Friday, March 09, 2018

You Kids Get Off My Lawn! - ACC Tournament Edition

I try not to be one of those people that think (loudly) that everything was better when they were younger.  You'll never catch me in an "I May Be Old But I Saw All The Cool Bands" t-shirt.  I don't believe that music stopped being good after I graduated college or that there's nothing good on television anymore or that all new fashions suck.

And yet...

While I understand full well all the economic reasons that the ACC has grown from 7 teams in the 1970s to 15 teams now, it has ruined what was a high holy day for basketball fans in this area. I get that those days are never coming back but that doesn't mean that I have to like it.  The ACC tournament first round should not be played on a Tuesday afternoon and it should not be played in (I can't believe I'm typing this) Brooklyn.  It should be played in Greensboro (occasionally in Charlotte) and it should start on a Friday afternoon, as God intended.

With the exception of the teams that are on the bubble for selection to play in the NCAA tournament a week later, the tourney now seems like more of a nuisance than a happening.  But for many years, winning it was the only way to make the NCAA tournament.  You played the regular season for ACC tournament seeding and the coveted Friday bye and then you played the ACC tourney for the right to play on.  Even when the NCAA field started expanding in the mid-70s, the importance of the ACC tourney was huge.  For example, in 1976 the UVa Cavs made a run from the 6th seed to the tourney championship (first time a 6th seed had won) to make the NCAAs and almost did the same the next year, starting with a 7 seed and making it to the final game before losing to UNC.  That meant something.

The ACC was much smaller then, not just in the number of teams but in geography.  Four of the seven teams remaining after South Carolina dropped out were in North Carolina and the tournament was almost always played in G'Boro or Charlotte.  The 70s were also the era of the Big Four tournament, an early season 2 day affair with the four North Carolina schools playing each other.  So it was not unusual for Dook and State or Wake and UNC to play each other 4 times in a year - Big Four, 2 regular season games and then the ACC Tournament.  There was an intimacy to the whole thing that will never be recaptured.

The addition of Georgia Tech in 1980 just added a fourth game on Friday, making for a full half-day statewide holiday.  You skipped college classes to go watch in a downtown bar or you took a half-day off of work and went to a viewing party with your work buds or if you were younger, the cool teachers rolled the big gray cart with the TV on it into the classroom and you watched the first game before scooting home to catch the second one.  The fortunate few were actually there in the Greensboro Coliseum or hanging around outside to buy Sat/Sun tickets from the fans of the Friday losing teams.

The ACC was always known as a basketball conference but it was football that killed it.  The addition of Florida State in the early 90s (an openly acknowledged attempt at raising the football profile of the conference) introduced what became known as the Les Robinson Invitational - the abomination of a Thursday night play-in game was the beginning of the end. Additions of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College at least evened the number of teams to a more tournament-friendly 12 but by then the magic was gone.  Due to television contracts, the final is on Saturday night instead of Sunday afternoon the way it is supposed to be (dammit!).  The tournament is played on foreign soil most years and starts on a bloody Tuesday, which just ain't right.

I have to admit that I didn't grow up with this.  We didn't move to North Carolina until just after the tournament in 1975.  But I quickly adopted the Tar Heels as my team (thanks primarily to watching Phil Ford) and started marking that weekend on my calendar months in advance.  Even after college, I pored over Barry Jacobs' annual ACC preview and knew every player on every team, even the scrubs (I still have some of the guides in my home office).  Now I'd have trouble naming all the schools in the ACC without looking them up.  Part of that is just growing up, dealing with multiplying responsibilities and just not having the time or brain-space to absorb that kind of information.  But part of it is just not giving a crap about who Pitt's 6th man is or who on Boston College's team is coming back next year (sorry, Lynn!).

We all lose bits of our youth as we get older. I'm not particularly nostalgic and despite the current political shitstorm we're living through, I do believe that we're living in the best of times with tremendous possibilities ahead of us.  I don't wish for the pre-cellphone days or think that there's anything fundamentally wrong with "those kids today". But I do miss my intimate little ACC Tournament, when the world (at least MY world) stopped for three days to focus on nothing but the best college basketball in the universe.