' Cinema Romantico: 30 for 30: Requiem For The Big East

Thursday, March 20, 2014

30 for 30: Requiem For The Big East

“That was a little subway push,” says former St. John’s University basketball coach Lou Carnesecca. Ostensibly he’s referring to a push (shove) his player, Chris Mullin, gave a Georgetown player, Patrick Ewing, in the midst of a game, but the precise terminology refers to something deeper. A “subway push”. That’s a provincial phrase. To understand a legit subway push you have to be from the northeast, or, more accurately, New York, and the collegiate basketball conference at the heart of the latest 30 for 30 documentary, “Requiem For The Big East”, was founded and flourished on provinciality.

Oh, it was founded on and flourished because of a lot more than provinciality, sure, as director Ezra Edelman makes abundantly clear. This was a league founded so its charter members would not be left out in the cold and it was a league that flourished because of then untapped revenue stream that was sports cable television. All this brought the Big East to the top, and then to its knees. His film, bookended by the Georgetown/Syracuse semifinal game of the final Big East Tournament in 2013* is occasionally bulbous in its self-flattery and it is unquestionably over-sentimental, but sport – any sport – viewed through the prism of time tends toward sentimentality. Still, to its credit, “Requiem For The Big East” does not dwell overmuch on simply the good. In point of fact, it frequently goes to show how the good and the bad were mixed up together, often interchangeable.

*The Big East still technically exists - just in a different and inferior form - and, thus, The Big East Tournament is still technically a thing. But it isn't. The Big East lives. The Big East is dead.


As the vision of former Providence basketball coach Dave Gavitt, the Big East began in 1979 with the goal of binding together several basketball schools in the northeast that not only played the game well but assured strong television markets. Quality play was key, yes, but TV was crucial, the means of beaming that quality play to the rest of the world and earning the money to keep the league afloat. The conference’s rise, in fact, coincided with the rise of the now monolithic ESPN. They were complicit allies in its rise and fall.

The doc covers significant ground but focuses much attention on the conference’s glory period of the 1980’s when the talent and level of play was at its apex, and when in the year of 1985 it improbably sent three of its team to the Final Four (a feat not achieved by any other conference before or since). It gathers nearly its entire gaggle of outsized coaches – the irascible Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, the aforementioned Carnesecca who even at the age of 89 seems as colorful as ever, Jim Calhoun of Connecticut who comes across like a plain-speaking street poet, and intimidating John Thompson of Georgetown, towering over the film much like the 6'10 straight-talker towered over his peers. More than any, Thompson's teams - fearsome, dirty and/or physical and really, really good - embodied the Our Way philosophy of the whole conference.

These coaches were tenacious and often unapologetic men whose egos and acumen helped build the Big East up. There is also quite clearly no love lost between them, specifically between Thompson and Boeheim whose teams formed the league’s most notorious rivalry, and that is fascinating – how the relationships in the league could be cooperative and acrimonious. These were almost entirely all men of the northeast and when Thompson won the national title in 1984, he rightly bristled at being labeled “the first black coach” to win a championship. Instead, as he makes clear, being the first school from the northeast in thirty years to win a championship is what meant something to him. “You felt that regionalism,” he says.

The beautiful, bitter irony is that the Big East was made by TV and ruined by TV. Television made it national and television money made it rich. Thus, by becoming national, it forewent its regional roots, and by becoming rich, it yearned for further riches. “You simply can’t tempt people with that much money,” says sportswriter Charles Pierce, “and not create a culture where they look for more.” Their charter schools – Syracuse and Boston College – that also played football needed conference unity within that sport to survive, and as soon as the Big East went searching for gridiron appeasement, its identity was lost. That loss was not officially overnight but emotionally it was, and Boeheim (the last of the founding fathers still coaching) knows that well. Ribbed gently by others in the doc for caving when his school agreed to go to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Boeheim observes that while he is nostalgic, his nostalgia is essentially for what the conference was in the 80’s.

As I get older, the more I realize my devotion to American college sports as opposed to professional, was born of out of their provincialism. Boeheim says that beating Georgetown in the last Big East Tournament meant more to him than winning the last Big East Tournament. God help me, I love that, a remembrance of the time when a regional rivalry meant more than “Who’s Number 1”? That time was beautiful. That time is gone.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Sounds like a good one. I haven't seen this yet but I'm going to check it out right away. I just love those 30 for 30s.