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Big East Tournament has become a behemoth

| Thursday, March 8, 2007

Before the Big East Tournament came to Madison Square Garden 25 years ago, there was the infamous case of the four Syracuse mascots and an irate Georgetown official.

It was 1981 at the Carrier Dome, and four Syracuse mascots -- three unauthorized -- were running around the court at the Big East Tournament.

The Big East limit was one mascot, but there they were: the Saltine Warrior, the Dome Knitter, the Dome Ranger and a man with half a basketball on his head, known as Dome Eddie.

Before its semifinal game with Syracuse, Georgetown evened the odds. The Hoyas rented three animal costumes from a local store to join their official mascot, Jack the Bulldog.

"(Big East commissioner) Mike Tranghese called me in Kansas City and said all hell has broken loose," former commissioner Dave Gavitt said Wednesday after the Syracuse-Connecticut first-round game. "He said in addition to Jack the Bulldog, Georgetown has a lion and something else, four costumes. He said, 'It's going to look like a zoo here tonight.' "

A quarter-century later, every night at the Big East Tournament is a zoo, and no one is complaining.

The Big East Tournament, celebrating its 25th season at Madison Square Garden, has grown from a first-year novelty at Providence Civic Center into perhaps the nation's biggest NCAA Division I conference tournament.

From the opening first-round game at noon Wednesday to the final at 9 Saturday night, the 19,594-seat Garden is packed and electric, from courtside to rafter.

The event has grown into much more than an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. It attracts basketball fans from around the country to root on their favorite schools. It settles recruiting battles for NYC's coveted school boys.

It wasn't always that way. During its fledgling years, the Big East Tournament was held at Providence, the Carrier Dome and the Hartford Civic Center for one year each, before moving to "the world's most famous venue" for the 1982-83 season, the same year Pitt joined the Big East.

Tranghese on Tuesday night recalled the conference's infancy, when Gavitt said "the next thing we're going to do is take this tournament to New York."

When Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Ed Pinckney landed in the Big East in the recruiting class of 1981, Gavitt knew it was time.

The tournament moved to Madison Square Garden, and Mullin and Ewing would win the next three MVP awards. Those colossal early battles set the stage for the explosion in popularity. The attendance rose from 39,288 in the lone season at Providence to 96,078 in the first year at Madison Square Garden.

"There is no other place to be," Tranghese said. "This is the big stage. It's one of the reasons players come to our league."

John Vinarsky, 51, of Cranberry and fellow Pitt alumnus Mark Hanko, 51, of Atlantic City, N.J., have attended every Big East Tournament since it moved to Madison Square Garden. They remained loyal to the event, even during the tough early years for Pitt.

"We didn't just come to watch Pitt," Vinarsky said. "We came for the tournament. It's a great experience."

Jack DeNegris, 66, flew in from Hutchinson Island, Fla., to take in his 18th consecutive Big East Tournament. The Connecticut native sat with fellow Huskies fan John O'Brien, 63, of South Windsor, Conn. They will be back Thursday, even though UConn got bounced in the opening round.

"We will be at every game," DeNegris said.

Ray Pinkeney, 64, a Georgetown fan from Rochester, N.Y., is a 23-year veteran of the Big East Tournament. For the past 23 years, he has made the four-hour trek to spend the week with a handful of friends.

"We leave our wives at home," he said. "They wonder why, but when we tell them what we're going to do, they don't want to come. All we do is sit around and watch basketball."

Rick Pinter, 45, of Clifton, N.J., attended his ninth consecutive Big East Tournament even though his favorite team, Seton Hall, failed to qualify.

"Madison Square Garden is what makes it special," he said. "If they played this at the Meadowlands, at Continental Arena, there would be no juice at all."

Fans from the newcomer Big East schools already feel at home in the Big Apple.

Linda Oechsli, 39, of Louisville, Ky., followed the Cardinals for the past two decades, dating back to their Metro and Conference USA Tournament days. This is her second year at the Big East Tournament.

"It's much colder here," she said. "We always went south before. But I like it. It's worth it. We love being in New York City."

Additional Information:

Big East Tournament facts

Years: 28

Years at Madison Square Garden: 25

1980 attendance: 39,288

1996 attendance: 91,060

2006 attendance: 117,564

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