NEW YORK — Forget all this talk about whether the ACC Tournament will or won’t come to Madison Square Garden somewhere down the (Tobacco) Road.
It is already here.
Syracuse and Louisville — two future ACC tenants — will play for the last Big East championship as we know it on Saturday night under the glare of the Garden lights.
And it only seems fitting that Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino, two men born in New York State and inextricably linked not only to one another but to the fabric of Dave Gavitt’s conference, will contend for the title.
Before Saturday’s game, they probably won’t dine together at Arlington Club like they did on Tuesday — or even at Denny’s, where Boeheim joked he would be next year at the ACC Tournament — but if they did, oh, the stories they could tell about the Big East Conference.
“I think as you look back on it, you’ll look through a period of history where we had the best basketball conference at the best place in the best city and we let it go, we all let it go, and it’s a shame,” Pitino told a small group of reporters outside the visitor’s locker room at the Garden.
Louisville beat Notre Dame, 69-57, in a Big East Tournament semifinal so anticlimactic following the Syracuse-Georgetown epic, that it evoked images of The Monkees coming onstage after Jimi Hendrix or Anne Murray trying to follow up Bruce Springsteen.
Both of which did happen.
But here we are, the last Big East championship game as we know it and Boeheim will face off against Pitino, the man he hired as an assistant at Syracuse on April 3, 1976.
Boeheim had just been named head coach at Syracuse, and he wanted Pitino so badly, he interrupted his honeymoon with Joanne Minardi at a Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan with what Pitino recalled once as a “whiny” voice.
“But I said, `Literally, Jim, I just carried my wife across the threshold, and being Italian, it’s going to take me five or six hours,” Pitino told the Sun Sentinel in 1996.
“I probably wouldn’t do it that way now,” Boeheim told the paper. “I was pretty fired up.”
As the story goes, Boeheim, on his way to recruit Roosevelt Bouie in Chicago, detoured from Syracuse to Manhattan to meet with Pitino.
“And he kept me four hours,” said Pitino, who reportedly got a pay raise from $14,000 to $17,500 by playing hard to get.
“He hired me on the wedding night.”
Added Pitino: “We got along great together. He was a best friend, a mentor, and we got along great for two years. He’s a very bright man away from the game.”
After hiring Pitino, Boeheim immediately wanted him to go recruit Louis Orr in Cincinnati.
So while Pitino was off on the road recruiting for eight or nine days, Joanne moved in with Boeheim and his three roommates in Syracuse.
“I went to recruit Louis Orr the next day, so we cancelled our honeymoon,” Pitino recalled. “She went to live with Jim Boeheim and three of his roommates. And the fascinating thing about his three roommates, one was a bartender, the other was a degenerate harness handicapper and the other guy, Brad, I think was an insurance salesman.
“And Joanne kept calling me. She said, ‘I love these guys, but they are the biggest pigs of all time, all of them.’ So for two weeks, all she did was clean up after those guys and they would take her out to dinner and she loved them.”
Joanne’s father worked at Roosevelt Raceway, so she was enthralled by all the horse racing stories.
“So he’d come back every night with all these stories about how much he could’ve won,” Pitino recalled of the degenerate handicapper. “The bartender came back and was talking about all the patrons. The insurance guy was striking out.
“Jim was gone and she just lived with the three roommates and they all became best friends.”
Old friends Boeheim and Pitino will face off one last time at the Garden, with Louisville seeking its third Big East Tournament title in five years and its second straight and Syracuse chasing its sixth and final tournament title.
Pitino knows the crowd of 20,000-plus will be an overwhelmingly pro-Orange one.
“We’re going to play a road game tomorrow,” he said. “We know that.”
But just the opportunity to play for a title in the Garden is special for Pitino, the former Knicks assistant and head coach who once signed his scholarship papers to UMass on the Garden floor.
“I signed my scholarship papers on the court after they lost by 30 points to Marquette,” Pitino recalled.
“From that point on it’s been magical regardless of what anybody says about the place. From that point on it’s always that way
“So having a chance to coach the Knicks as an assistant and head coach, all these college games now comes to an end and maybe once every three years we’ll be lucky enough to come back.”
And after Saturday’s game is over, the Big East will never be the same.
Syracuse will return to the Garden to play St. John’s and in various events.
Louisville has no plans to play St. John’s and is instead focused on playing Kentucky, Western Kentucky and what Pitino called a “big school” — said to be Indiana — in a three-year deal. They will play in the Jimmy V Classic at the Garden “in three years.”
So this is it.
Boeheim vs. Pitino.
Syracuse vs. Louisville
The last Big East Tournament final as we know it.
Two future ACC teams playing a championship game at the Garden.
And two years from now, when both teams are in the ACC Tournament, maybe Boeheim and Pitino will meet up for dinner once again somewhere in Greensboro.
“I don’t know if we’ll be eating at Denny’s,” Pitino said as he flashed a wry grin, “but I don’t think it will be at Arlington Club.”