Monday, March 18, 2013

The Big East Semi-Final(e)

Matt Domino was at the final meeting  between Georgetown and Syracuse in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Madison Square Garden was aglow in Syracuse orange and the man from Cazenovia, New York sitting next to me was smiling, looking slightly like a younger Jim Boeheim, and holding up his hand for a high five. Behind me, a frowning middle aged man with the voice of Stan Valchek and a navy and grey Georgetown sweater was being forced to wear a furry Syracuse hat, which a drunken middle aged woman was holding.

“Say goodbye to the Big East,” a disembodied male voice said from somewhere behind me.

Jim Boeheim and John Thompson III shook hands on-court and slowly left the Garden’s stage, while Louisville and Notre Dame players shuffled onto it in order to begin their pre-game warm-ups. The disembodied voice was right.

I have no ties to any school from the Big East and I didn’t grow up in the 1980’s—the decade long considered the conference’s true hey day. The only connections I have to the Big East are that I love sports; have lived in or outside of New York for seventy-five percent of my life; and the fact that my dad let me skip school when I was nine so that we could go to the Garden and buy scalped tickets to the semifinals of the 1994 Tournament. That year I got to see the likes of Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall and Othella Harrington take center stage and reveled in the chance to watch two live basketball games back-to-back.

Memory can be overrated. I say that as someone who is prone to constant bouts of nostalgia, melancholy and a tendency to wax poetic. However, on Friday night, after the Syracuse/Georgetown semifinal in the Big East Tournament—after I watched Jim Boeheim once again shake the hand of his greatest rival’s son—I felt palpable sense of having lost something important.

Everyone was at the Garden to watch Georgetown and Syracuse; including my dad and me, almost 20 years after our first Big East semifinals excursion. In an ideal world, as the main event, it would have been the second game of the night; but it was the first game and so the entire stadium was filled. Georgetown led early and it cannot be overstated how much more Otto Porter Jr. appeared like a professional basketball player than anyone else on the court. He moves fluidly—his disproportionately long arms swishing and gliding, looking like a young Tayshaun Prince—and is much quicker and smarter with his decisions than the other players. When Syracuse stormed back to lead for most of the game, the only way Georgetown could generate offense was using entry passes to Porter Jr. to break the zone at the foul line, where he could make a quick interior pass or kick the ball out for a guard to either penetrate or shoot a three. I haven’t watched a ton of Georgetown basketball this season, so this may be obvious to others, but I was shocked that Georgetown was even considered to be close to a number one seed in the tournament.

Eventually, the game became close. Syracuse got tight and wanted the clock to just run out—but it didn’t and the Georgetown fans behind me were making bets on overtime. When regulation expired with the score tied at 51 (after two clutch Porter Jr. free throws evened the game), both Georgetown and Syracuse fans alike breathed a sigh of relief.

“It’s only fitting that we get OT,” a Syracuse tutor sitting next to my dad said.

“Yeah,” nodded another nearby Orange fan. “51-51. This is Big East basketball. You always take the under.”

Overtime resumed and points were at a premium. Both teams couldn’t get out of their own way. Michael Carter-Williams missed free throws and threw the ball away; Georgetown couldn’t get Porter Jr. the ball in any kind of decent position.

“Let’s go for five overtimes,” a Georgetown fan said. “I could watch this all night!”

Eventually, with Syracuse leading, the Orange trapped Porter Jr. on the wing and he turned the ball over, effectively ending the game. I slapped hands with the middle aged Jim Boeheim from Cazenovia—who had been skeptical of my father and I for not having any real rooting interest in the game—and all the Georgetown and Syracuse fans began to file out.

My dad and I stayed for Louisville/Notre Dame. During that game, I took a trip to the bathroom where I heard the ESPN broadcast piped in above the urinals. Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery were discussing how Peyton Siva had tied Ray Allen’s Big East Tournament record for steals. They then went on to wax poetic about Allen, Mourning, Mullin, Iverson, Ewing, Jackson and deep-cut players from the 80s that I hadn’t even heard of or experienced first hand in any way. Players and rosters I couldn’t even begin to draw or assemble in my mind. Yeah, who the hell was the shooting guard for Syracuse in 1983?

I walked back to my seat. The Garden was basically empty; the Syracuse and Georgetown fans were long gone. I thought about the Big East and how history can be so much bigger than you. I thought about memory and how we tend to exaggerate the past. The Big East as we've known it is gone, but these teams and schools will continue to exist. They’ll make new rivalries (like Duke/Syracuse isn’t going to be fun?) and keep bringing in millions for their institutions. I understand the sentimentality—I wasn’t there for the wars in 1985—but time always marches on.

However, I guess where I am stuck is that place where history and memory allow you to measure yourself. These Big East teams all measured themselves against each other for decades; how they performed in front of their exuberant and bloodthirsty home crowds; against vicious and vengeful away crowds; and on the Garden’s bright, backslapping stage. The Big East’s Manhattan gauntlet was the only conference tournament that felt even close in importance to the NCAA Tournament. Once time moves forward, and those old ways of measuring yourself are gone, it is very easy to feel lost. And even more, to feel an actual gaping sense of loss.

So, sure, the chance at more great Big East memories and montages is gone—but so are those measurements of success and failure. And I have a feeling all the people from Cazenovia and Baldwinsville and the greater D.C. area are going to miss that most of all.

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