I watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary, Requiem for the Big East, last night. I really dug it. This was the league that first got me into college basketball. I was in ninth grade when the league formed in 1979. I have vague memories of watching the occasional ACC game in the late 1970s, I first watched a national championship game in 1978, when Kentucky beat Duke and, of course, I stayed up for Bird-Magic in ’79. But growing up in New York City at the time, pro sports were really the only game in town. There was no college football to speak of (though I’d been rooting for Michigan – the helmets! – since I was a little kid), and only St. John’s and Rutgers provided a semblance of decent basketball at the time. Between the Yankees, the then-dynastic Islanders and the Giants (who’d drafted LT in 1981 and became instantly competitive), and even Sugar Ray Richardson and the Knicks, I had my fill.
But the emergence of Georgetown as a dominant team when Ewing arrived there in 1981, St. John’s and Syracuse’s tremendously talented teams of the mid-1980s and the crazy physicality of the competition drew me to college hoops. I was in Madison Garden for the 1983 Big East championship, when the Johnnies, led by sophomore Chris Mullin beat Boston College for the title. I remember Kevin Williams, a 6′ 3″ “forward” for St. John’s, trying to get under Ewing’s skin when St. John’s and the Hoyas went toe-to-toe. I remember the fighting.
When three teams made the final four from the conference in 1985 – St. John’s, Georgetown and ‘Nova – there was no disputing where the best basketball in the country was being played. Requiem for the Big East describes 1985 as the unexpected pinnacle of the conference, though it played basketball at an extraordinarily high level through its demise last season.
The 30 for 30 documentary captured all of that well, as well as the the racism directed at Ewing and the Georgetown program in the ’80s, including the difficult waters the admirable John Thompson navigated as coach of that team surrounding during that era. It rushed through the League’s ultimately unavoidable but ill-fated move into football in the 1990s and the final destruction of the league in the past year.
Above all, Requiem for the Big East focused on the tremendous business proposition that was the Big East. There was a dearth of good college basketball in the northeast by the late 1970s. But conference founder Dave Gavitt saw an opportunity to tie a group of such programs together into a marketable product and the result was the meteoric rise of the conference and the extraordinary business success that followed. Revenues sky-rocketed during the course of the 1980s, as the conference’s fortunes tracked the emergence and rise of ESPN. One consequence of this economic success was that it transformed the conference’s extraordinary cast of coaching characters – Thompson, Boeheim, Massimino, Carnesecca and Pitino – from big personalities into wealthy men. Their salaries soared, they became coveted endorsers and yet more lucrative professional offers began rolling in.
It’s often said that the Cold War was an “absent presence” on the show Star Trek – the show took place centuries in the future, so didn’t talk about the United States and the Soviet Union. But the cold war was an undercurrent of the show. In Requiem for the Big East, which is being widely praised today, the notion that there is an academic mission underlying the basketball programs highlighted last night, is *not* an absent presence. It’s simply a nullity. There’s no pretense, no hint, no suggestion, that the purpose of this new agglomeration had anything whatsoever to do with students, or education. There’s an clip of Mullin, from his college days, describing himself as a “student-athlete.” And for two hours, that’s pretty much it. One can say that this was a choice the filmmaker made. But when people talk about the Big East, the first thing they always say about it is that it was the first college sports conference “made for television.” The second thing they talk about is the great basketball. The third is the heyday of the 1980s. And so on.
Plain and simple, this is an entertainment, wedded for odd and idiosyncratic reasons in the United States to institutions of higher education. There are all sorts of reasons to assume that those relationships will endure. What is on shakier ground is the perpetuation of the ongoing canard that, when it comes to big time basketball and football in particular, the purpose of the endeavor for the participating universities is anything but housing a lucrative spectator sport.