Sports have been played in front of hollow arenas for a year now, so of course there’s ghosts lurking. Every floorboard creak, sneaker squeak, and coach’s shout have been overheard this college basketball season. Empty gyms have made for morgue-like atmospheres around the nation, the usual noise, music, and shouting siphoned off into the ether. It’s been a ghoulish campaign without the normal merry march to March, every school worried about the Covid bogeyman under the bed.
So Indianapolis isn’t normal this year, the site of the NCAA Tournament. It isn’t jolly, crowded and alive. It’s reserved and cavernous at the moment, like a library before a test. Maybe that changes with limited fans arriving in town, but it won’t achieve anything close to the energy that usually pumps through the veins of the Final Four. However, it makes the perfect set for ghosts of the old Big East to float through.
It’s very pandemic of us to reminisce about the good ol’ days. If the ’21 tourney is remembered for its limitations, the old Big East Tournament was known for having none. That rollicking, brawling, raucous, aggressive week in Manhattan was the exact temperament of a league that was long on ego and short on rules. Just look around Indy this week. There’s Patrick Ewing, Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim.
While the modern incarnation of the league still insists it’s all about programs in major media markets, it would be more honest to admit it was more about star power. Sure, New York, Philly, D.C., Pittsburgh, Providence, Hartford and Boston were all originally repped. But Boeheim, Pitino, John Thompson, Louie Carnesecca, Rollie Massamino, and Jim Calhoun were the characters, a mob of spit-in-your-eye guys. The stars on the floor were even more important to the conference exploding into a national phenomenon. Chris Mullin, Pearl Washington, Walter Berry, and Ed Pinckney were must-see TV in the ’80s. They gave way to the ’90s galaxy of Derrick Coleman, Alonzo Mourning, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Kerry Kittles and John Wallace. Eventually the baton was passed to Rip Hamilton, Carmelo Anthony, Troy Bell, and Kemba Walker. But no one was Ewing. The 7-foot superhero led the Hoyas to three national championship games in four seasons. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the obvious top pick in the NBA Draft, and the most physically imposing college player in a decade. He was the center of the Big East’s universe, its very own Empire State Building.
After his Hall of Fame playing career Ewing searched for a head coaching gig, spending 15 years as an NBA assistant. Finally his alma mater came knocking, but the Hoyas didn’t see results. In his first three seasons Georgetown was just 19-35 in the Big East. His best finish was losing in the NIT’s first round. This season looked destined to end in flames as well, until that old Madison Square Garden magic kicked in. The 8th-seeded Hoyas went on a remarkable run, winning four games in four days to claim the tournament. Sure, there’s teams from Nebraska and Indiana in the Big East these days. There weren’t the usually rowdy crowds that fill the joint for every session. But Ewing winning big games underneath the banner of his retired jersey felt right, even if a few security guards hassled him for a pass. Now he’s coaching in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, and it’s impossible not to make him a sentimental favorite. A man who has always been at arm’s length from love (fans, media, athletic directors), is a feel good story.
Rick Pitino is decidedly not a warm and fuzzy narrative, but every play needs a villain as well. Slick Rick has been lying for years on just about every topic. Strippers in dorm rooms? He didn’t know. Sneaker money funneled to recruits? No idea. Loyal to the old Big East? Not if you’re handing out invites to the ACC. But he’s also one of the best coaches the sport has ever seen, and in just one season he led tiny Iona back to the NCAA Tournament. He’s almost 70 years old, but Pitino still has that look of a kid you wouldn’t trust with your lunchbox in the school yard. Back in the mid-’80s he was one of the Big East’s best stories, taking Providence to the Final Four in ’87, just his second year on the job. To get there his 6th-seeded Friars had to survive the top-seeded Hoyas in the Elite 8. He ran into a dominant Syracuse team in the national semifinals. The road through March Madness was paved with Big East bricks. SU prevailed and would lose to Indiana in the title game, but the run would launch Pitino’s career. He took over the Kentucky job, immediately built a power, and eventually won his first national championship. He’s a minnow these days, massive underdogs to 2-seed Alabama, but he’s a survivor. A Big East brat who’s back in the dance.
Thirty-four years ago the coach that beat Pitino? Boeheim, who is still doing the same things on the sidelines at the Carrier Dome. He’s haranguing officials, fueding with reporters, and sniping with fans. He’s also still winning. Since beating Pitino’s Friars in the Final Four in ’87, Boeheim’s teams have made the NCAA Tournament 27 times. He’s gone to four more Final Fours since then. He’s outraced the cavalry for 25 years, and every few seasons the din of the crowd gets loud again. “Boeheim’s too stubborn. He’s stuck in the past. The 2-3 zone doesn’t work anymore.” And every time he finds a way to guide another magical spring run, and critics have to shut up. He did it again this season. As the calendar turned to March the Orange were a wreck. They were NIT-bound at best, getting rocked by one of the worst Duke teams in years. Then it happened. Syracuse beat annual tormentor UNC, swept Clemson, rolled NC State in Greensboro and played Virginia to the buzzer. The bubble once again broke the way of the Orange. Boeheim’s still fighting.
In the quiet moments at Indianapolis, look around. The ghosts of Big East past are there. They’re the ones screaming at the refs and telling stories of the past.