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Tuesday July 29 2014
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The Final Curtain

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New York City just let out a sigh of grief and despair. If the walls of Madison Square Garden could talk, they’d ask why? Why must the cities of Syracuse and Hartford become strangers that are four hours apart from one another?

Why are Morgantown and Pittsburgh merely two towns separated by one interstate?

With the pressure of money and greed, and a big bow to the almighty sport of football, the Big East Conference—a league that gave us three decades of the best basketball we have ever seen and will ever see again—just heard the toll of its last bell, as the seven non-football Catholic schools will be departing from the conference in 2015, if not sooner.

That list includes Georgetown, Providence, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova. They add to the earlier departures of Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville to the ACC, and Rutgers to the Big Ten.

Money buys new and improved athletic facilities. Money buys sponsors and a sense of security. Money doesn’t buy memories.

All the money in the world doesn’t buy six overtimes. It doesn’t buy three days of Da’Sean Butler’s magic. There is no price tag to put on two Gerry McNamera buzzer-beaters in 48 hours.

Since 1979, the Big East has given us priceless memories from the Big East Tournament in the Big Apple, from Villanova to Providence. The league gave us household names like Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino and John Thompson. We witnessed 500 wins under Lou Carnessecca’s belt at St. John’s. We watched as Rollie Massimino and a gang of underdog Wildcats turned the sports world upside down in 1985 when they beat Georgetown in the National Championship. 

The Big East—and maybe more significantly, the Big East Tournament—will forever hold its own precious memories in my heart.

I first covered the Big East Tournament in 2007. Pitt was throttled by Georgetown in the championship, and I stayed in a hotel in midtown that had cockroaches so big you could saddle one up and ride out of the building. It was a miserable time and I vowed I wouldn’t be back.

One year later, Panthers fans were calling me a good luck charm of sorts. Pitt once again muscled its way to the Big East final and this time they defeated Georgetown by 9 in the title game… and my hotel was insect free.Photo by Charles LeClaire

Back then I was banished to the media ramp seats, alongside such publications as Black Star Monthly, The Diamond Quarterly and other blog-for-fun types. Damn right I snuck my way down to the good seats, setting up shop right next to ESPN’s Doris Burke, who was kind enough to talk one-on-one about Sam Young with me, assuming for the entire first-half I was really with the Newark Star-Ledger.

Honestly it didn’t matter where you sat. The magic was palpable throughout the building. Former President Bill Clinton, starlet Jessica Alba, regulars Spike Lee and Denzel Washington, all headlined the cavalcade of stars in the Garden that year. But none could compare to the star-studded action on the court.

For Pitt fans, there were four days of a seven-seed doing the impossible. First they took down Connecticut, then No. 2 Louisville in overtime, then Marquette in the semifinals. 

I had only booked one night at my Fifth Avenue hotel assuming a short trip. Three hotels and two airplane tickets later, I was still in the Big Apple.

To somebody that breathes and bleeds the game of basketball as I do, it was more than enough to satisfy my hunger. The games, the many after-hours adventures that awaited the sportswriters in the city that never sleeps. And if if you didn’t have anywhere else to go you could always count on the friendly Pittsburgh faces at Rosie O’ Grady’s, unofficially the Official New York City Bar of the Panthers.

It wasn’t just about Pitt, either.

I rode the West Virginia train from start-to-finish in 2010, when Da’Sean Butler captured everybody’s imagination, dropping a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Cincinnati in the quarterfinals, following it up with the game-winning shot against Notre Dame the next night, and then a pro-step, dribble-drive slash to the lane with just 2 seconds left in a tie game against Georgetown, finishing them off by that bucket.

Coach Bob Huggins and Butler hugged each other, raw emotion in full view at mid-court. I remember Da’Sean telling me in the locker room afterwards, “This is why I love the Big East. There is nothing like the Big East. There is nothing better than Madison Square Garden.”

Who could have known that night that those two would be embracing again at mid-court nearly a month later, as Butler suffered a season-ending injury in the middle of a Final Four game against Duke?

Maybe I took it for granted, but I received the privilege to watch the best basketball in the grandest of all arenas. Watching Kemba Walker drop a 15-footer at the buzzer to beat Pitt a year ago. Watching Gerry McNamera buzzer-beat the hell out of the entire Big East field in 2006. Watching Pitt win two crowns.

Madison Square GardenI have so many sports memories to hold on to in my life, but none reach the pinnacle of what the Big East Tournament meant to me. 

It was a way of life; a yearly retreat of basketball ecstasy that those who cherished will never get back.

Money may talk and it may speak loudly, but it doesn’t buy basketball perfection. And that’s what we’re losing: perfection.

I was in a minor league press box in Charlotte, NC, last month, taking in one of Gregory Polanco’s final triple-A games. A colleague, upon learning I was from Pittsburgh, approached me with a question.
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