Three Decades of Big East Memories

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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I'll be at home in Washington this weekend, but my mind will wander to New York's Madison Square Garden and memories of Patrick Ewing, "The Pearl," Yul Brynner, Rollie Massimino and Howard Cosell.

This is the final Big East basketball tournament, a casualty of the insatiable money chase in college athletics. The 30 previous matchups in the Garden produced some of the fabulous moments of the game.

I and my pal Mark Shields, along with our spouses, were there for almost all of them, joyous participants in a unique and wacky culture. We saw great Broadway plays, hung out with colorful characters and celebrated when Georgetown University's Hoyas won six championships against other legendary teams.

We developed a ritual in the early 1980s. On Thursday morning, we would board the train to New York, always in the dining car, where we were joined by the Democratic operative Terry McAuliffe and his fellow Syracuse fans. The Orange mob had a strict rule when it came to booze: None could pass their lips until the train pulled out of Union Station -- at 9:01 a.m.

We always stayed in the same hotel, the Wyndham, in the same suite, 1202-03, which had a living room almost as large as the Garden's court. Late Friday night, after the games, there would be dinner and drinks at the Plaza Hotel's Oyster Bar, where we frequently ran into engaging company, such as Representative Lud Ashley of Ohio, in town for the tournament with his son. On Saturday night, we had dinner at Orso's.

In a deal initially designed to placate our wives -- who in time became basketball fans, too -- we agreed to see a show every weekend. Anne Shields infallibly picked winners. We saw Anthony Quinn in "Zorba the Greek," Brynner in the "King and I," "Chicago" with Jim Naughton and "Les Miserables." Once, we had dinner with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman; my wife hasn't mentioned my eyes since.

Bonds formed at the Garden: The Pittsburgh doctor, the Providence labor consultant, the Philadelphia lawyer -- "see you again in 363 days." Howard Cosell came up to say he had a crush on my wife, Judy Woodruff. I introduced myself; he said he wasn't interested in talking to me.

Every year, we saw my good friend, Esther Newberg, a successful, sophisticated and elegant literary agent. The high-powered authors she represents might not have recognized "Little E" in the Garden, adorned in a University of Connecticut Huskies sweatshirt, screaming at the refs over any perceived misstep.

The quarterfinals, on Fridays, were special. Those were non-stop days of basketball, from noon until almost midnight, in an arena filled with 19,763 eternal juveniles, playing hooky, loving it.

The culture was compelling, high church and low church. Georgetown and Villanova were the elite Romans, St. John's and Seton Hall the working-class Catholics; the tension was palpable. Proximity added to the intensity. Seven of the schools were only a few hours away from New York City. (In the Atlantic Coast Conference, there are only four North Carolina schools -- my wife and I are graduates of Duke and Wake Forest, respectively -- and Greensboro ain't the Big Apple.)

The Big East coaches were mythical. Georgetown's Big John Thompson, more than one foot taller than St. John's Louie Carneseca or Villanova's Massimino, who would jump up and down so frantically that his suit seemed inside out. Hall of Famers Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Jim Calhoun of Connecticut weren't walk-ons.

And the games. Big John would bring his Hoyas into the cathedral of basketball to thunderous boos from fans of the other schools. He loved it; in college basketball they only hate the great.

If one player set the stage for this marquee event it was the intimidating Patrick Ewing, who led Georgetown to two victories in 1984 and 1985. Other great Hoyas followed: Alonzo Mourning, Reggie Williams, Alan Iverson, Jeff Green. The opponents were well-matched: two of the sweetest shooting guards in the game's history, Chris Mullen of St. Johns and Ray Allen of Connecticut. Then there was Dwayne "The Pearl" Washington of Syracuse. Although he turned out to be a middling professional player, he was a magician in college. We beat the 'Cuse two of his three years -- splitting overtime contests. My heart sank every time he touched the ball.

These weekends weren't for the faint of heart. Elbows were thrown, and punches too. Every big game seemed to come down to the final shot.

At about midnight this Saturday, the curtain will fall on the Big East for the final time. There will be other great conference tournaments, and the Big East's name will live on. But this is the end of an era. We will never see its likes again.

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Albert R Hunt at