Friday, February 23, 2018

Basketball Nostalgia: Early Days of the Big East

The other day I was channel surfing, looking for an interesting basketball game, when I heard an announcer say, “Stay tuned for an important Big East match-up, Marquette vs. Creighton.”

Wait. One. Minute. I was there when Dave Gavitt created the greatest basketball conference in college hoops history, and I am sorry, but Marquette vs. Creighton is not, and never will be, “an important Big East match-up.”

For one thing, Wisconsin and Nebraska are nowhere near the “east.” And while we’re on the subject of ruining conferences for the sake of football programs, let me remind geography-impaired folks that Syracuse, NY, and Pittsburgh, PA, are not exactly on the “Atlantic Coast.” Just sayin’.

The Big East Conference was a stroke of genius. Gavitt selected eight (soon to be nine) colleges located between Boston and Washington, DC, each with a long basketball tradition and loyal fan base, and pulled them together into one glorious super conference. Since Gavitt was no dummy, it was not a coincidence these schools happened to be located in some of the nation’s largest TV markets. The conference was founded in 1979, and within six years it did the unthinkable: sent three out of the four teams to the 1985 NCAA Final Four, where the greatest upset in history occurred, Villanova’s shocking victory over the mighty Georgetown Hoyas.

Boy, those were the days. I admit, I used to roll my eyes at people who wore Brooklyn Dodgers baseball caps or Hartford Whaler jerseys. Stop living in the past, I’d think to myself. But now I get it. Now I feel such nostalgia for those early years of the Big East Conference.

It seems everyone involved back in those days was a “colorful character.” Remember the players? Pearl Washington, John Bagley, Sleepy Floyd, Ed Pinckney, Leo Routins, Corny Thompson, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin.

And then there were the coaches, even more colorful: Lou Carnesecca at St. John’s; Rick Pitino at Providence; Dr. Tom Davis at Boston College; Rollie Massimino at Villanova; Jim “The Whiner” Boeheim at Syracuse; and the Darth Vader of college basketball, overseeing the Evil Empire at Georgetown, the great John Thompson Jr.

The Big East Conference provided my greatest sports experience ever. Let me clarify: I mean the greatest sports experience I witnessed live and in person. The greatest sports moment in all of history, OF COURSE, was this: “Ground ball, stabbed by Foulke. He under-hands to first. And the Red Sox are the world champions for the first time in 86 years! Can you believe it?!”

My wonderful Big East experience happened in the Hartford Civic Center over a three-day period in March, 1982. In those early years, the plan was to rotate the Big East Tournament to the various cities, a plan that went out the window in 1983 after they realized Madison Square Garden was THE place to be. But for one shining moment, a year earlier, Hartford was the center of the B-ball universe. Seven games in three days. Georgetown pounded Villanova in the final. Sleepy Floyd was Tourney MVP. Ewing, Mullin, and Pinckney were freshmen, but already stars. It was awesome. I didn’t even mind that UConn, coached by Gentleman Dom Perno, got thumped in the first round.

The Big East Conference had a great three-decade run. And in these parts, the “mountain top” moment occurred in 1999, when the scrappy Huskies upset arrogant Duke for the national championship. The Conference was the perfect mix of talented players, charismatic coaches, passionate fans, and shrewd TV executives. But those days are long gone.

I know it’s not healthy to dwell on the past, but I miss those days. And for all you guys wearing Whaler jerseys, now I get it.

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