By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Bob Huggins was a kid, he estimates 19 or so, just out of Gnadenhutten, Ohio, a hot shot basketball prospect but hardly the worldly person he would grow into. It’s a town he describes as having nine bars and one stoplight, but on this day he was in a town where you might find nine bars on a block and stoplights on every corner.
New York City, Manhattan, the Big Apple had beckoned him and his West Virginia teammates for a game at Madison Square Garden and they just didn’t have gyms like this around Gnadenhutten or, for that matter, Morgantown.
See, you can put a basketball court in any building, but this had something more than a couple of rims 10 feet from the floor and a foul line 15 feet from the rim. This place was rich with history, and Huggins would have been in awe had the New York Knickerbockers not been shooting around at the time.
“I’m standing there watching Bill Bradley shoot and he never hit the rim. Shot after shot after shot goes right through. That was (Dave) DeBusschere, (Clyde) Frazier and those guys,” he recalled.
This was in the pre-cable days, when an NBA game wasn’t on every other hour every single day, a time when heroes were bigger than life and few were bigger than Bill Bradley, who was Jeremy Lin before there was a Jeremy Lin, right out of Princeton.
“They said come on out and shoot with us,” Huggins said. “For a kid 19 years old who grew up around basketball, it was phenomenal.”
Huggins is no longer a wide-eyed youth. He’s been through it all, from player to coach, from his battles with Nancy Zimpher at Cincinnati to a heart attack, which was even scarier than the lady who ran him out of Cincinnati.
Yet when he walks into the building today as the Big East Tournament gets under way, his Mountaineers possessing a bye so that they do not play until Wednesday when they take on the winner of the Connecticut-DePaul game, there will be that special feeling in his stomach, not far off from the Bill Bradley days.
He will not be alone with that feeling.
“I think playing in Madison Square Garden is a thrill for everybody. I know when I played in Madison Square Garden it was a thrill. There’s so much history ... and this is our last time,” he said.
It has been well documented that the Mountaineers escaped from the Big East because its football conference was falling apart, heading for the Big 12. Huggins swears he will do what he can to schedule games in New York, especially in Madison Square Garden, but as far as the Big East Tournament goes, this is goodbye and it is a sad goodbye.
“The Big East Tournament, there’s not anything like it,” Huggins said. “There’s a couple of tournaments when teams will bring people, like when I was in Cincinnati and Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis brought people, but the others didn’t have a lot.”
The Big East, though, is an event in a town that knows how to throw an event.
“They tell me that the Friday night ticket is the hardest ticket in New York all year,” Huggins said.
He wasn’t talking about basketball ticket, or football ticket, or even a Broadway show ticket.
The Big East Tournament, especially in the Friday night session, is when the scalpers make their living for the month.
Not the Yankees, not the Giants or the Knicks or the Rangers or “My Fair Lady” can match it.
“With everything that goes on here, it’s the hardest to get. To be like that, it’s a special thing,” Huggins said.
Kevin Jones, Huggins’ star player, knows how special the Garden is. He grew up just outside the city, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., a basketball haven just north of the Bronx.
“It means a lot,” Jones said as he waited his fate in the Big East’s Player of the Year voting, an award he seriously seems to be the only true contender for as the league’s scoring and rebounding champion, but then again this is New York and anything can happen.
“From where I am from, New York, it’s the mecca of basketball,” Jones said.
He’s been lucky. He got to play in the Garden twice before he headed to Morgantown to play for WVU, once in the Nike Super Six Tournament and once for Mount Vernon High.
“I’ve gotten to play there every year since I’ve been at WVU. It would be special to win it my last time in,” he said.
Despite his high school appearances there, Jones’ collegiate start in Madison Square Garden was nothing to write home about.
“I got a little bit intimidated by it,” he said. “You get out of it as the years go by.”
His first year at WVU he played four games in the Garden and scored two points in each of them, hitting just 2 of 21 shots, less than 10 percent.
Since then he has been in double figures in the seven games he’s played there, his best being his last as he hit 10 of 21 field goals — remember in four games as a freshman it was 2 of 21 — for 26 points while grabbing 14 rebounds.
Next year the Mountaineers will move on and as much as Huggins loves it, he won’t miss it.
“You get wrapped up in what you’re doing,” he said.
And what Huggins will be doing is going to Kansas City, Kansas City here he comes. That’s home to the Big 12 Tournament.
“Kansas City is a great venue. It’s so centrally located for so many places with great fan bases. It’s a little far for us, but you have Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State ... they all have great fans,” he said.
And know what? Bill Bradley is from Crystal City, Mo., just across the state outside St. Louis.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.