Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today to support the journalism you rely on!

'Requiem For The Big East' Honors Basketball Rivalries


The Big East basketball tournament is underway at Madison Square Garden in New York City. For many fans it is nothing like it used to be. In the 1980s, even up until recently, this was a marquee event for college basketball and for New York.


EZRA EDELMAN: Big East Tournament. It owned the back page of the Daily News in the New York Post for like four days and that's all you read. I mean the Rangers, the Knicks; everyone else might as well have gone away for the weekend. The Big East owned the city.

GREENE: That sound from a new documentary called "Requiem for the Big East," a title suggesting that the conference is pretty much dead. Last year, Syracuse, a founding member, left the Big East, ending a three-decade-long rivalry with Georgetown, and other schools have left as well. In the documentary, filmmaker Ezra Edelman chronicles the rise and fall of a conference that brought a gritty style and a whole lot of personality to the world of college basketball.

Edelman stopped by our studios. Thanks for coming by.

EDELMAN: Thanks for having me, David.

GREENE: So when the Big East came together, what was the goal?

EDELMAN: I think initially the goal, it was started by a guy named Dave Gavitt, who was a former coach at Providence College and a great basketball mind. He knew that there were a lot of schools in the Northeast that had a lot of talent, great coaches, and it was good basketball, but there was no way for the rest of the country to see them. And the goal was then to form a group of schools to play competitive basketball, but do it in these big television markets where the word would get out.

GREENE: And he did. I mean his dream came to fruition. These schools formed this conference. They developed these rivalries and it was a different kind of basketball. What made it special?

EDELMAN: I think the intimacy and the familiarity that a lot of the kids, you know, in these cities, they all knew each other. They were all recruited by the same schools and so there was this grudge match element to every game. It was friendly off the court, but it was sort of hardcore, rough, brutal basketball because these were kids from, you know, urban environments and the things you remember and the things you sort of were amazed seeing today are these highlights of the star players fighting in games. That was routine.

GREENE: And fighting - you don't mean just a few pushes. I mean there were some battle, like I mean fighting, punching on the gym floor.

EDELMAN: Fighting, punching. Patrick Ewing, the best player in the history of the league, who's seven feet tall, throwing haymakers at Pearl Washington, the little point guard from Syracuse. Yeah, fighting.

GREENE: There are scenes in the documentary of little kids in some cities on the eastern seaboard fixated on their televisions, watching games like this. What did this basketball mean to kids as they were seeing it on TV?

EDELMAN: Well, I was one of those kids. I grew up watching Georgetown games and Big East games on WTTG Channel 5 in D.C. And so that was the only game in town, but I was a Georgetown fan, partly, and I think with a lot of people, because that was that was the access I had to watching games. The Big East, between their - in their affiliation with ESPN, they sort of got in on the ground floor and so all of a sudden, even if you're a kid in California, you turn on ESPN, this sort of relatively burgeoning television network, and what you saw was the Big East, the Big East, the Big East.

And so even if you weren't actually on the east coast, you formed these attachments.

GREENE: The coaches of these Big East schools became such personalities, such household names.


JOHN THOMPSON: Carnesecca, Massimino, Collesimo(ph?) - they called me at times, jokily, a black Italian.

GREENE: John Thompson from Georgetown. Explain to me what that means.

EDELMAN: Well, I guess what he was saying was, you know, this was, you know, not only did this league rise out of nothing, it was comprised of a bunch of ethnic guys from the east coast. I mean, Rollie Massimino's an Italian guy whose parents came on the boat to America and grew up in Jersey. You know, Carnesecca, same thing. Son of Italian immigrants who grew up in New York City. John Thompson, you know, black guy from Washington, D.C.

These coaches were sort of ethnically in line with the areas they were from. This was a whole new group of cats that were coming in and they were loud and they were brash and they were competitive, and that also informed the style of play and why the Big East sort of got off the ground. It was really a coaches' league.

GREENE: St. John's coach, Lou Carnesecca, such a moment involving a sweater, with him facing off against Georgetown and John Thompson. Remind me what happened.

EDELMAN: I mean it was February 27, 1985. St. Johns was the number one team in the country for the first time in over 30 years and they're riding, I want to say a 20-something game winning streak, maybe a 17-game winning streak. And all these games came when Louie Carnesecca was wearing this sweater that he put on because he had a cold during a game in Pittsburgh, so he puts on this sweater and they start winning and it becomes this thing.

GREENE: He feels like I'm winning because of this sweater, I'm going to keep wearing it.

EDELMAN: Exactly. So the sweater became this thing, and so it all funnels into this showdown against Georgetown, number versus number two, St. Johns at Madison Square Garden, the mecca of college basketball, and you know, of course Louis come out with this sweater. And then they're playing Georgetown, the big, bad, intimidating Hoyas, John Thompson the big, loud, profane and profound coach of Georgetown, and he walks out, he peels back his jacket and he's got a replica of Louie Carnesecca's sweater on.

It just - everyone fell out laughing.

GREENE: And Ezra, we should say, maybe John Thompson's ploy worked. I mean, Georgetown beat St. Johns and the streak of the sweater ended.

EDELMAN: Absolutely. I mean people were almost talking about it like it was the Roman Coliseum. Like, you had these rabid St. Johns fans, and then Thompson, by doing that, completely disarmed the crowd. Even they had to be, like, this is funny.

GREENE: When Syracuse and Georgetown played their final game in such a magical rivalry last year, Jim Boeheim, Syracuse coach, tells the media afterwards that Syracuse leaving the Big East, he says you all know this is about football.


JIM BOEHEIM: This is - this has got nothing to do with basketball. You know that. You're way smarter than that. This is just to do with football. You know that. And it's where everything's going.

GREENE: What does he mean?

EDELMAN: You know, a big-time college football program makes three times the amount of a big-time college basketball program. And the money that you generate from television is leaps and bounds more, and so Syracuse and these other programs, when these offers came in recent times to go to a bigger conference with a bigger television contract, they took it. And what we lose, we lose the identity of the basketball conference, the identity of the regionalism of these schools.

It sort of speaks to the way our world has evolved. People like making money. It's all about the bottom line and unfortunately the Big East fell prey to that.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you. I mean, you grew up a Georgetown basketball fan. I grew up a Pitt fan. I mean, we both grew up watching Big East basketball all the time in the '80s. We certainly feel the sense of loss 'cause we have those memories, but young kids growing up now, I mean Georgetown is still playing basketball, Pitt's still playing basketball, Syracuse is still playing basketball. Is there a larger loss there or is it just that you and I are going to miss those great games?

EDELMAN: Well, that's interesting. I mean, it's definitely not a tragedy. As you said, big-time college basketball is still being played. You can form an attachment to any team for whatever reason, and so I do think that in 15 years, when we're talking to a young Pitt fan, I don't think the loss of the Big East is going to mean anything to him. It's still going to be really good basketball. It's not going to feel the same; it's not the Northeast Corridor, it's not the sort of intimacy that we're used to as kids.

We all adjust to the times in which we grow up, so I don't think that this will be felt by anyone. Actually, I think we are the generation that feels it the most.

GREENE: Ezra Edelman, thanks so much for coming by. We appreciate it.

EDELMAN: Thank you, David.

GREENE: And the documentary "Requiem for the Big East" airs Sunday night on ESPN. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.