AT THE ACC TOURNAMENT—Tony Kornheiser asked me this morning why I was sitting in The Greensboro Coliseum getting ready to watch a basketball game between two teams—Virginia and Boston College—who are going absolutely no place this season. In other words, why exactly am I here?
Habit is the best answer I can give. The simple fact is this tournament isn’t close to what it used to be when I first started covering it as a college undergraduate. There are too many teams and too many games. Thursday is almost always a long day’s journey into night with at least half the teams playing in the midst of awful to mediocre seasons. The building—regardless of the city—is never close to full because most of the fans from the four teams that have a first round bye aren’t even in town yet.
I know all of that. And yet, there are so many memories—especially here—that I always want to come back for at least a couple of days. Since I don’t spend that much time covering the ACC anymore I see a lot of people that I don’t see the rest of the year. Plus, much like The Final Four, it is still a gathering of people who care about basketball and love to sit around and tell stories about basketball and people in the game.
Last night I went to dinner with my old friend Dan Bonner who told several stories about his senior year at Virginia when Terry Holland took over as coach. “Terry made Andrew Boninti and I the captains,” Dan said. “He told us the first day to get out in front of the team and lead the other guys in calisthenics. Andrew and I stood there and said, ‘okay, let’s start with jumping jacks.’ We did TWO and Terry said, ‘STOP.’ Then he explained to us that when he told us to DO calisthenics he meant that we were supposed to DO them, not just act like we were doing them. Right there we knew he meant business. Of course what he didn’t know was that he had a lot of guys on that team who didn’t mean business.”
Holland got that straightened out pretty quickly, winning the ACC Tournament in his second season.
Walking back into the hotel, Dan and I encountered Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton who was telling stories about his team’s trip to Europe last summer.
“I wanted to try to get them to play up-tempo so I told them if they scored 120 points in a game the coaches would all wear speedos on the beach the next day. The team we were playing was awful. We got to like 112 with three minutes to go. I started screaming at the refs, ‘call travelling, call an offensive foul, call anything.’ We scored 120.”
Did the coaches wear the speedos?
“No way. I’d have ended up on Facebook.”
Several of the league’s referees were there too, including Mike Wood, who is retiring at the end of the season. Wood would actually rather talk about golf—HIS golf—than anything else but he’s been around forever and has, as the refs like to put it, ‘worked for,’ just about every coach you can name.
“First time I ever worked for (Bob) Knight I was standing right in front of him,” Wood said. “Now he’s only about a foot taller than I am but he starts screaming at me, ‘Wood ------- you’re in my ----- way, I can’t see.’ I said to him, ‘you know coach, I kinda need to see too.’ So Knight picks me up and moves me about a foot to the left so I’m out of his way. I said, ‘okay, I can see from here too.’”
That’s the way the ACC Tournament is. You turn around and you see someone you know and invariably the story-telling begins. Years ago, a group of us would always go to dinner the night before the tournament began. It was probably about a dozen guys from different papers and different schools. The leader of the pack was Bill Brill, who worked in Roanoke for 40 years after graduating from Duke in 1952.
One night Brill, after a few drinks, started to tell a story in which Lefty Driesell had been hired as the coach at Duke in 1969—apparently for about 15 minutes—before Bucky Waters got the job. “I’m telling you,” Brill insisted (loudly). “the assistants were told that Lefty was getting the job, that it was done. I know it happened because I was right there in the middle of the room.”
“What room?” someone asked.
“It was my hotel room, The Holiday Inn next to the old Charlotte Coliseum,” Brill said. “Duke had just lost in the ACC Tournament and the assistants were all in my room waiting to hear from Vic (Bubas) who was going to replace him as coach. They got a call saying it was Lefty—which meant they were all probably out of work. Then Vic called again and when I came back, Bucky was the coach.”
“What do you mean, when you came back?” asked Doug Doughty, who then worked with Brill in Roanoke—and is still there, now in his 35th year of covering Virginia football and basketball.
“Well, when Vic called, they made me leave the room.”
“But it was YOUR room!”
“I know, but they made me leave.”
“So to this day, you don’t know how the job went from Lefty to Bucky because you got kicked out of your own room.”
Okay, there was alcohol involved but if you were THERE, the idea of Brill—who is often wrong but never in doubt—insisting he was in the MIDDLE OF THE ROOM—when Lefty got the job and then KICKED OUT OF THE ROOM when he lost it was just too funny to deal with. I vividly remember Rick Brewer, who was the SID at North Carolina for about 100 years, literally falling out of his chair laughing. Okay, I may have done the same thing.
For years after that, the pre-tournament dinner was known as, “the middle of the room dinner.” Brill was always asked to re-tell the story and without fail REFUSED to re-tell it. So the rest of us would cross-examine him until the entire story was re-told and we all ended up on the floor laughing again.
Maybe you had to be there. But I was there and even writing the story right now brings back a lot of fond memories of a lot of people. Which is why I’m here today—to relive a lot of those memories. The basketball may not be very good, but the friends and the memories certainly are.
Of course as I drove in this morning I was reminded just how long it had been since my first ACC Tournament in 1975. That year, after driving over from Duke for the first day, I paid 50 cents to park. This morning, as I drove past that same lot I saw a sign that said, “Parking $15.”
Okay, so it isn’t the same as the old days. But it is still fun to be here.