Ezra Edelman moved several times during his early childhood before arriving in Washington in the late 1970s, when he was about 5. His early sports allegiances were thus a jumble, but his fandom started solidifying, and by the 1982 NCAA men’s basketball championship game – when Georgetown lost to North Carolina – Edelman was a Hoyas fan.
“I remember watching that game on my parents’ bed, and I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I cried after a sporting event,” the filmmaker told me this week. “I started understanding the idea of rooting for your local team. Then your feelings grow exponentially, and the actual connection to the team and those guys became much more intense, very quickly.”
So Edelman was paying attention throughout the pivotal moments in Hoyas history: the Patrick Ewing recruitment, the pop-culture buzz, the racial tensions, the national championship in 1984, the loss to Villanova in the ’85 title game. He was there when the Hoyas lost to St. John’s at the Cap Centre in 1985, had season tickets with his family during his final two years at Sidwell Friends and regularly scalped tickets to the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden after moving to New York as an adult. Heck, he once played Galaga with Patrick Ewing at Yates Field House on Georgetown’s campus.
Edelman’s latest film – “Requiem for the Big East,” an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary that airs Sunday at 9 on ESPN – thus comes by its 1980s nostalgia honestly. But the 39-year old didn’t devote the majority of his 100-minute film to the first decade of the conference merely to revisit his own childhood memories. His goal was to find a narrative arc that could carry a story through 34 years of change, while capturing “the emotional tie that people actually did have and could have for a basketball league.” And many Big East fans, including Edelman, formed those ties 30 years ago.
“I understood the loyalty to it, and the emotion behind it,” he said. “I felt the sadness myself about its breaking up. I think that was actually an integral part to doing the film. I think I would have been like, ‘who gives a [dang],’ frankly, without knowing that there was something there to mine emotionally.”
Mine it he does, through interviews with the men who pushed the Big East to national prominence: Lou Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino, Rick Pitino and Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing and Ed Pinckney, and especially Jim Boeheim and John Thompson Jr. (Boeheim, Edelman said, “ended up being the heart of the film,” with Thompson its “best character.”)
The film begins and ends with last season’s final Big East tournament meeting between Georgetown and Syracuse – Edelman began filming a year ago this week. There are large chunks that focus on the rivalry between those two schools, with Pearl Washington still calling the Hoyas dirty and relishing a blow he landed on Ewing’s ribs, Ewing quipping that “in every story you have to have a villain and that was us,” Thompson insisting that “it was us against the world, and Boeheim saying the rivalry “was what the Big East was about.”
Of course, this isn’t just a story about nostalgia. The film also focuses on the financial and television realities that were always a part of the conference: groundbreaking deals with CBS and ESPN, a push for larger venues and major markets, rising salaries and endorsement opportunities for the coaches, and ultimately the monetary forces that ripped the league apart. Edelman wanted to merge last season’s loving eulogies with a harsher look at why his favorite rivalry and favorite league was going away.
“I can be sad, and everyone can be sad, but this was the inevitable evolution, and it’s reflective not just of the world of college sports, but our world period,” he said. “That’s what I saw in this story: a narrative about money that existed from the beginning and that sort of ended up spelling its doom.”
Which is why Edelman doesn’t have any plans to visit this year’s Big East Tournament. He still roots for the team of his childhood, but he no longer recognizes its conference.
“If Syracuse isn’t in the Big East, it’s not the Big East. If Pitt isn’t in the Big East, it’s not the Big East….This is not the Big East,” he said. “That’s why I had no problem attaching a funereal air to this story. Because I know what it is, and I know what it was.”
(Also, Edelman went to Eaton Elementary, the same school my daughter attends. Go Eaton Eagles!)