NEW YORK — Once the stories started being told it was hard to stop. The memories of the Big East Conference and Madison Square Garden for the past 34 years were the topic of a panel discussion Tuesday to celebrate the great relationship between conference and building.
The late Dave Gavitt, the Big East’s first commissioner, is the person who brought the two sides together for the 1983 tournament — after the first three were played in Providence, Rhode Island; Syracuse, New York; and Hartford, Connecticut — and the rest is history.
“Dave Gavitt understood that the first three years we were off-Broadway and he brought us to Broadway,” said former Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo, who won two Big East Tournaments. “We had the best players in the country and they loved to perform on the biggest stage.”
Every March, The Garden would be packed for four straight days as the Big East decided on a champion and the automatic bid it brought to the NCAA Tournament. Players like Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington were the early stars before the next generation of Kerry Kittles, Allen Iverson and Ray Allen filled the marquee.
“They were all neighborhood battles, our kids knew every guy on the other teams and everyone had a personal interest,” said former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who leads all coaches with seven tournament titles on The Garden court. “The rivalries were unbelievable. Coaching Big East basketball, there was nothing like it. The Garden is the mecca.”
While growing up in New York, Mullin said, his dream was “to go from the cheap seats up top down to the court.”
He did and his first Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden turned into St. John’s first title.
“I remember Coach (Lou Carnesecca) saying it was like playing in Macy’s window. I guess things went so well they haven’t left,” he said.
A video was shown with highlights of all the great plays and players including Syracuse’s Gerry McNamara and Connecticut’s Kemba Walker, who led their teams to unexpected tournament titles with incredible individual performances. Then there was the six-overtime quarterfinal between Syracuse and Connecticut in 2009 that the Orange won 127-117.
“Thanks for bringing that game up,” Calhoun said. “As great as that game was, it was better because it was here.”
This March will be the 35th time the Big East Tournament is played at Madison Square Garden.
“Dave Gavitt’s idea all those years ago still is the best thing that happened to this conference,” Carlesimo said.