Two years ago this month, Metropolitan Washington was treated to an extraordinary eight days of college basketball. It began on a Saturday night in Capital Centre when Virginia, with the great Ralph Sampson, met Georgetown, with the great Patrick Ewing. With 19,035 people rocking the building top-ranked Virginia won a memorable game.
Three nights later, in the same place, American University, a school that has no on-campus gym, stunned mighty Georgetown. The following Saturday, American played an inexperienced, underdog George Washington team. The Colonials shocked them in overtime.
Three thrilling games. Even in this football-obsessed city, people were talking basketball.
What made the three games special was the sense that everyone involved -- coaches, players, fans -- knew everyone else involved. It's called local rivalry and no matter what the sport, there's nothing quite like it. More than anything, familiarity is what gives sports rivalries their passion. There is a sense, even between rival fans that they share in something outsiders can't understand.
But here in Washington, local rivalries have almost become a thing of the past. Georgetown won't play Maryland. It won't play George Washington except at home. Maryland is pulling the same routine on George Washington. And, if you mention the possibility of a local tournament, people look at you aghast.
Politics and personalities are the reason for this. Local rivals should play each other every season, period. A local tournament would be ideal. But if that can't be pieced together, at the very least the two major powers in town -- Georgetown and Maryland -- should put aside their bickering and stop depriving their fans of an annual game.
In all, there are seven NCAA Division 1 teams in the Metropolitan area. Georgetown is the defending national champion; Maryland is the defending ACC champion; George Washington is a rising power in its conference; George Mason and Navy each won 20 games last year. American, after three straight 20-victory seasons, fell on hard times. Howard is annually a contender in its conference.
Imagine right now if Georgetown and Maryland were playing each other this week. How could you not get excited about that matchup? The last time the two schools met was in 1980 in the NCAA Tournament and for a week talk of the game was rampant here.
But for the last four seasons, Georgetown Coach John Thompson has refused to schedule a game with Maryland. Thompson is still upset because in the 1970s, when he was building his program, Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell, then the dominant coach in town, wouldn't schedule Georgetown for a couple of years.
After not playing for two seasons, the Hoyas and Terrapins began playing again in 1977. They played the next three seasons before Thompson -- after winning the 1980 NCAA matchup -- stopped playing. This season will mark the fifth straight year that these two old rivals will not play in the regular season. Before the drought, they had met 57 times.
A sidelight to this sad tale is George Washington, which has been shut out by both Georgetown and Maryland, each insisting the Colonials bow to their demand that the Colonials come to them each year. GW, correctly, won't do that.
"It's sad when personalities get in the way of tradition," George Washington Athletic Director Steve Bilsky says. "These schools are going to be around for a long time after the coaches are gone. Playing these games should be automatic. The worst thing is, once you've killed a tradition, it will never be the same again."
Exactly. Thompson and Driesell don't like each other, so Thompson, currently holding the trump card, won't play Driesell. In the '70s, Driesell played the same game and Thompson thinks he's getting even.
Georgetown and Maryland should play one year at Maryland, the next year at Georgetown -- or whatever place Georgetown is calling home. Maybe D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes could get together and try to get the two schools together. Lord knows politicians spend a lot of time cutting ribbons that could be spent on trying to put together a project that would benefit the schools, the city and the state.
Maryland and Georgetown should also play home-and-home with George Washington. When I mentioned that to Driesell recently he complained that GW's Smith Center was, "too much of a home-court advantage."
More of a home-court advantage than some of the places Maryland has to play at in the Atlantic Coast Conference? No, of course not. What's more, so what if Maryland were to lose to George Washington? GW beat Maryland two in a row in the 1970s and Maryland's program survived. It also survived losing to Georgetown. And Georgetown survived losing to American two years ago.
In short, nobody loses. In fact, wouldn't it be wonderful if the seven local athletic directors could somehow put aside their niggling differences long enough to hold an annual December tournament? Make the eighth team Virginia or Richmond or Virginia Tech or Virginia Commonwealth, take your pick. George Washington Coach Gerry Gimelstob suggests that all the proceeds go to Children's Hospital.
How do you say no to an idea like that? I guarantee you, Georgetown will say no. Thompson will probably give his speech about not owing the other local teams anything. He's right. Then, when he's asked about doing something for the community, he'll answer, as he did recently to a reporter from another paper, "I think winning the national championship did something for the community."
Maybe. But it sure didn't do anything for charity -- unless Georgetown has secretly given some of its NCAA winnings to charity, which I tend to doubt. And the home games Thompson has played this month against teams like Southern Connecticut and St. Leo's haven't done anyone any good. I'll bet very few Georgetown season-ticket holders would complain if they were told they had to pay a few extra bucks to trade a game with St. Leo's for a game against Maryland or George Washington. The only reason Georgetown still condescends to play American is because AU has agreed to play all the games at the Capital Centre, Georgetown's home court.
For two years, Georgetown Athletic Director Frank Rienzo insisted things like "conference commitments" prevented a game with Maryland. Then, last year he said, "Maryland-Georgetown wouldn't be an attractive game for (national) television." Then, pushed further, he said to me that he would schedule the game if I would guarantee a sellout.
First of all, the game might very well be attractive to national TV. Second, it would probably be a sellout most years. True, the games in the '70s didn't sell out, but that was light years ago in terms of college basketball's popularity in this area and in terms of Georgetown being recognized as a national power.
But even if there was no national television or no sellout, the games should be played. Local rivalries are an integral part of sport. They are traditional, they are unpredictable, they are wonderful. Georgetown fans may revel in the national championship, but how many among them will ever forget Craig Esherick's 35- foot heave at the buzzer that sent the 1978 George Washington game into overtime?
If Esherick had made the shot against New Mexico or Nevada-Las Vegas, it would have been a nice moment. Against George Washington, it became a cherished memory.
Those memories are too rare. It's time that coaching super-egos stop taking away our chances to acquire a few more of them.