LOS ANGELES — At age 20, I went to Madison Square Garden in New York City for the first time. It was March of 2001, and being in charge of the college basketball show at Syracuse University’s student television station had its perks. Such, I made the executive decision to cover the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament, for which our Orangemen were a 3-seed. To say I was out of my element was an understatement, as this was the first event of this magnitude I had covered.
Rich Kiss, UUTV’s sports director, came with me, and he and I had three of the most fun days I can remember as a college student. That our Orangemen (we were still the Orangemen back then) won two games, and narrowly missed reaching the league championship by a single point in the third, was only icing on the cake of the experience. We took the train over from New Jersey into the World Trade Center, walked over to 34th and 8th with our camera equipment, picked up our credentials and felt like we belonged. I remember we grabbed every media guide and quote packet we could get our hands on in the press area, ate from the $5 donation buffet (Boston Globe hoops historian Bob Ryan took the last piece of cheesecake) and when some real reporter asked us if we were using the phone on our table we bewilderingly said no, as if who were we to even have phones. But we were somebodies covering the event; the names on our passes told us so.
We walked among the stars of this Broadway show even if we were barely understudies. I got a little journo-hero struck when we saw Bill Rhoden of the New York Times, and Dick Weiss of the Daily News, two basketball writing legends, but for the duration of this tournament we were all colleagues and it felt as such. In the locker room interviewing players, in the press room talking to coaches, high above the MSG floor in the media section as I called all of my friends from the working telephones; we we there. After one of the games, we even did our standups on the court. Like pros. At The Garden. Basketball Mecca.
The next year, our Orangemen weren’t very good but Rich and I returned; we lost the first game to Villanova and the three things I remember most are: a) that we basically called it on the train ride over, since like I said, we weren’t very good; b) saying if we somehow lost tonight we were going to head to Atlantic City the next day (we did); and c) The Scene. The Scene was unlike anything I’ve been around, not like the high school, college or pro games I attended growing up. There was a buzz as soon as you walked through The Garden doors or made your way up the steps from the subway. It made the hair on your arms stand up. The clapping and chanting. The team regalia. School cheerleaders lining the entrance. Vendors screaming out deals for programs, t-shirts and refreshments. Everyone talking hoops at every turn. Even the back pages of the Daily News and New York Post were smathered with Big East Tournament headlines.
And the basketball. Oh the basketball. Other conferences have high-flyers, run-and-gun offenses and the visual eye candy to attract those with less-than keen eyes for superior hardwood mastery. And that’s what the Big East was, the best hoops the nation had to offer, and it was on display night-in and night-out across the northeast. From Providence to South Orange, out to Syracuse, back to Storrs and everywhere in between; college basketball at its absolute pinnacle. Marquee coaches, superstar players and the most rabid fans. Those qualities and more were on full display in the latest 30-for-30: Requiem For The Big East, which documented the league’s creation in 1979 and ultimate demise in 2013.
It was a fantastic two hours of television that featured commentary about the Big East’s rise and fall from legendary coaches Jim Boeheim, John Thompson and Lou Carnesecca, writers who covered the league Michael Wilbon and Charlie Pierce, former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, and players Ed Pinckney (Villanova), Chris Mullin (St. John’s), and Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), among others.
The documentary touched on the seminal moments of the conference, from Georgetown ending Syracuse’s 57-game home winning streak to close out Manley Field House, to the recruitment of Ewing, who hailed from Jamaica through Boston, New York City’s Mullin and Pearl Washington, the league’s toughness, Big Monday, and everything Dave Gavitt went through to get the league off the ground and to the heights it reached by teaming up with ESPN for broadcast rights. It was a fantastic trip down memory lane.
One of the elements I found the most interesting was one of Gavitt’s initial reasons for wanting to create the Big East was to keep the best players from the northeast – including New York City – in the area. Gavitt watched Big Apple schoolboy legend Lew Alcindor leave the east coast for UCLA in the 1960s and knew something had to be done. And it worked, as the league’s top eastern players stayed at home and played in the new power conference. Always fighting for national respect, the Big East received validation when Georgetown reached the 1982 NCAA Championship, and then just three years later placed three teams in the Final Four.
Other thoughts: I loved hearing Pinckney and Mullin talk about playing pickup hoops at parks across New York City, starting in Harlem and working their way down. That’s the thing about city ball, if you can play, the color of your skin doesn’t matter, and Mullin was one of the best around. … I never knew Boeheim got his Bob Knight on with a heated chair throw in the press conference after the 1984 Big East title game. … Thompson told Ewing to block every shot in the 1985 title game, which resulted in five goaltending calls off the bat. Also, Ewing still hasn’t gotten over losing the game to Villanova, saying, “in my heart the best team did not win that night.” … Pierce saying capitalism ruined the Big East, while Wilbon blames “dumb and greedy presidents.” … The doc was voiced by “Breaking Bad” villain Giancarlo Esposito, aka Gus Fring.
I first wrote my world famous “Tips For Enjoying March Madness” column for the Journal Tribune way back in 2006 – the 2009 version won me a Maine Press Association award. A lot has happened since then and most of it hasn’t been great for my bracket in 2014. Speaking of, how’s yours looking? Did you call North Dakota St. or Stephen F. Austin? What about Dayton? Mercer is in Macon, Georgia if you still haven’t figured that out yet. These first 48 games were some of the best basketball of the year, with perhaps the most exciting game of the first two rounds being #8 Kentucky/#1 Wichita St., which made the worst #11 Dayton’s upset win over #3 Syracuse.
Seriously, the last month of basketball being played in the 315 has been downright atrocious. (rant alert) Forget that we lost to a six-win Boston College team AT HOME, but also to Georgia Tech and N.C. State to end the season, losses happen, I’ve played sports my entire life, even when you’re better than your opponent you’re not always going to win. It just happens. Fine. But your effort in those losses is something you CAN control. Your shot selection. Your aggressiveness. Your rebounding. All within the realm of things you can have a direct outcome of. And where has it been the last month? Very good question. Bottom line, Syracuse didn’t deserve a 3-seed in this year’s tournament and it didn’t deserve to reach the Sweet 16. Obviously, I’m not over the loss yet and probably won’t be until Opening Day at Fenway next month. When you start the season 25-0 you expect a more satisfying ending than losing to Dayton two hours from your campus. What a frustrating end to what should have been a joyous season. And that’s the other thing, I didn’t have that much fun watching this team play. Every possession was a struggle. Every shot was spent praying it went in. Nothing was automatic. When we got a big lead, we quickly surrendered it. We played down to the level of our competition. We scored 47 points! To Dayton! For the game! Oregon nearly had that at the half against BYU. Did the season turn when Boeheim got tossed late in the game against Duke? Is someone really going to make that moment when it all went to crap? Did I just do it? I just hope Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant come back next year. Neither are ready for the pros and I think this tournament confirmed that.
[exhale] On to next year.
Here’s what else caught my eye after the most amazing four days of college basketball I can remember (it was a 48-game blur, so forgive specifics):
– These kids are terrible shooters; most but not all of them. Doug McDermott had a great first game against Lousianna-Lafayette going 12-for-23 and 30 points, but then not so much against Baylor (15 points). Meanwhile, Wichita St.’s Cleanthony Early couldn’t miss Sunday against Kentucky, going 12-for-17 and 31 points. It’s too bad both couldn’t make it out of the first weekend.
– Hard to tell which team is playing the best right now. After the first round I would’ve said Wichita St. and Syracuse, and then both lost in Round 2. Now, I might say Kentucky, Baylor, Arizona, Florida, Virginia and UConn are leading the field, so who knows what their fates hold in the Sweet 16.
– Player I want taking the game-winning shot on the final possession: UConn’s Shabazz Napier; dude is fearless.
– Got to explain what a backdoor lob was this weekend, which was pretty hilarious in between the 13-year old giggles. I even used two glasses of water and a dipping container of ketchup to visually illustrate. Coach Norman Dale would’ve been proud.
– Baylor’s hunting uniforms need to join the NBA’s sleeve jerseys and take a long walk off a short pier. Not a good look for anyone.
– I participate in an NCAA Tournament individual scoring fantasy league each year and I felt really good about my squad after the draft, especially after I missed out on the championship last year by a measly 7 points (thanks a lot, Georgetown). However, after the opening weekend I’m down to only four players remaining and I have about a good a shot at a title as Dayton, which is a long one. Seriously, I can’t believe Oklahoma AND Creighton both went down. Those two losses cost me at least another 75 points. Just so long as I don’t come in last.
– Speaking of, did any of these potential top NBA Draft picks (Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, etc.) have good games or do anything noteworthy? And who is this year’s Harold Arceneaux? He’s yet to reveal himself.
– Anyone else really sick of that Buffalo Wild Wings old man in the hat? We get it, the game is on, we’re probably already in our seats. Stop yelling at us.
– My original Final Four was Florida, Virginia, Creighton and Louisville. Revamped Final Four: Florida, Virginia, Baylor and Louisville. Sticking with my Louisville championship pick as well, although that may change at halftime of Friday’s Kentucky game; stay tuned and happy madness!