Thursday’s early tournament game featured two of the charter members in the Atlantic Coast Conference (Maryland and Wake Forest), yet the camera panning across the background at Phillips Arena showed mostly empty seats.
This is the true price of expansion.
There was a time not so long ago when the ACC Tournament ranked behind only the Masters Tournament as the toughest ticket to get in American sports. You had a better chance of going to the Super Bowl, World Series or Final Four than getting inside the Greensboro Coliseum for the quarterfinal marathon that featured every team in the ACC. The seats were filled no matter who was playing.
But those days are gone. With both conference and NCAA tournament expansion, the value of the granddaddy of all conference basketball tournaments has been diluted and diminished. Some might trace that back to 1974, when arguably the greatest college basketball game ever played took overtime to decide whether David Thompson and Tom Burleson’s N.C. State or Tom McMillan and Len Elmore’s Maryland would represent the conference in the NCAA field.
The advent of at-large invitations the next year took some of the desperation out of the event, certainly. But you couldn’t tell that over the next couple of decades, even when more than half the ACC field advanced to the NCAAs.
That changed in 1992, when Florida State joined and broke the symmetry. Ever since it has taken four days to conduct the event and never has there been a confluence of every fan base in the same place at the same time. Once Syracuse and Pitt grow the fold to 14, it will swell to a cumbersome five days and perhaps multiple first-round venues for the dreaded “play-in” games.
Lost in all this lust for financial growth is the camaraderie that once defined the biggest must-see event in college basketball. That old communal experience can never be recaptured.
Those of us who got to experience the spectacle before it was ruined should count our blessings. I was fortunate enough to attend the championship game as a Virginia freshman in 1983, buying a scalper’s ticket on the very top row of the old Omni in Atlanta to see a charmed N.C. State team rip the heart out of my beloved ’Hoos with that ridiculously short experimental 3-point arc.
I covered my first ACC tourney as a student journalist two years later in the same doomed building. And for several years writing in the home city of the ACC, I literally had the best seat in the house. I’m not kidding, it was 2 feet from the center court line on its own special table reserved for the Greensboro News & Record.
While Atlanta is a vibrant host city, there was nothing like the old ACC Tournament in the Greensboro Coliseum. It is a perfect basketball facility in the heart of Tobacco Road where basketball and the event is embraced like no place else.
Indulge me in a bit of nostalgia for the bygone ACC Friday that used to be the most special day of the year.
In 1986 as a college senior, I attended my only ACC first round as a fan. The students used to get prime seats in those days, with six lucky schools taking up floor bleacher sections along the baselines.
That year, Virginia and Duke students flanked North Carolina’s on one side of the arena. The top-seeded Blue Devils won the morning opener and Virginia squeaked past N.C. State in the pivotal 4-5 game to cap the early session. The atmosphere was electric.
But what I remember most is the feeling between sessions. Fans flocked from the coliseum en masse for the dinner break. My friends and I walked across the street to an old A-framed Greek restaurant. The place was packed with every hue of ACC fan sporting their colors. You could barely hear yourself over the buzz.
By the time the evening games drew near, all that was left were Duke and Virginia fans – sated by beer and gyros and the indescribable sense of bliss from our teams living to play another day. Before long we were comrades, ready to walk back into the coliseum and taunt the heck out of the UNC students who would be wedged between us. The third-seeded Tar Heels never stood a chance in the nightcap between the “ABC” jeers and Maryland’s Len Bias.
(Later that night, we sat on the floor of a hotel hallway with first-year Wake Forest coach Bob Staak who welcomed a swig or six right out of the Virginia Gentleman bottle as he hysterically lamented his team’s brutal loss to Duke. But that’s another story.)
I’ve been to a lot of remarkable sports events in the intervening 26 years and experienced many unforgettable moments, including a few championships by my favorite teams. But nothing before or since has ever matched that elated feeling of a college senior breathing in a real live ACC Tournament Friday when it meant the world.
If I close my eyes, I can still picture it and almost feel that euphoria of sitting in that restaurant with a pitcher of beer and all those other like-minded fans – one achievement behind us and only possibility ahead. But sadly, you had to be there.
Even more sadly, in the new and not-so-improved ACC, we can never really be there again.