Nothing about Big East basketball is small. It's big in name. It plays in big cities, in big arenas, before big crowds. It has big television contracts, big and famous coaches, a commissioner with a big personality and its annual tournament in the biggest city. As Dave Gavitt, the commissioner, said, "As the song goes, New York's New York."
How much bigger can you get than Syracuse's Carrier Dome? Or John Thompson? Or Villanova and defending NCAA champion coach Rollie Massimino's shirttails, which come out during games? Or the 200,000 alumni of the nine Big East schools living in the New York area, the Big East hub? Or the millions each season who see Big East basketball on TV -- on network, on cable, on the Big East's own network? Is the Big East ever not on?
The Big East is the American way of life, though it probably should not be described as a microcosm of it, because that would make it seem too small. If ever a sports league was made by TV, it's the Big East. When the league almost presciently put its games on Monday nights in its first season seven years ago, the Big East got, according to Georgetown Athletic Director Frank Rienzo, the "exposure we would have had to earn in five years . . . in one year."
So it is that the Big East reaps millions from TV; snowy Syracuse recruits two outstanding high school players from sunny southern California for next season, and the Big East tournament quickly comes of age: This weekend's games at Madison Square Garden were sold out five weeks ago. Said Gavitt: "People feel they have to be at the Big East tournament."
It's like, and unlike, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. If you have a ticket, you have something big. But down Tobacco Road, fans might be born to their team allegiances, whereas at the Garden, some make up their minds in the second half. Gavitt called the Garden crowd a "New York hybrid," producing a quaint and classless hoop society -- "the president of a major corporation sitting next to the driver of a bread truck."
When he visited Tobacco Road recently for a game, Gavitt found an "orderliness to the cheering, even." In contrast, "I'd be afraid to give out shakers noisemakers at our games. The guy next to you could eat it."
Gavitt, of course, did not have in mind the missiles that subsequently were fired onto the court during Thursday's big, big quadrupleheader. These included the toilet paper roll that came closer to hitting the Pittsburgh player attempting a game-winning shot against Georgetown than most shots taken at the basket late in the game by either team. And the toilet paper and cowbell that came flying out of the crowd during the game between St. John's and Seton Hall.
When, after narrowly escaping defeat against charged-up Pitt, Georgetown Coach Thompson noted that in a big tournament like this, "people elevate to another level," he was talking about the players. But apparently the same can be said for some fans.
Mostly, the Big East games provide only a good, clean big blast. Sights and sounds of the quarterfinal round: the "Dome Ranger," the Syracuse cowboy clad in orange with a blue Lone Ranger mask; cheerleaders, TV cameras zooming in on cheerleaders, cheerleader pyramids, pompons, priests sitting at ends of team benches, bands, banner-wavers, deafening roars and, periodically for eight hours, the piercing sound of The Horn signaling interruptions and finishes. The Garden scene is so big and blustery, it's hard to remember if the Big East was ever small. Of course it wasn't. It was born big.
In 1975, Gavitt, then Providence athletic director, and Georgetown's Rienzo began mulling the idea of a conference that would bind the big Eastern cities. By 1978, they began to meet regularly along with St. John's and Syracuse officials to plan it. Shortly after that, Boston College, Seton Hall and Connecticut were added for the first season. Later came Villanova, then Pittsburgh. For years, good Eastern teams had been playing to little attention. A conference was an idea whose time had almost past.
"One day, we said, 'Hey, we ought to do something about this,' " Rienzo said. "I appointed him Gavitt as the person in charge."
To Rienzo, a thoughtful, behind-the-scenes man, Gavitt was an ideal commissioner. "He's smart, articulate, a natural leader," helpful qualities in the beginning "when asking schools to give up something near and dear to them," their independence. Said Rienzo: "We're talking about hysterically staunch independents."
But the trend around the country clearly was to new conferences. In the East, said Gavitt, "St. John's would sell out Alumni Hall for Providence and Syracuse and very seldom sell out for anything else." But tying together big-name schools with big basketball tradition meant making big games, more meaningful games. And selective televising by the Big East network -- cities got to see their home teams -- meant big interest. First-year TV made the Big East a big baby.
"The message came across as to who we were," said Gavitt. "We played it like ABC 'Monday Night Football.' Monday night became a very special time . . . a big, big thing."
The Big East couldn't seem to do things little, even if it tried. Take its name. Other names were proposed, said assistant commissioner Tom McElroy: the Seaboard Alliance, the Mayflower Compact.
A public relations and advertising firm (what else, in modern America?) came up with Big East, although, according to old track coach Rienzo, some track coaches in the new conference say they came up with the name, too. Either way, the Big East in its literature refers to itself as BIG EAST, a big-letters conference.
If big might not always mean best, the Big East has been relatively trouble-free, compared with other groups. It has had some on-court fights over the years, but only one this season that Gavitt found disturbing: Georgetown vs. Connecticut. Last fall, a Villanova freshman, Doug West, said publicly that a Pittsburgh booster had offered him money to attend Pitt. The school denied the charge, and the booster has sued West.
"We're not immune to everyday diseases," Gavitt said. "Yes, we'll have our problems. But it won't be intentional."
Gavitt can be charming. He's available, he's talkative. Asked about a comparison between the Big East and the ACC, Gavitt responded: "Let me say sincerely I'm flattered by the question. . . . I hope we'll stand the same test of time."
But Gavitt responded icily to a question about his reaction to published criticism of his role as both commissioner and color man on Big East telecasts. He wears, if not two hats, one hat and one headset.
"No comment," he said.
And then, tersely: "No, I don't think it's a conflict."
Big charm, big chill.
One problem the Big East faces is the big dropoff in league competitiveness after the top four of St. John's, Georgetown, Syracuse and Villanova -- the tournament semifinalists for three straight years. They and BC have been making recent NCAA history while the others struggle to catch up. The potential for rules violations exists, should a team try to catch up too quickly, but Rienzo said, "The conference was founded on mutual respect and personal integrity."
Although none of the founders could envision the Big East as being quite as big as it quickly grew, Rienzo likes the celebratory aspects of tournament time, to say nothing of the money. He pointed out that, at a private luncheon of players and coaches, nine players would sit at each table, one from each school, to foster friendships and show that "there's more to life after the game is over." And from the fans' viewpoint: "Hey, this is like the old NIT in Madison Square Garden. People are coming and making it a weekend experience."
Throughout the on- and off-court drum-beating, one little man stood tall in the Big East crowd: the St. John's coach and Big East coach of the year, Lou Carnesecca. Little Looie, 61-year-old disciple of Joe Lapchick. A newsmaker in fashion columns a year ago when he wore a sweater, Carnesecca looks cooler this season in shirtsleeves. A sports page fixture, he got his 400th victory tonight. A big little man.
Big East basketball -- conference and tournament -- is markedly different from earlier days, he said. Now, teams play one another often. "It's becoming more entertainment," he said.
It's entertainment, all right. The Big East is right where it wants to be, playing the Big Apple, to a full house.