It was a Monday. It was to be mundane. It was to be forgotten by the time the calendar turned.
St. Francis College students had just returned from spring break. Members of the track and field team received an email, informing them of a meeting. The outdoor season was starting soon. There was much to discuss.
Angel Okafor met with some teammates and walked over to the Brooklyn school’s fifth-floor auditorium. She noticed other student-athletes heading in the same direction. Confusion followed close behind.
There was no turning back.
On March 20, St. Francis Director of Athletics Irma Garcia informed members of the school’s 19 Division I teams that at the end of the spring semester, citing “increased operating expenses, flattening revenue streams, and plateauing enrollment.”
“It didn’t click at that moment,” Okafor said. “I was numb. I couldn’t hear anything. I looked around and saw coaches crying. And I just started bawling. Everything was gone in a flash.
“I remember when I committed to St. Francis, I was so happy. I could not stop talking about the school, and my high school track team was so happy for me. All those memories came flooding back in. It took me a really long time to really settle in. I felt like my freshman year was just starting, and now it was just ending. It felt like I was graduating and we were saying goodbye.”
In September, the school moved its campus to a smaller building in downtown Brooklyn — which does not house a gym or pool — after spending the previous five decades on nearby Remsen Street. New York City’s oldest collegiate basketball program — which dates back to 1896 and was a charter member of the NCAA — played its final home games beside indoor tennis courts at Division III Pratt Institute, drawing an average of 153 fans per game.
Still, Rob Higgins planned to use his fifth and final season of eligibility at St. Francis. He — and many — believed the future looked bright.
“I was in shock,” Higgins said. “I was like, ‘What happens next?’”
Glenn Braica was born in Brooklyn. He still owns the Williamsburg apartment he grew up in — “It went from the armpit of the world to the place everyone wants to live,” he said — and he needed to drive just two exits on the BQE to get to St. Francis — “It still takes 40 minutes because of traffic” — where he spent 15 years as an assistant coach (1989-2004) and .
“I’m honored to have coached there and coached the guys I did,” Braica said. “The relationships I built, the calls and the text messages that I got, made me understand that what we did was not for naught. We really helped some guys experience some great things and move on in life and be successful. It blew me away.”
Higgins saw his future when he saw the Brooklyn lifer. After one more season playing for the Terriers, the 6-foot-1 guard planned to start his dream journey of becoming a college coach by working for his mentor.
“I was so comfortable, I wanted to be a grad assistant there,” Higgins said. “Me and Coach Braica, the loyalty and trust we had, you don’t know if you can ever get that again.
“A lot of things I planned for the rest of my life got shot down.”
Higgins, an NEC All-Rookie Team selection, shared the team-lead in scoring (11.3 points) and led the Terriers in assists this past season.
St. Francis — a four-time NIT participant and one of four teams around since the NCAA Tournament began to never qualify — found hope in , which barely escaped their conference tournament quarterfinal against the Terriers.
“I really think we could’ve had a really good team because we didn’t have much experience this year and had a lot of guys get hurt,” Higgins said. “The more time that passes by, it’s getting more real for me that I won’t be living in Brooklyn anymore and I won’t be playing for Coach Braica. I really loved being at that school. I really loved living in Brooklyn.”
Okafor cleared out her apartment early this month. She is now back home on Staten Island, where she will spend the summer. Much of her spring was spent as a spectator, losing what little time she had left to a knee injury suffered in her first race of the season.
“I tried not to think about the future, to cross the bridge whenever we got there,” Okafor said. “I tried to enjoy what was happening in front of me. I just wanted to make as many memories as possible, stuff to laugh about, stuff to think about down the road years from now.”
Distractions were temporary.
After more than a month out of action, Okafor returned to run the 800 meters at the Northeast Conference Championships at Merrimack College. That same weekend (May 6-7), the inevitable arrived.
“Our conference had a big announcement saying goodbye to St. Francis, and I’m like, ‘Wow, OK, this is actually really happening,’” Okafor said. “I didn’t cry, I think because I finally had come to terms with it. It was more depressing, the whole time we’re there we’re talking about, ‘This is our last time traveling together, making fun of each other, this is the last time this is happening.’
“I said my goodbyes to everybody, did the usual, ‘Keep in touch.’ The people I used to see 24/7, I’m not gonna see again.”
When the devastated athletes left the auditorium, the rush to the transfer portal began.
Each interested student was told to email the director of compliance and to follow a list of instructions, which included watching a five-minute video about the portal, filling out a form with basic information and signing it virtually.
“Snap of a finger,” Higgins said. “I was in two hours later, but so many kids were trying to get in the portal at the same time.”
Higgins received calls from six coaches that afternoon. Eventually, roughly 25 to 30 schools reached out to Higgins, who estimates his roommate, freshman guard Zion Bethea, heard from as many as 50 programs.
“Every day it was something else, a new call, a new text, a new coach, new visits to set up,” Higgins said. “It was crazy. We were just sitting in our rooms, and the phones were just buzzing the whole day. It blows up your head a little bit, so you gotta come down to reality and be like, ‘What school’s the best, and where do I fit in the best?’ Don’t just look at the biggest conference.
“You look at the rosters, who is on the team, who is leaving, who else they are recruiting. We’d look at the stats, see how they did last year. I would look at their guards, how many they have, if they’re young guys, because you got one year left to play and you don’t want to go somewhere that has three senior guards or something where it’s gonna be tough to get playing time.”
Higgins spoke with Braica twice a week, seeking guidance.
“I met with them individually,” Braica said. “I sensed a sadness and uneasiness about the future, so my job is to make sure these kids wind up in the best positions they can with people I think are good people. … Not everyone has the same opportunities, but they’ll all wind up playing basketball on scholarship.”
The process was overwhelming. St. Francis’ players had never been valued more highly.
“I didn’t really like the portal,” Higgins said. “They all kind of say the same thing. It’s a little bit different than high school. All the coaches I talked to know what I’m gonna bring to the table, so it’s not really one of those salesman pitches anymore. It’s like, ‘This is what we need, and if you wanna come here, you can do this for us.’
“I was really hoping I would go somewhere and just love it and be done with it.”
Okafor had other factors to weigh.
She is a pre-med student and aspiring surgeon, looking to transfer where her academic credits will be accepted. Unlike many of her peers, she attended St. Francis on a partial scholarship.
“I was just paying a small amount here — I was supposed to talk with my coach about a full ride and then everything happened — so I need to see which schools give out the best offers,” Okafor said. “Most of the other schools are more expensive than St. Francis, like a lot more expensive, so the problem is financial aid.”