to be a tournament team. We have all the pieces and Whitehead will live up to the hype."
Behind Willard, Whitehead feels at home at Hall
When the leaves started falling and college basketball was just beginning, Whitehead started making mistakes before he was making baskets in South Orange down the blue sidelines surrounding Walsh Gym.
He was sliding his feet on the perimeter when he made a trivial foul. He put two hands on the guard attacking the basket. It was day one of practice for a season that would define he and Willard, and he was still making "rookie mistakes."
But Willard didn't scold his star. Instead, he's guiding him, and the team, slowly until the start of the season. Then the "training wheels," as Willard put it in an interview, will start to come off.
"It's like a 10 to a hundred. You can't even touch the guards," Whitehead said when talking about the differences between high school and college practices. "But [Willard] is a great, down-to-earth guy. He'll let you know when you do something wrong or when you do something good. So, in general, he's a great guy. ... He's taking everything one thing at a time, during the season it will pick up a lot."
Off the court, Whitehead has gotten comfortable at Seton Hall. He said the college hasn't put too much pressure on him when it comes to basketball. He's been able to go to his classes and focus on basketball and academics.
But his presence did come with perks. Outside of other city prospects flocking to North Jersey, Whitehead's high school coach, Dwayne "Tiny" Morton, now has a spot on Willard's bench. Willard didn't just recruit Whitehead. He recruited his entire package, family included.
It's made his transition simpler. Whitehead is more than relieved that he can share the spotlight.
"I've known some of these guys since I was little," Whitehead said. "Imagine if I would have come [to Seton Hall] by myself? It would have been crazy. Those guys know they'll have spotlight on them also. It's been great so far with all of them here."
And without added pressure, the Lincoln High prospect can get back to the basics. He can continue to focus on basketball.
Whitehead: "Seton Hall deserves it"
The history Whitehead has made before dropping his first dribble donned in Seton Hall's Blue and White is staggering.
He's the fourth player in Seton Hall's history to be named Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year and the team's fifth McDonald's All-American. He might be the biggest prospect to come to the Hall in program history.
The soft-spoken yet confident 6'4 kid from Coney Island didn't blink when describing the Pirates' future.
"Seton Hall deserves it," Whitehead said.
Willard's invested in their future. Whitehead joins a backcourt already jammed with Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs, and a frontcourt with Mobley, Angel Delgado and his Lincoln teammate Rodriguez.
He's got his coach from his high school days, a teammate and a new team full of talent ready to take the Big East by storm. But Mobley said it's still all about patience.
The Pirates will be there to pick him up if he falters this season. He's far from alone.
"I've just told him and all the freshmen to be patient," Mobley said. "You will run into guys that are a lot bigger, a lot stronger and better than you are, but you just have to trust in your team to pick you up. For the most part, they tend to mess up or get down on themselves. But it's practice. It's practice. It's practice. This is what you're learning for."
The whispers have flooded South Orange since the sun set on the summer and fresh faces entered the bite-sized university sitting outside of New York. The students already know him. They've been silently cheering since last September. The excitement is humming around their new guard.
The same mutters are synonymous around the league.
Everyone is waiting. Everyone is watching. And with the conference fighting to retain relevance in the basketball world, it has been yearning for another top talent. Lincoln hopes it's about to produce another NBA-caliber star.
Mobley said he's more advanced than most freshmen and sophomores he's seen at this level. Karlis can't believe his level of calmness and maturity as he's about to take the helm of a team that's went 66-66 since Willard took over in 2010.
Whitehead just wants to get on the court. More importantly, he finally wants Seton Hall to do what he came there for: to win.
"I just go out and play. I just want to win," Whitehead said. "Whether I have two points or 20 points. I just want to win."