The Big East Tournament returns to Madison Square Garden this week. We asked a number of former players what their favorite moment was from when they played in it. Here are their answers.
Bill Wennington, St. John's, 1981-85 (LI Lutheran High School)
"To come here to the Garden and win the Big East, which was still a relatively new league, was phenomenal. We talk a lot about the 1985 team that went to the Final Four, but some of my fondest memories are from that team in 1983. That team worked really hard. We'd come to the Garden and it would be sold out, 20,000 people every time we played. You couldn't get tickets. You had friends, neighbors, relatives, calling for tickets all the time. It was an exciting time to be part of basketball here in New York. When I was with the Bulls, we had just won our second NBA championship, the 72-10 year, we are playing here at the Garden. After the game, we were walking through the streets with Steve Kerr, the equipment manager, a few guys. All of a sudden, a homeless guy on the street looks up and says, 'Bill Wennington, St. John's! Oh my God!' They all looked at me, they were like, 'Dude, we just won 72 games and they are talking about St. John's from 20 years ago.' But it was big-time back then. It was a lot of fun. We were treated very well in the city of New York."
Chris Mullin, St. John's, 1981-85 (Xaverian High School)
"The tournament had just moved to the Garden, so it was a special time. College basketball was getting back into the Garden after being banished for years. To be able to win the first one as the home team meant a lot. It elevated our program. We basically had all local guys on our team so to play at the Garden was special for us."
Ron Stewart, St. John's, 1981-85 (Brentwood High School)
"I think the Big East is still intense but because of the number of teams and how dispersed the teams are geographically that makes it a little bit less intense," said Stewart, shown here in the background. "In the early '80s, the Big East was comprised of all East Coast schools and more importantly East Coast players. So not only were we dealing with school pride and team pride but it was personal pride too. Those same guys you were competing against, you were sure to see some of them during the summer and the topic of discussion was who did what against who that past season. Playing at the Garden was unexplainable, when we would come out onto the Garden floor and the place was packed to the rafters, it was always a jaw-dropping moment that had to be quickly shaken off to tend to the business at hand. But it was big-time fun."
Billy Goodwin, St. John's, 1980-83 (Columbus High School)
"The first Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden was an incredible experience. The fans, the media, the coaches, the family and friends. There was so much hype. For me, it was my last dance playing for Coach [Lou] Carnesecca and the teammates I loved. We had 19,000-plus every night at the Garden. We felt like we were not just representing St. John's but all of New York. It was an amazing moment that I still think about today. If it was a movie, it couldn't have been written better. It was the real coming out party for the Big East and its athletes."
Tony Bruin, Syracuse, 1979-83 (Mater Christi High School)
"It was really special to win the Big East title at the Carrier Dome. We were a late-blooming team that year (1981). It was my sophomore year and we just started to jell late in the season. We knocked off St. John's in the quarterfinals and then Georgetown in the semifinals. That set up the game against Villanova. It was a battle. Neither team wanted to lose. They had John Pinnone and he was 6-7 but he was just unstoppable. It seemed like the game would never end. It went three overtimes. We finally won when Leo (Rautins) tipped in a missed shot with about 10 seconds left in the third overtime.
"We figured that we could beat anyone in the country at that point. But we didn't go to the NCAA tournament. It wasn't an automatic bid back then. So we ended up going to the NIT and lost in the finals to Tulsa in another overtime game.
"The next year the Big East tournament moved to the Garden and it was just crazy. There were billboards all over Manhattan. You'd get into a taxi and the taxi drivers are talking about St. John's and how they couldn't be beaten. We were in heaven. We felt like we finally arrived. All the sacrifice, all the practices over the holidays, it all paid off. The Big East came along at just the right time. The Northeast had a lot of great players. It was exactly what New York City basketball needed. In its heyday, players stayed at home. If you were from the Northeast, you wanted to play in the Big East. You stayed at home. And what was special about that was people who followed you in high school could still follow your career in college. The Big East is so different now. I am not sure another league will come along like that again."
Matt Brust, St. John’s, 1986-89 (Babylon High School)
"The Big East was meant for the schools in the Northeast. It was the best conference in the country when I played. I think the conferences have lost a lot of their luster because these rivalries have been broken up. I just never thought it was a good idea for those schools to leave the Big East. There is no sense of rivalry or tradition. At that time, St. John's was the show in New York. No one was going to see the Knicks. They couldn't give tickets away. I would drive to the games and you would come over the rise on the Grand Central Parkway and see the Empire State Building lit up in red and white. That was for us. When we played in the Big East Tournament, the Garden was sold out. There were some great battles there, so much tradition. The Big East was rough and tumble, pushing and shoving were part of the game. And the crowd was loud, it was a rough crowd.
"I would have to say, objectively as possible, Madison Square Garden is the mecca of basketball. I have so much gratitude and respect for the people who came out and watched us. It was a different kind of roar. Down south it was more chanting and singing at ACC games. Up here, if you did something at a crucial moment, the Garden would always erupt. When you won, the Garden was a special place."
Dan Dunne, Seton Hall, 1979-83 (LI Lutheran High School)
"The Big East tournament moved around each year. My first year it was in Providence, then it went to the Carrier Dome and then Hartford after that. Then my senior year, was the first year at the Garden. Big East media day was at the Garden and they took us out and for a photo under the marquee on 7th Avenue. There are all these All-Americans, NBA players, NBA All-Stars and I got my head in that picture. The reality of it was, there were dead spots on the floor. The dressing rooms were just OK. But then you go out for warmups and you are looking up and you see the banners. And you are thinking, 'Wow, this is where Jabbar and Chamberlain played. Where Ali and Frazier fought. Where Dave Cowens played. Right over there was where Willis [Reed] came out. It was really special. We played in the first Big East Conference tournament game in the Garden. We played Providence, we played the 8-9 game. We beat them and the next day we played Boston College, the No. 1 seed. We were up at halftime. And I remember, at halftime, Syracuse's Erich Santifer sticks his head in our dressing room and says, 'Upset!' They were playing the winner and they didn't want to play Boston College. Those are the things you remember. It was a nice way for my career to end. How many players get to end their careers at the best place in the world to play?"
Gene Waldron, Syracuse, 1980-84 (Long Island City High School)
"The 1984 Big East final was a heartbreaker for me. I had the ball with 12 seconds left to go in regulation. We were going for the win. I drove the lane and I kicked the ball out to my teammate Sean Kerins for a baseline jumper and the ball just went in and out. We went to overtime and Georgetown jumped out to a quick lead in OT and we lost the game. It was a hard-fought game. There was no love lost between us and Georgetown. Our approach to playing Georgetown was we were going to get after them just like they were going to get after us. We never backed down from anyone. Whether it was Georgetown or St. John's, we didn't care. It was a game I really wanted because it was my swan song. Pearl (Washington) put on a show that night but we just couldn't pull the game out. I still feel the sting of that loss to this day.
"When you think about Madison Square Garden, that's the best place in the world to play basketball. For me, being from New York City, it was really special. This was the championship game and I knew that I may never play there again. Playing at the Garden is something I will never forget, there is really no place like it in the world."
David Russell, St. John's, 1979-83, (Bellport High School)
"My first year at St. John's was the first year of the Big East. I was Big East rookie of the year, but we had no idea that it would eventually be this big and that we'd eventually play the tournament at the Garden. It was unbelievable playing in that tournament. The fans were into it every game. You had teams that were kind of far away but the building was packed no matter who was playing. You had a hard time hearing, it was so loud. The Garden was the mecca. We were winning a lot back then so we became the talk of the town. And that's what made that tournament special. We were the home team and our fans really, really supported us."
Chuck Everson, Villanova, 1982-86 (Brentwood High School)
"Every game in the Big East Tournament was a war. The stakes were so high. A few of those years you had the number one and number two teams in the country playing in the tournament. Guys like Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin and Ed Pinckney, they epitomized Big East basketball when it was at its peak. You had to be tough or you wouldn't survive those games. If you drove in the paint, you expected to get banged up. It was go hard or go home. But everyone respected each other. You were trying to kill each other on the court, but when it was over, you respected each other.
"One thing I remember, they had this luncheon on the day before the tournament. And you would have at least two guys from every team at a table. And you got to know the guys you were playing against. You could talk to the St. John's guys or the Syracuse guys. We all got to know each other back then. It was like a fraternity. But John Thompson wouldn't let the Georgetown guys socialize with anyone. It was the 'Hoya Paranoia.' But I got to know those guys later on and they were all good guys. They said, we wanted to talk to you, but we couldn't. Because of that luncheon, I am still friends with a lot of them to this day. We keep in touch with each other.
"The atmosphere at the Garden was great. And the fans could be rough. There was this one guy, he was a Syracuse fan and he always wore an Orange sweatshirt. He stood behind our bench and he would ride me every game. But he mispronounced my name. He would say, Eee-verson. My last year, I am walking around the concourse at the Garden with Wyatt Maker. And I hear "Eee-verson!!!" So I said, 'You know, for four years you have been mispronouncing my name.' We talked for a few minutes and the guy says, 'Ya know, you're a good guy. Let me buy you a soda.' So we had a soda and hung out for a little while between games."
Wayne McKoy, St. John’s, 1977-81 (Long Island Lutheran High School)
"The Big East Tournament was new when I played in it. It hadn't moved to the Garden yet. But you could see what it was going to become. There were so many great players. Tony "Red" Bruin and Danny Shayes at Syracuse. Sleepy Floyd was playing at Georgetown. We had Reggie Carter. The level of basketball was there. And a lot of the good players from New York stayed home. You wanted to play in the Big East. We felt like it was one of the best leagues in the country. It was special to be part of that at the beginning. A few years later, the Big East just exploded."