“Basketball is the coolest shit you can do in New York City." -- Bobbito Garcia, "Release: The Jack Ryan Story."
In my opinion, there’s never been a quote that hits the nail on the head like this one. As a New Yorker and a total hoops junkie, I’ve grown to admire and respect the devotion to roundball displayed in the five boroughs. Whether it’s a high school tripleheader at legendary schools like Christ the King or Bishop Loughlin, pick-up games in the park, or a Knicks game at The World’s Most Famous Arena, you will find some of the most knowledgeable fans in the world. One of my favorite things to do at games is to start chatting it up with a random guy in the crowd at a high school game about who to watch, who he’s there to see, etc. More than half the time it’s just an older guy who lives in the neighborhood trying to watch a great game; which speaks volumes about the passion this city has for the game it loves. Texas may boast about it’s love for football, but in my opinion it’s got nothing on the Big Apple and hoops.
If hoops is the love story of the city, The Big East Tournament is Valentine’s Day. Anyone in the city will tell you the same, and the rest of the world should agree. It’s no shock that ESPN treats it as such, by putting the best announcing crew (Bilas, Rafftery, and McDonough) on the games, and giving it the primetime spot for all of Championship Week (Saturday at 9pm). What the rest of the country may not realize is that the main reason why the city loves the Big East Tourney so much is because it acts as a “defacto homecoming” for so many local products. The CHSAA and PSAL have produced countless players over the years, from legendary names like Marc Jackson, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, Chris Mullin, Ed Pickney, Walter Berry, Malik Sealy, Robert Phelps, to more recent players like Carl Krauser, Devin Ebanks, Edgar Sosa, and Kemba Walker. The fact that the conference is so strong year in and year out and with so many fans have affiliations to players, tickets are hard to come by, making the event even more appealing.
Sadly, the Big East people like me came to love was stripped down to a skeleton of what it once was after conference relocation, greedy AD’s, and that people think mediocre football is more important than excellent basketball. For a kid like me who grew up in the Five Boroughs, and played in the CHSAA, the Big East Tournament was sacred ground. The average college basketball fan may not feel the same way or understand why it means so much, and truthfully I feel sad for them. To me, Big East Tournament games were more than wins and losses. They were moments, and stories I’ll remember and tell for a long time. I remember where I watched games, who I watched them with, and the details that happened, because of how much I loved watching that conference. These are some of those moments:
March 9th, 1996: Big East Final
My dad did one of those classic dad things, and let me and my brothers stay up late to watch this one. He laid out the healthy spread of popcorn and soda to ensure we had enough caffeine to stay up until the end of the game. I’m glad he did. It was Ray Allen’s UCONN Huskies vs. Allen Iverson’s Georgetown Hoyas. You can read a full recap here, but all you really need to watch is this clip (foward to 9:45):
Most people remember it for Ray Allen’s heroics, but I remember the fact that I was allowed to stay up late enough to watch it with my dad.
March 7, 1997: Big East Semifinals
My cousin Colleen was home for Spring Break from Boston College. She had an extra ticket to the doubleheader that night. Naturally she asked two of her brothers if either wanted to attend. They were a year, and two years older than me (9 at the time), and although we had a great deal in common, our biggest difference was the reason they each declined the ticket: girls. They decided chasing middle school girls, or awkwardly hitting on girls at an ice skating rink, movie theater or whatever other place red-blooded suburban kids went to on Friday nights was more important than basketball. At the time, I couldn’t comprehend the decision, again I was 9. So being the fan I was, and how cool a cousin she was, I was offered the ticket. A few hours later we were headed to the Garden.
I remember a few distinctive things about that night. It was that it was the first time I was introduced the raspy yet iconic sounds of Bruce Springsteen. Colleen was a NJ native, so she taught me all about “The Boss” and why I should like him just as much as she did.
When we paid for parking, she needed a smaller bill and asked if I had anything smaller, I told her I just had two 20’s, to which she replied, “you have $40 for tonight, I have $35 for tonight. Amazing." At the time I didn’t understand what she meant, but after four years of using money from book returns for Christmas gifts, returning cans and choosing between splitting a 30 or eating dinner, I knew she was referring to the fact that all college kids are broke.
Howard Stern’s "Private Parts" was released the same day. This detail likely would have been lost in the shuffle if my cousin’s drunken friends hadn’t mentioned how awesome it was 417 times throughout the night. Her friends painted my face in bright gold and maroon to root on Scoonie Penn (who was a terrific point guard), and fan favorite Mickey Curley (brother of Bill Curley). Her friends made photocopies of Curleys face and glued them to plastic knives and waved them all night. Something I later did for a friend in college.
BC won 70-58 over Georgetown and defeated Nova a night later by the same score to win the tournament. Colleen still tells people about the semifinal game at family parties.
March 9, 2002: Big East Final
Spent the weekend skiing with my family in New Hampshire, where I successfully managed to stay on my feet for most of the day. To cap off the night, we settled in the cabin after dinner for The Big East final of UConn vs Pitt. Turned out to be an instant classic, with Taliek Brown’s 30-footer stealing the show in overtime.
March 8 - 11, 2006: The Big East Tournament.
No detailed explanation necessary. Four games won in four days by a total of 8 points, with one player doing everything he could to carry his team to the NCAA tournament, knowing they needed to win every game to do it and shoving it in the face of every critic along the way. Thank God I skipped class to see Gerry Mcnamara start the most impressive performance in tournament history.
March 13, 2008: Big East Quarterfinals
I had tickets to the doubleheader that night, which I was dying to watch because two of my closest friends would be playing in each of the games. Kyle McAlarney of Notre Dame was an AAU teammate and Levance Fields of Pitt was a high school teammate. I made it to the Garden by the tipoff of the second game in time to see Kyle lead Notre Dame with 20 points, but come up short in a loss to Marquette. I never made it to the Pitt-Louisville game earlier that night, but I got a pretty cool story out of it.
I was working a charity event as an intern for the Knicks at Chelsea Piers that night. The Knicks Bowl event was one of the biggest events of the year, and raised a great deal of money for The Garden of Dreams foundation. I felt good about being part of it, but I really wanted to see the games at The Garden. All players were required to attend the event, and a number of former players including John Starks, Walt Frazier, and Charles Smith attended also. Players were off limits, so I went about my duties that night, and they shook hands, and kissed babies, until about 9:00 that night, but I’ll get to that later.
As the event went on, so did the Pitt game so I made sure I took 3-4 trips to the bathroom to check the texts coming in from my brothers and cousins at the game waiting for me. As the game went on, I made sure I walked past certain spots with a TV to peek in here and there at the score, all still while working the event. Late in the game my trips were limited as my the event got busier and busier. I had to revert back to the text updates. One of the last texts was “tied…headed to OT”. As I walked out of the bathroom and read it, Charles Smith was headed in. Charles was a Pitt grad himself, so I knew he was just as curious about the results as I was so I said, “hey Charles…Pitt just went to OT.” He looked at me and goes, “Oh man…I thought we woulda had them beat by now.” About ten minutes later, the event wrapped up and I was walking out as quick as I could to get to the second game. I got another text, “Pitt wins”, just as Charles Smith walked past me again. I said, “Hey Charles.. .Pitt won.” He smiled and goes “Yes” as he gave me a huge high five. I was still pissed I missed the game, but it was pretty cool to be updating Charles Smith on the game.
March 12, 2009: Big East Quarterfinals
Pitt and UCONN had two great matchups earlier in the year. Each time UCONN was #1 in the country, and each time Pitt won. The Big East Tournament Semifinals was set to be the 3rd time the teams met that year. I was one the phone with other high school teammates during the Pitt game as we planned to watch our boy Levance play in the semi’s the next night. I had one class Friday morning then Spring Break, and planned to race home for the game. I told my friend on the phone, I planned to watch the end of the Pitt game at my house off campus, then head to barfor the UConn-Syracuse, which I had zero interest in, as I expected Syracuse to get rolled by a more powerful UCONN team.
That plan of Pitt-Uconn went to crap, as West Virginia dealt Pitt a 74-60 beatdown. I was pissed they lost, pissed for Levance, and even more pissed I wouldn’t get to watch Pitt-Uconn square off again. I headed to the bar to meet up with everyone, barely looking at the tv for the Syracuse-Uconn game. Turns out, I should have paid more attention.
The bar was set up with a back room of pool, shuffleboard, etc. Most of the time we congregated in that room, and left the front to the toothless townies. I happened to walk up to the front to order a drink just at the right time. As I looked up at the tv, the score was close with about two minutes to go. I figured, what the hell let me at least ride it out and watch. I didn’t move the rest of the night.
The game became an epic that had more twists and turns than an SVU episode, and wouldn’t end. By the 3rd overtime everyone had learned of the score and the front bar was filled with people in awe. It was one of those games you need to verify with other people that it’s really happening. I found myself asking, “Do you effin’ believe this game right now?” to multiple people. At the end of the fourth overtime, the tv’s go out. You hear a “bar’s closed” from the owner. It was 1am and the horrific state of Massachusetts prohibits sales in most bars after 1am. I was baffled that the owner took the rule so serious he decided to kick us out while the game was going on, but then again he’s a hick from Massachusetts. Someone happened to have a ride in the parking lot and we raced home to catch the end of the game. I walked into my living room with 3 minutes left in the 5th OT, to find two of our buddies in the living room. One was glued to the TV the other was leaning back in a recliner. Neither one of them lived there so I waited until a commercial break to find out how long they’d been there. A commercial hit, and I found out that they stopped by to see if we were drinking at the house that night at about 10,we never locked our door, and they had been there since. One was from upstate NY so I knew he was a huge Cuse fan, but my friend in the recliner had no such affiliations, so I couldn’t help but wonder why he cared. He answered as only he could, “Well I care here with Pat, and we started drinking and he said we’d leave when the game ended, but this f’in game won’t end !!” I cracked up. The game eventually ended with Syracuse winning. I remember scrolling through my Facebook feed and seeing about 500 posts about the game, some from people I never expected to be watching. I realized that’s something only the Big East Tournament can do, you can go into a game expecting nothing and turn out to watch a classic.
March 13, 2010- Big East Final
To preface this one, you’ll need to know that in 2007 West Virginia won the NIT championship and were given shirts that had an unfortunate misspelling http://tcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/03/west_virgina.jpg
Ladies and gentleman, you’re 2007 NIT Champions, WEST VIRGINA!
In 2010, West Virginia was in a classic with Georgetown during the Big East Final. During one of the last timeouts, I said to my brother and friend watching the game with us, “I wonder if West Virginia will get better shirts if they win this time.”
DeSean Butler, a freshman on that 2007 NIT team, hits the game winner sends the Garden into a frenzy as “Country Roads” blares in the background. While he was ecstatic during the celebration, he didn’t forget about that 2007 mishap. We caught it live, but it would have escaped the ear of the average fan. Fast forward to the 3:30 mark as Butler can be seen pointing to the shirt and heard saying, “It don’t say West Virgina”, giving us one of the most comedic moments in tournament history.
March 8 - 12, 2011- Big East Tournament
One of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, and one that encapsulates everything that I came to love about the Big East. Kemba Walker, a NYC kid born and raised, coming back home to lead his team to 5 wins in 5 days on the biggest stage in the world. Whether you rooted for him, or against him, you had to respect him…and either way, you one hell of a show.
I know that the Big East may never be the same as it once was, and I know that the quality will certainly go down, as all of the teams who were powerhouses year in and year out have left. A large part of me hopes that despite the changes, the conference is still loved by New York City because it gave us so many great memories, but realistically I know that the relationship is likely over. As all things usually do, it ended sooner than we wanted it to. That’s the way it goes, especially in sports where money controls everything. Whether I want to it to happen or not, the Big East I grew up on is closing it’s doors in a very short time, and I will be hoping for one more classic game, or one more great moment in this year’s tournament. I don’t know what it will be, or who will be involved in it, but I’m pretty confident it will happen. Why so confident? Because it’s the Big East. When has it ever let me down?