NEW YORK — With his traditional black suit, patterned tie and pocket square — different patterns, but both accented with blue, for the ACC — John Swofford looked like a proper Southern gentleman as he stepped to the lectern placed halfway between the glossy front doors of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and the gaping entrance of the arena’s adjoining subway station.
“It’s natural for us to come here in terms of the great basketball history and tradition that is here in Brooklyn and throughout New York City,” the ACC commissioner said in the media appearance Monday in his gentle Southern accent, “and the number of coaches and players that have come into our league long before this was part of our actual geographical footprint.”
Swofford’s remarks, however controversial they may be to those who refute that there is anything natural about holding the ACC tournament so far north of the Mason-Dixon Line, officially opened the league’s two-year experiment in holding its crown jewel tournament at Barclays Center. The opening round began Tuesday.
From the league’s standpoint, this is a good time to be flaunting itself in the country’s largest media market. With the reigning college football national champion under its umbrella and the possibility of a record-breaking 10 member programs headed to the NCAA tournament, the ACC is all but thumbing its nose at those who said expansion would be bad for the conference.
“It’s good timing, there’s no question,” Swofford said. “Coming off last year and then having the regular season that we’ve had this year fits really well with us coming to New York for the first time.”
To mark the occasion — and to assuage the doubts of those who see no reason other than money for the North Carolina-based ACC to hold its tournament in New York — the league excavated its deep history with New York City basketball and packaged it for public consumption.
“A Cut Above,” a syndicated television special produced by the ACC and network partner Raycom, illustrates the league-city ties through vignettes that include North Carolina’s 1957 national championship team that went 32-0 with a roster of New York kids and a coach, Frank McGuire, who started the pipeline between the city’s high school players and North Carolina. Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson and Bobby Cremins, both New York natives, make appearances along with Charlie Scott, a Harlem street ball legend who was North Carolina’s first black scholarship basketball player.
To those New York natives such as Cremins, who played for McGuire when South Carolina was an ACC member and achieved his greatest fame as coach at Georgia Tech, the ACC tournament being in New York makes perfect sense.
“If you really do your history, the greatest players are from New York,” Cremins said in a phone interview, his accent thick despite 30 years in the South. “And if you do your history, and you do ACC basketball, you will be amazed at what you find.”
Cremins credits McGuire for stirring ACC fervor in the basketball-crazy New York of the mid-20th century. Cremins grew up the son of Irish immigrants in the South Bronx, playing basketball in the schoolyard across from his family’s apartment complex. By the time he was playing at All Hallows High in the 1960s, McGuire loomed large for two reasons — he had taken St. John’s to the Final Four in 1952 and won the 1957 national title with North Carolina.
“Frank McGuire’s the man,” Cremins said, “He was the man. He owned New York City. He was a New York Irishman, his father was a police officer, he was the 13th child in his family. And he was like the godfather of New York.
“A lot of us in the beginning, we just knew he was a big shot . . . but all the high school coaches in New York loved Frank McGuire and they helped him a lot. A lot. Jack Curran [the legendary coach at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens] played for Coach McGuire at St. John’s, so his loyalty was to Frank McGuire. And Coach McGuire could just go to New York, and if you were all-New York City, he was going after you. And he’d get you.”
As more New York prodigies such as Anderson and Kenny Smith, a former Tar Heel, headed south, interest in the ACC stayed steady throughout the five boroughs — even with the powerful Big East, with the likes of St. John’s, Seton Hall and Syracuse, close by.
But mainly, New Yorkers around the league say the ACC tournament is a good match for the city simply because New York is, at its core, a basketball city. Played on schoolyard playgrounds, in parks and dimly lit high school gyms, basketball was a way of life — and an opportunity to go to high school and college on scholarship.
“I grew up in the ’60s, so basketball — I was there at what you would call the renaissance of the basketball era collegiately and professionally,” Scott said. “I was also at a time when basketball was getting more blacks involved from baseball, and basketball was everything for us, especially when you’re talking about going to college. I don’t know anyone where I grew up, and I grew up in Harlem, that would have gone to college if not for the athletic scholarship they got for basketball.”
Ron Sanchez, Virginia’s associate head coach, felt the same type of connection to the sport growing up in the Bronx decades later.
“I think things have changed now, but back in the ’80s and ’90s, you couldn’t go outside and find an empty basketball court,” Sanchez said.
For that reason, Miami Coach Jim Larranaga expects Barclays Center to draw good crowds this week. Larranaga, a Bronx native who played for Curran at Archbishop Molloy, views the tournament as a homecoming of sorts for the Big East programs of yore — Syracuse, Louisville, Miami, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Boston College and Pittsburgh — even while the actual Big East tournament will be contested simultaneously across town at Madison Square Garden.
“As far as I’m concerned, kids from New York City decades ago invented the game of basketball,” Larranaga said. “That’s seven of our 15 schools at one time in the Big East, including Miami . . . two years ago we played in the NIT at Madison Square Garden, the number of Miami fans that showed up blew me away.”
Sanchez agrees. North Carolina made the ACC what it is, but New Yorkers have a basketball tradition of their own.
“New York City is a basketball city. They may not care about, oh, Florida State,” Sanchez said, “but they care about basketball. This place will be jumping.”