Big As Life

Amid all the recent nostalgia over the dearly departed Reagan-era Big East, there's an inconvenient truth: the conference is still here, and doing great.
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Last Thursday night, I was waiting for a friend at the Blarney Rock, which is one of the last of the sawdusty Irish dives that use to be all over Midtown Manhattan. (Pour out some Jamey for the hotplates.) It’s cleaner now, gussied up with a new paint job and an upstairs party room, but during the Big East tourney, it’s more or less the same old ditty. Fans flock to swill overpriced beer with ironworkers and garmentos and fans either getting juiced for that night’s game or reliving/drowning in the afternoon session’s outcomes.

I was near the door, standing next to an old boy bouncer. This was either the same guy that’s been there forever, or a guy who might as well be: white hair, Yankees cap, a slight brogue, and just enough of that New York City juju to give the folks a story to take home. As I waited, a family of Creighton fans, festooned in blue and white beads, came in for their first time. A woman stopped and asked the bouncer:

“Do you have a place to sit and eat?”

“Tables in the back.”

“How do I get there?”

“Walk to the back.”

The bouncer and his new friends all hooted at this real-life Alexander Payne dialogue. They went on their way, he turned to me and said: “These people from Nebraska are taking a beating. Guy asked me if we had $2 beers. They have $2 beers out there. Can you believe it?”

I believe it because I still believe in the Big East.

***

One thing is for certain this March Madness: this is NOT the Big East.

 

Jay Bilas was just one of the many pundits, professional and amateur alike, making sure people are aware the conference they know and love is dead. To be fair, Bilas was somewhat ecumenical about it. But he was, to be sure, calling the new lineup the Dave Clark Five. To which, as another renowned English bloke once asked, what’s in a name, anyway?

As tie-in promotional programming luck would have it, ESPN recently ran Requiem for the Big East , a syrupy paean to rambunctious games played thirty years ago, back when it was probably possible to get a $2 beer at the Blarney Rock. The movie is a lot of fun as these things go, especially if you came of age in the years of Reagan and the collegiate Patrick Ewing. (The highlight for me was a scowling John Thompson towering over the Gipper, resplendent in his plaid coat and red turtleneck.) As a teenager who lived and breathed Big Monday, this sort of nostalgia lands heavily in the portly, officially middle-aged breadbasket.

The talking heads alone made it worthwhile, especially seeing the then-and-now faces of that legendary pack of oddball coaches. It was nice to see Jim Boeheim smiling as the “last man standing”—Rick Pitino being chopped Mazzafegti, apparently—John Thompson as an avuncular grandfather type, Rollie Massimino still both roly and poly, and all those wonderful gym rat years legible on the beautifully wrinkled face of Lou Carnesecca. For me, Requiem for the Big East was Jerome Lane’s slam dunk, the backboard shattered by the force of seeing two of my spirit animals get some run. Bill Raftery and Charlie Pierce are both in the mix? Send it in, indeed.

And yet, that being said, Requiem for the Big East was, in the spirit of the day and the good people of Creighton, feckin’ bollocks.

***

The documentary is correct, the Big East of today is not the Big East of Bill Wennington, and so we can leave it at that. Except we can’t, because nostalgia will get you a pair of Rafael Addison short-shorts and a 75 cent subway token and that’s about it.

They may have well called it 30 For 30: Remember the '80s for all the attention paid to the Big East after it sent three teams to the Final Four. Providence’s incredible 1987 run and Seton Hall’s crushing and controversial OT loss in the 1989 NCAA Championship warranted a lot more airtime, and poor Jim Calhoun must have run over Dave Gavitt’s dog for all the attention given to the most successful program in Big East history.

And did the years between 1990 and 2012 not count? Nothing on the legendary Allen Iverson/Ray Allen showdown, or the 6OT text-your-friends-to-turn-it-on-RIGHT-NOW classic between Syracuse and UConn some years back? Nothing at all of the amazing Gerry McNamara, the even more amazing Kemba Walker, or random one-tourney stars like Bootsy Thornton, Pillsbury point guard Khalid El-Amin, Scoonie Penn, Sam Young, Da’Sean Butler, or two-time MVP Peyton Siva? Nostalgia has a way of forcing its adherents to wallow in their definition of the good ol' days—these particular days tend to overlap perfectly with Bill Simmons' childhood—but ESPN simply wiped out 22 years of terrific hoops in one fell swoop like Jim Carrey on Lacuna’s couch. Call it the Eternal Sunshine of the Basketballless Mind.

Yes, I get it, the point being that small regional conference that featured some of the best hard-nosed players on Earth grew, and grew, and morphed into a thing that somehow included South Florida. But at some point, enough with the 1980s already. It was a long, long, long time ago, and much basketball has been played since then. For Hoddy Mahon’s sake, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard was nine years old when Villanova shocked Georgetown. (For what it’s worth HBO’s Perfect Upset told that story better.)

As Charlie Pierce says, “Capitalism killed the Big East.” Fine and dandy, but it might have been a bit less journalistically dubious had the 30 For 30 noted that ESPN and its money played more than a minor role in destroying the conference, as opposed to hanging the culpability on the catch-all holy evil of “football.” But then the keepers of the 8th Avenue flame will say that the moment the conference expanded to Milwaukee, it wasn’t the real Big East anyway. They’d be right, but I don’t recall hearing a lot of mumbling and grumbling when West Virginia reached the Final Four or when Louisville brought home the chip.

Capitalism killed the Big East? Ain’t that America for you and Easy Ed Pinckney.

***

The games weren’t packed Thursday night, but it had a solid crowd, most wearing Bluejay blues; Omaha appeared to have emptied into the Garden. The fans got their money’s worth, watching Doug McDermott drop 27 in the first half , something that, you know, never happened in the history of the Big East tournament before. Not all Nebraskans took a beating that night, and a fair number of them hung around for the ragged Marquette-Xavier tilt, which...nah, I'm not going to write about it. Eight tourney years...grumble, grumble, grumble.Still too raw.

The point being: basketball is still played here. Few who witnessed McBuckets display in person would have had enough breath to whine and pine for the days of yore; the old guard was probably pondering how his game would’ve stacked up against Mullin, Ewing and Pearl. Looking back is fine, but it’s the Commodore 64 equivalent of staring at a smartphone while the game plays out in front of you. The crowning irony is that the new basketball-only Big East is closer to Dave Gavitt’s original vision than any conference that’s come down the lane since. It’s smaller, manageable, homier, cozier, and not beholden to a pointless Cincinnati at Rutgers Thursday night football game. There's nothing here to mourn.

So: it’s not the Beatles, but it surely ain’t the Dave Clark Five either. For the Bristol television yakkers, it’s lacking in Q-rating oomph; for the Times types the new conference lacks “New York Flavor.” But hey: St. John’s is on the upswing, and the Big East has plenty of time to work out the kinks and find its own personal Manhattan space. The league's contract with Madison Square Garden runs until 2026.

If the Big East "doesn't exist anymore" to Jay Bilas, that may have something to do with the fact that ESPN doesn’t even cover it these days. The rest of us can trust our own eyes and the words of our onions-loving basketball-uncle. If Bill Raftery says, albeit not on ESPN, that “the Big East tourney was as enjoyable as ever,” that’s all the smoocher I need. What’s in a name? Well, 40 percent of the league’s teams in the NCAA Tournament—60 percent if you want to count the NIT—and the probable National Player of the Year.

So, here's my invitation to Jay Bilas. Next year, instead of buzz-killing everyone’s Big East tourney, I’ll meet you at the Blarney Rock. The $6 beers are on me. I’ll reserve us a table. They’re in the back. 


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