A year after pandemic shutdown, Big East returns to Madison Square Garden — with its magic intact

A year after pandemic shutdown, Big East returns to Madison Square Garden — with its magic intact

Patrick Ewing played at the Garden, beginning with four Big East Tournaments and continuing through 15 seasons with the Knicks. Today’s players know him as the guy they’re trying to beat as head coach at Georgetown, and often succeeding.

Chris Mullin played at the Garden, leading St. John’s to the Big East Tournament title as a sophomore and leaving with the MVP trophy. Today’s players might know him as the guy who coached his alma mater for four seasons, until 2019, when it was clear that things just weren’t moving forward.

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Those days were long ago. The Ali-Frazier “Fight of the Century” happened 50 years ago this week. The Knicks only this season are emerging from nearly two decades of incompetence. The Rangers haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1994.

Could New York City’s Madison Square Garden possibly still hold the same magic for the young players who will compete in the 2021 Big East Tournament? Is it still “the Mecca?”

“A dream come true,” St. John’s forward Julian Champagnie, whose team opens will play Seton Hall in the quarterfinals Thursday afternoon at 3, told Sporting News.

Some things do not change in prestige, even if they make cosmetic adjustments. The record business can put “Abbey Road” on vinyl, cassette, CD or an iPhone, and still the simple genius of “The End” can leave one breathless in 2 minutes, 5 seconds.

That the Garden underwent a significant renovation in 2013 made it more pleasant to visit, but it was awesome before. I’ve never spoken to anyone who played in a game at the Garden, coached there or covered one as a writer or broadcaster who did not feel that it was just a little bit more wonderful there than at any other arena — however inviting the amenities might be in a newer building, however charming the architecture might be at a gym built decades earlier. There are photographs on the walls in the back hallways of the athletes and entertainers who’ve appeared at the Garden, but they aren’t necessary for the history to make its presence felt.

The Big East Tournament moved to Madison Square Garden in 1983 after moving around from the Providence Civic Center, the Carrier Dome in Syracuse and the Hartford Civic Center in its first three years, and that decision made the event a showpiece that has endured.

When the “new” Big East was being formed in a separation from the football-playing schools now comprising the American Athletic Conference in 2013, the Big East administrators gave up a lot of money to assure the contract to play their tournament at the Garden stayed with them.

Staging the tournament in the Garden means different things to athletes of different backgrounds. Champagnie is a New Yorker who was born in Staten Island, went to high school at Bishop Loughlin in Brooklyn and now attends college in Queens. He recalls his disappointment at being assigned to play the Catholic League tournament at Fordham’s Rose Hill Gym while the Public League championship was contested at the Garden.

“After I committed here, this was something I was really looking forward to,” Champagnie said. “Growing up, I dreamed of playing in the Garden.

“This was the conference where a lot of pros and a lot of special athletes came through, and that’s what I want to do.”

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Xavier freshman guard Dwon Odom did not grow up around the Garden mythology. The Knicks were a terrible team. He is from Alpharetta, Ga., so there are a few excellent conferences between his home and the Big East.

He has been around the Big East long enough now — nearly five months — to understand what is coming. The Musketeers play Wednesday night in the Big East Tournament first round. Even days before tipoff, Odom told SN that he already was starting to feel what was coming.

“I’m kind of nervous, but more excitement. It just feels like a great opportunity to be able to step onto that big stage,” Odom said. “It’s something new that I’ve never done before. Playing in Madison Square Garden, the spotlight is on you and your team, and you have to be ready to perform at a very high level. There are a lot of people watching, and you’re expected to put on a show.”

This will not be like the Big East Tournaments of the ’80s or ’90s or ’00s or even two years ago. Because of the lingering pandemic, the buzz from the audience will be missing, as will the energetic scene of ticket holders hopping out of yellow cabs on 7th Avenue and walking toward the building.

Neither will it be like a year ago, however, when first-round games were played on March 11 and St. John’s and Creighton played a half of their quarterfinal the following day, before the game was abandoned and they were sent home.

Where they stayed for a long time.

They are back at the Garden now. And the Garden is as it ever was.