By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It seemed as though Bob Huggins was facing what you’d call a difficult coaching situation, heading for New York City to play St. John’s on Wednesday.
His young West Virginia University team was riding high in the Big East, about to play an also-ran in the conference hierarchy, with the large, dark shadow of Syracuse looming in the near future.
Could not a team possessing seven freshmen take the Johnnies too lightly? Could they not be playing the Syracuse game in their minds while they were on the court against St. John’s?
Put another way, were they not ripe to be upset?
That was the question launched at Huggins, a legitimate question, to be sure, but his answer was somewhat unexpected, basically boiling down to the fact that the game was being played on the Red Storm’s home court was the reason WVU would not overlook St. John’s.
Normally playing on someone else’s home floor can be looked upon as a negative, but this is no normal home court.
This is a magic court.
This is Madison Square Garden.
How does Huggins keep his team from looking ahead?
“I tell them they’re getting ready to go to the largest city and the most famous arena in the world,” Huggins answered. “As a player I couldn’t wait to get to Madison Square Garden. It ought to be a dream come true to young freshmen.”
It remains a dream come true to Huggins himself.
“I still think it’s exciting to play in Madison Square Garden. It’s where the Big East Tournament is held. There is so much history there, so many great players have played there,” Huggins said. “It’s been The Mecca for a long time. When I was at Cincy and around Oscar (Robertson, the Cincinnati and NBA great) he talked about the Garden.”
This isn’t Sun Life Stadium the team is going to. It isn’t even the Carrier Dome, where the Mountaineers head for the Syracuse game.
The Garden is unlike anywhere else.
I grew up in and around New York City. Even though it was a different building at a different location then — this Garden having opened in 1968 — it was still heaven on earth.
My first event there was a Roy Rogers rodeo, honest to goodness, and somewhere there exists an autographed picture of him aboard Trigger, the horse rearing in the air as Roy waves his hat in the air, a momento of that first event.
Others followed. The Ringling Brothers’ Barnum & Bailey Circus was a favorite, still is in its stops there. I can still smell the animals and the roasted peanuts, taste the cotton candy and remember laughing at Emmett Kelly and Felix Adller, the featured clowns.
My first NBA game was there, the basketball season highlight being a doubleheader in which the Knicks and the Philadelphia Warriors, before they became the 76ers, would play the first game and the
Harlem Globetrotters with Goose Tatum and Curly Neal would play the College All-Stars in a real, competitive game of basketball.
It is a building that oozes history. Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier I, which was dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” albeit in the last century, was held in the current building, while the previous buildings hosted bouts dating back to 1925, including Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson and anyone else who may have been anyone at all in the sport.
And concerts. It was also the music capital of the world — Sinatra, Elton John, Billy Joel, you name them, they played the Garden with the greatest concert acknowledged to be Michael Jackson’s 1988 appearance during his Bad World Tour.
See, when you play the Garden, sitting right there above Penn Station, you’ve made the big time, and that’s what Huggins is trying to get across to his young men, players who probably don’t even know Roy Rogers or Goose Tatum or Sinatra himself but who, if they do it the way they should, may someday have a generation talking about them in reverent tones and remembering when they played the Garden.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.