The old style chutzpah that made the Large East the most important present in New York Metropolis – The Athletic
From the book THE BIG EAST: Inside the Most Entertaining and Influential Conference in College Basketball History by Dana O’Neil. Copyright © 2021 by Bryan Hoch. Published by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.
In the 1930s, a sportswriter turned promoter (and eventual president of the Knicks) by the name of Ned Irish lured college teams to the Garden for doubleheaders, the city’s rich basketball history making for an easy sell. The events drew crowds of 16,000 or more regularly, and when the NIT was born in 1938, the Garden became the logical place to host it. But with the 1951 point-shaving scandal that embroiled those seven city colleges, New York went from the epicenter of college basketball to the epicenter of corruption. As the NCAA Tournament grew in stature and the NIT became the consolation bracket, the Garden, with its New York address and appeal, still held its allure, but it no longer offered much in the way of inventory.
Until, that is, (original Big East commissioner Dave) Gavitt came along, with the promise of a week’s worth of games featuring the premier teams on the East Coast. This was more marriage than negotiation, the Big East restoring the Garden as a college basketball hub, and the Garden giving Gavitt and his league the pizzazz he craved. The two sides happily agreed to a three-year, $3 million deal in October 1981.
Some coaches and administrators fretted, worried that the toddler league wasn’t quite ready for such a big jump, but they mostly kept their reservations to themselves. Gavitt already had proven his instincts right simply by birthing the Big East. Who were they to doubt him now? “Now here’s Dave and his huddling again,” said John Thompson, using his favorite word to describe Gavitt’s technique of convincing others. “We’re going to the city. It’s going to be great. But this time, of course, I believed him.”
By 1981, Villanova had joined the league, bolting the short-lived Eastern Eight to align with its East Coast brethren. That same year the Big East–Garden partnership played a big part in negotiations that would reverberate across college athletics for decades. At the time, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who also served as his school’s athletic director, was trying to align the East Coast football schools much the same way Gavitt had done in hoops, heavily wooing the Nittany Lions’ rival, Pittsburgh. But Gavitt also had expansion and stability on his mind, looking for another team and one with a football-playing background to give Boston College and Syracuse natural opponents in the sport. He, too, set his sights on Pittsburgh.
Gavitt had what Paterno didn’t yet — financial backing in the form of a $1.6 million television deal, the $3 million arena package, and, more important, revenue sharing. The Pittsburgh Panthers shunned Paterno and football, signing on with the Big East in November 1981, a month after the Garden deal was finalized. Pitt’s decision more or less killed Paterno’s football conference dream.
Interestingly, in 1982, Gavitt went back to Paterno. Seeing a future that others could not, he tried to sell his membership on adding Penn State. Though his league was built on the backbone of basketball, Gavitt recognized how big a factor football could become. Paterno’s idea had exposed how vulnerable the Big East might be one day. Syracuse, Boston College, and soon-to-be-added Pittsburgh played football; the other six schools did not. Paterno certainly wouldn’t be the first visionary to try to woo those schools away.
Gavitt thought adding Penn State would be wise, and though the late Paterno long denied Big East interest, those on the Big East side of things tell a different tale. (Conference administrator Mike) Tranghese and (St. John’s athletic director Jack) Kaiser both recall the eight athletic directors voting five times on whether to add Penn State. Each vote finished the same, 5–3, one shy of the 6 votes needed for admission, with Kaiser, Ted Aceto, and Frank Rienzo, representing St. John’s, Villanova, and Georgetown, voting no. “They didn’t have a big basketball program, and none of our schools had big football programs at the time,” Kaiser says. Eight years later, the Nittany Lions would join the Big Ten, starting the avalanche of conference realignments that ultimately included, just as Gavitt predicted, the defections of Boston College, Pitt, and Syracuse from the Big East. “You don’t understand that if Penn State would have come, eastern independent football would have continued just as it was, because everybody had what they wanted,” Tranghese says. “The whole face of college athletics would have changed. That decision, in my opinion, in my sixty years of college athletics, that decision changed the face of college athletics.”
In 1983, moving to Madison Square Garden did the same for the Big East, with the city, the building, and the conference combining for a splash unlike any other in college basketball. Gavitt orchestrated a bit of a dog-and-pony show to launch the thing, beckoning his coaches to New York for a picture beneath the marquee. He also posed alongside (Madison Square Garden head Sonny) Werblin with one of those oversized checks more often reserved for sweepstakes winners. In some ways it was a sweepstakes, the long-standing partnership between conference and arena leading to a bonanza and financial windfall for both sides. At the first Big East Tournament in Providence, the final attracted a crowd of 7,500.
In 1983, the Garden sold out not just for the final but for all of the sessions. Some tickets were distributed to the member schools, but the rest were made available to the general public, and included admission to every session. By the eve of the first games, fewer than 1,000 of the cheap seats remained, the 15,000 $50 admissions long gone. Not since 1948, when the old Garden on 49th Street hosted the NIT, had the venue welcomed a college basketball sellout crowd through its doors. After that first series of games the demand never waned. Tickets for the Big East tournament remained impossible to come by for decades in a city that specializes in must-see events. When Tranghese wisely moved the final from Sunday afternoon to the prime-time lights of Saturday night, Big East week felt every bit as big as Fashion Week in New York, albeit with slightly less sartorial splendor.
The hawkers and the buyers would meet out front, transacting at the corner of capitalism and dreams, the former looking to make a buck, the latter hoping for a little bit of magic. Around them, the sidewalks teemed like a walking, talking sporting goods store, nearly everyone wearing a sweatshirt, jacket, hat, or button — or sometimes all of the above — declaring their team allegiance. The grown-ups spilled out of the bars designated for the week as their home team watering holes, arriving just in time for tip-off, properly pre-soused and ready to go. The pep bands marched in through the portico, the echoes of competing fight songs bouncing off the walls, while the mascots pranced around, offering high fives. “With all due respect, the NCAA Tournament is great,” says Tim Higgins, a longtime basketball official, “but when you [worked] in front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden, there was nothing like it.”
Putting the deal together took some old-fashioned chutzpah. Pulling off the actual tournament required some old-school connections. After negotiating the deal with Werblin, Gavitt and his staff learned to navigate the Garden staff. This was New York, after all, the arena staff governed by the unions, with strict rules. Josephine Traina, a gruff, fast-talking New Yorker straight from central casting, ran the place like a field marshal. Nothing got by Traina, and nothing got done without her say-so.
Before the first tournament, Traina took Tranghese to meet Tony Avalon, the head of security. Union rules made maneuvering the Garden setup tricky—who could do what, when, and where were all left to the union. Tranghese and Traina headed to Avalon’s dungeon-like office, where the security chief asked Tranghese where in Italy his family was from. Confused, Tranghese told him about his family, and after exchanging a few stories about growing up Italian, Avalon gave Tranghese the nod of approval. “We’re going to get along very well,” Avalon declared. “I still to this day have no idea what that meant, but everything was all set,” Tranghese says. “Everything I ever wanted at the Garden got done. All of these other people would tell me these horror stories. You couldn’t put your hand on a chair. The security had to move the chair. With us, there weren’t any problems. If I were Irish, I don’t know. Maybe we wouldn’t have had a tournament.”
In time, the people who worked at the Garden brought as much flavor to the tournament as the teams that participated. Some of the ushers held their same positions for years, recognizing regular faces and even becoming friendly with the coaches and players. “You walk in through the 33rd Street entrance, you’d see these people, these workers, walking around,” says former Villanova star Ed Pinckney. “They knew your schedule. They knew who you played. Usually you go into a building, people don’t recite, ‘Oh, you played Providence and that was a tough game.’ ” They’d call the coaches by name, and the coaches over time would learn theirs, too. The workers learned over the years that Thompson liked to play the slots, and would jokingly ask when he was heading to Vegas. “No sooner than I’m leaving here,” the coach would reply with a grin.
A ticket-taker who worked the media turnstile boasted his own carnival trick, able to rip the stub from your ducat with one hand, flicking his thumb and forefinger at the perforation to perfection. Until his death in 1989, John Condon served as the public address announcer, followed by Ken Werprin, who retired in 2010, both sending chills up the spine of most everyone in the building when they intoned, “Welcome to Madison Square Garden.” “The first time John Condon introduces you?” Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo says. “Amazing.”
In return, the coaches treated the Garden like their palace. Thompson had a long-standing rule with his players to clean up after themselves, making sure they tossed out the used tape and paper cups that littered the floor after most games; the imposing coach sounded more like a praised child when people recognized the good deed. “The Garden people always commented that they’d come in afterward and it was clean,” he said. Such was the reverence for the place, held by virtually everyone who played there, the world-famous as tickled as the Everyman that they got to spend time in the Garden.
Like the people who worked in it, the building offered its own beloved quirks and idiosyncrasies. Accessing the court level required a ride up in a freight elevator that felt more like a cage. “You’d take it down after the game,” says former Villanova player John Celestand. “If you won, you’d get in there and joke and it was fun. But if you lost, and you were going home, man, those thirty seconds or whatever in that elevator, it felt like you were making the ride to hell or something.”
Lined with pictures of the famous acts who’ve performed in the place, the hallways snaked around like a maze, just wide enough for two people to pass each other. They led to cramped, utilitarian locker rooms made all the more claustrophobic when stuffed with reporters with notebooks and TV cameras after a game. “Madison Square Garden’s locker rooms were dumps,” Villanova’s Rollie Massimino said before he passed away in 2017. He wasn’t wrong. A team knew it had arrived at the Big East Tournament when it dressed in the Knicks’ home locker room space, reserved for the highest seed in the title game.
The officials dressed in equally small spaces, just off the loading docks, and the cheerleaders warmed up alongside the arena detritus, practicing their stunts amid forklifts, boxes, and extra baskets laid on their sides.
But the court, blanketed in spotlights with the upper decks dimmed, felt like a performance stage.
Unlike many places of a different era, it never lost its mystique, charming grizzled veterans and rookies alike. Former Big East associate director Chris Plonsky called her father from the press table before her first Big East Tournament, reveling in the pinch-me-it-can’t-be-real sensation at her view from half-court. Boston native and Boston Garden snob Red Auerbach once chastised Thompson for referring to the New York arena as the “Mecca,” but the Georgetown coach did not apologize for his perceived error.
“[Auerbach] said, ‘That ain’t no goddamned Mecca.’ Hell, I didn’t know what Mecca meant,” Thompson said. “I just knew that was the place to play.”
(Top photo: Anthony Neste / NBAE via Getty Images)