NEW YORK — It was about the basketball. Of course, it was about the basketball, but it always was about the stage, too. No stage was bigger or better for three decades than during the March weekend when the best the college game could offer crowded into Madison Square Garden.
So much of the romance this week — the last one of the Big East As We Know It — has been invested in the vision that the late Dave Gavitt showed in forming a league that congealed the city game from Boston to Washington. The romance has allowed the Catholics, the old-timers and especially the Catholic old-timers to immerse themselves in the greatness that used to be or delude themselves into the greatness that their new Big East is going to be.
As someone who was such a big Providence College basketball fan as a kid that he scored every game off the radio, I love the old stories as much as anyone. Having said that, if I hear Patrick Ewing, Walter Berry and Pearl Washington one more time this week, I swear I'm going to grab some berry juice and wash down a string of fake pearls until I choke on the schmaltz.
OK, sorry for being a hard ass. I know it's supposed to be all great memories at the Irish wake. My point here is that any bit of praise for Gavitt must also extend to the Big East's founding father for setting up tournament shop in the big city. It made all the difference, all the difference.
And it is something that, given the correct formula, will make all the difference for decades to come.
No matter where you go, from high school gyms to great NBA arenas, if you break out the tape measure, it'll always be 10 feet from floor to rim. Those are the rules of basketball. Yet whenever a Big East team packed its bags and jumped on the bus or the flight for the annual Garden party, every player, every coach, sounded like an excited kid. Tough guys like Jim Calhoun, sourpusses like Jim Boeheim, they seemed like the most excited of all.
"It's just been such an amazing place," Boeheim said the other day. "Unless you were here for all of them, you probably can't grasp it."
We sure can try. And you know who, if he is as much a visionary as Gavitt, really should try? ACC commissioner John Swofford.
In the crush of sentimentality about what is being lost and the perfect symmetry of Syracuse's meeting Georgetown one last time in the semifinals Friday night are some hard facts about the Catholic 7 beyond the Hoyas. In the tide pushing the CYO into its new Big East home with its new deal with Fox Sports are some undeniable truths.
Since 2000, Georgetown  is the lone basketball-only school to win the tournament. With three trips, the Hoyas are also the only one to make the finals. We could go on about how Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and DePaul have combined for one NCAA Tournament win in the past decade. But even at the top it has been stiflingly secular.
The Big East Tournament in the 21st century is the story of UConn, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and later Louisville. Pitt went to the finals seven times, UConn five times, Syracuse three times with two titles and Louisville three times in the previous four years.
The great memories during that time? They have to be Syracuse beating UConn in six overtimes, and UConn's remarkable run of five wins in five days, with Kemba's step-back on Pitt's Gary McGhee and then the championship over Louisville. We might still be looking Ghee's ankles from 2011, but we're also looking for all those new Big East teams, save Georgetown, on Saturday night when the stage was the biggest and the lights were the brightest.
And the teams that have mattered most to this tournament for several years, save UConn, are headed to the ACC. That's why Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated was so right the other day in insisting that Swofford should beat the new Big East to the punch and immediately get in touch with MSG officials and broker a 10-year deal to move the ACC tournament from Greensboro [the deal there ends in 2015]. As Thamel put it well, every other conference tournament is a tournament. The Big East Tournament in New York is an event.
Would the fans along Tobacco Road be happy? No. But look at the construction of the new ACC and it's easy to see with all those old Big East schools in the mix, not to mention all the Dukies who live in the New York metro, that MSG would be a great coup and long-term success story. You want to make college basketball relevant vis-a-vis football? That's an answer. Do I think it will happen? I don't. I think Fox and the new Big East will complete a deal and thrive at a more modest level. Too bad, because Duke, Carolina, Cuse, Louisville, and, yes, UConn would be lights out among the bright lights.
The other day, former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who knows better than anyone, stated the obvious when he said that Syracuse and UConn were the teams that dominated the New York market, not Rutgers. UConn, in fact, has invested all its television coverage in SNY. The Big East made UConn athletics, and for that people in Connecticut should always be grateful. Yet with three national championships and seven Big East tournament titles, UConn went a long way in helping make the Big East the past two decades.
Let's be honest. Even if the new league where UConn is headed decides to hold the tournament at the XL Center and rotates to places like Memphis and New Orleans, it would never match New York. What cold? From the racing heartbeat of the city, to its bars and restaurants, everybody has a New York tale. From the college bands out of in front of the Garden to the insane sounds inside the Garden, from Ray Allen's shot to Kemba's step-back, every UConn fan has a New York tale to tell, too.
Getting the ACC Tournament into New York and getting UConn into the ACC seems to make so much sense. Then again, this is college sports in 2013 and nothing makes sense.
"The whole thing is tragic," said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, when asked about the demise of the league and the end of the real Big East Tournament in New York. "Nobody cares about student-athletes. All anybody cares about is money."
"The whole thing is a hypocrisy."
Cronin went on and why shouldn't he? He and the Bearcats are in the same boat as Kevin Ollie and the Huskies. Later on, Cronin said that because of the Garden and New York, the Big East tournament is a better event than the NCAA Tournament. "It's going away because of money and football," Cronin said. "It's sad."
A few hours later, after Syracuse had beaten Pittsburgh, Boeheim was asked about the inevitable semifinal with Georgetown in one last Big East matchup in the big city. Undoubtedly, the questioner was fishing for some romance, some Ewing, some Pearl, something sweet. Instead, he got old sourpuss.
"I don't know," Boeheim said. "That's for you guys to figure out."
And we did.
The ACC tournament should be in New York.
And UConn should be in the ACC.