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The Rival You Love To...?



Jan. 2, 2009

THE RIVAL YOU LOVE TO...?

If you were to poll a random sampling of Georgetown basketball fans as to who is the Hoyas' biggest rival, I suspect after wading through the 95% of respondents who immediately replied Syracuse and cursed at the thought of Jim Boeheim, you'd find a sizable minority who listed Villanova or UConn, and a guy in a Wham! T-shirt who favored St. John's.

Doubtful anyone would pick the Pittsburgh Panthers, and perhaps this is understandable. 

Pitt is a relative newcomer to the Big East Big Time by comparison.  Among other things, Cuse, UConn and Nova are known for their combined four national titles during the lifetime of the Big East Conference.  Until recent years, Pitt was recognizable primarily because of four words: Send it in, Jerome!

But during these recent years, Pitt has sent a powerful message to the Big East, establishing a sort of mini-dynasty in the conference's era of hyper-competitiveness.  Since I came to college and became a Georgetown fan, Pitt has appeared in the Championship Game of the Big East Tournament seven out of eight years.

Rivalries are often founded on a healthy hatred of opposing players.  It's enough to make me foam at the mouth to watch evil-doers like Khalid el-Amin, Gerry McNamara and Scottie Reynolds, yet try as I might it's impossible to harbor any ill will towards Carl Krauser (always respect your elders) and Ronald Ramon (he's like a bizarro Drew Hall!).

It's also part and parcel of a rivalry that opposing coaches are on the same moral plane with Lucifer and the ad executives who green-lighted the Applebees Shrimp Sensations commercials that ran during the NCAA Tournament a few years ago.  If St. Peter has any dirt on me, I would expect nothing less than to be in Hell's waiting room with the Jims Calhoun and Boeheim.  On the other hand, I wouldn't mind sitting down for a drink and talking basketball with Ben Howland or Jamie Dixon...provided it's not in the bar at Applebee's.

Finally, rivalries give us classic games.  We came up with an entire list of classic Georgetown-Syracuse games for the blog last season.  We could probably do the same for Connecticut and Villanova--although the thought of including the 1996 Big East Tournament Final or the 1985 National Championship game is borderline blasphemous (although this is probably the point--those games would have a fraction of the lasting relevance if they were played against UMass and Temple).

But wait a second now.  If you're looking for recent classic Georgetown games--games that have a lasting significance for the Big East hierarchy, games that meant something at the time, games that were legitimately classic contests--shouldn't the search begin with Pittsburgh?

It was at the near-impossible fortress of the Peteresen Events Center where John Thompson III earned his first Big East victory and Georgetown it's most shocking victory in three years, toppling the #16 ranked Panthers 67-64 and marked the Hoyas' re-emergence as a player in the Big East.

One season later, after a victory over undefeated #1 Duke at the Verizon Center provided the Hoyas' national coming-out party, Georgetown's 61-58 triumph over #9 Pittsburgh signaled the Hoyas weren't leaving the party any time soon.

It took just one more season for the Hoyas to reach the summit of the Big East--and they did it thanks to two victories over Pittsburgh.  In a February showdown at the Verizon Center which ultimately decided the Big East regular season title, the Hoyas overcame an eight-point deficit (and Levance Fields' chest-bumping) and held Pitt to 2-17 shooting over the final twelve minutes of the game for a 61-53 victory.  And in March, on the biggest stage of all in the Big East, the Hoyas obliterated the Panthers 65-42 at Madison Square Garden and took home their first BET Championship since 1989.

Not bad for less than a decade of work.  And these are just the games we won--I could go on about Julius Page, Jaron Brown, Tim Higgins, and...well, maybe we ARE developing a few hated rivals here.

The Big East has a rich history, and Georgetown a rich tradition of Big East rivals.  But Pittsburgh--whether you like them or not--is unquestionably the team of the moment these days in the Big East, and Georgetown-Pittsburgh over the past two years the marquee matchup in the conference.  The Hoyas and Panthers have met seven times in the JT3 era, with Georgetown holding a 4-3 edge.  Georgetown holds the last two regular season conference championships, but perhaps more relevant for tomorrow's game is that Pitt defeated the Hoyas in last year's Big East Tournament Championship game.

For me, there's something even further about Pittsburgh that adds to the significance of tomorrow's game.  In my years as a Georgetown supporter, I can point to two experiences that I consider formative points in fandom.  Six years apart, they both involved the Pittsburgh Panthers, and they both taught me something unique about being a Hoyas fan.

Here's the story of those experiences:

January 20, 2001: The Speedbump

When anticipating the most significant basketball game since you arrived at Georgetown, the waiting is the most difficult part.

Waiting.  Endlessly in traffic.

I was awake for what felt like forever on Inauguration Day.  Woke up at 7:00am on a few hours sleep to walk two miles to the National Mall and stand through a cold, damp morning for the Inauguration to which my hometown had the highly dubious honor of contributing.

My mind was as far away as possible from Butterfly Ballots; after all, the real story in Washington DC for me that day was the Hoyas, who had extended their season opening winning streak to sixteen games and broken into the Top 10.

It had been exactly a month since I was last at the MCI Center (for the Howard game I wrote about in my previous post) and without exaggeration, I cared far more at that moment about seeing Kevin Braswell than George W. Bush.

But first we waited.  Endlessly in traffic.

Crowd control and traffic planning have been the bread and butter of Washington Post A1 headlines since November.  Clearly we lived in a different era in 2001--one in which it seemed a capital idea to hold a Big East basketball game in downtown Washington DC on the night of Inauguration.

The school bus carrying the first load of students to Chinatown left campus 90 minutes before tipoff.  And we crawled.  Block by block.  Red light by red light.

In Dupont Circle, half the bus bailed at the first sight of a red line Metro station.  I stuck it out and for my troubles earned another 40 minutes on the bus and a driving tour of the old Convention Center.  At long last--having seen where the yellow line goes after you reach Chinatown--I leapt off the bus, sprinted around the corner and through the front entrance of MCI, and was barely in my seat by the time the starting lineups began.

A few minutes into the game, I looked around the arena at the small and still-arriving student section, the curiously empty upper deck.  And as I took in the somewhat uninspiring scene--for our first game as a Top 10 team no less!--I thought to myself:

This ain't right.

The odd thing about the game was that if you consider the action on the court, it was by far the most interesting and arguably the only competitive game I'd attended that year.  The Hoyas and Panthers punched and counter-punched the entire game, until Pitt finally delivered a knockout blow with a few minutes to go and Georgetown didn't answer the bell.

The story of the game for me came down to one play in the first half.  Little Julius Page--a six foot nothing point guard--dunked on Ruben Boumtje Boumtje.  Okay, you're saying, a little guy dunked on a big guy--that happens.  But to be there at the MCI Center and here the shocked reaction of the Hoya faithful and feel how Page figuratively punched 12,000 fans in the gut...was to know Georgetown's 16-0 streak was over.

I can still recall the feeling of utter resignation as the final seconds ticked away and I knew I was going to watch Georgetown lose for the first time.  They've lost many more times since then--heck, I'm a student of the Esherick era--but that one game still holds an extra significance.

On January 20, 2001, I learned what it was like as a college basketball fan to have a really bad day, and lose something significant.

I spent the rest of the night hanging out in front of Village C playing Frisbee (my ankle having recovered from the previous time) and experiencing another first for that season--it snowed.  Also experienced another first for the school year--I came down with the Flu for a week and a half afterwards.

It's been a long journey for me with Hoyas basketball.  On this long day eight years ago, I hit the first speedbump.

March 10, 2007: The Destination

When you're racing to make it in time for the most significant basketball game since you arrived at Georgetown, the waiting is the most excruciating part.

Waiting.  Endlessly in traffic.

I was awake for what felt like forever on the day of the 2007 Big East Tournament Championship.  Woke up at 8:00am on a few hours sleep to commute through the quiet spring morning to the Bookstore where I had drawn the highly dubious honor of filling in for a weekend shift.

My mind was as far away as possible from stocking books; my focus that day was hundreds of miles away in Manhattan where the Hoyas last night had qualified for their first BET championship game since 1996 thanks to a thrilling last possession victory over Notre Dame.

It had been exactly a week since I saw my last game at the Verizon Center (Georgetown's BE regular season clincher against UConn) and without exaggeration, I don't remember understanding a single word my boss said the entire morning, as I was so preoccupied with getting to Madison Square Garden in time.

But first I waited.  Endlessly in traffic.

I'm normally a meticulous planner when it comes to the logistics of getting to a basketball game--I used to watch the first student bus to MCI pull up from my dorm window so I could time my arrival--but I cut it far too close this time.  My work schedule in Foggy Bottom ran until 3:00pm...my train departed Union Station at 3:20pm. 

My yellow cab left the corner of 21st and Pennsylvania 20 minutes before my train would leave the station.  And we crawled.  Block by block.  Red light by red light.

In Chinatown--ironically, on the corner of 7th and F Street adjacent to the Verizon Center--I compelled the driver to bail on sticking around to file a witness report after the driver in front of us plows into a stopped cab.  At long last--having paid the driver an extra large tip five minutes ago to speed things along--I hurled myself out of the cab, sprinted through the Union Station concourse, leapt onto the train and was not even seated when it pulls away.

A few hours later, I walked up the stairs of Penn Station into the crisp New York City evening, right into a group of Georgetown student fans crossing the street headed towards MSG.  And as I spent a moment taking the whole scene in--this was the first time I'd ever visited NYC--I thought to myself:

This feels right.

Strangely, if you consider just the action on the court, the 2007 BET Final is one of the least memorable GTown-Pitt games this decade--the final 12 minutes are a formality, and Pitt never seriously poses a threat.  And yet I consider it not only the most significant Georgetown game I've attended in person, but also the most memorable day I've experienced as a Hoyas fan.

The story of the game for me came down to the final play in the first half.  With the shot clock expiring, Jessie Sapp rose up for a desperation jumper.  From a spot near the three point line directly in line with my seat halfway up the lower level at MSG, Roy Hibbert swooped in, parted four players, gathered the rebound and deposited a two handed dunk.  It was probably Hibbert's third or fourth fiercest dunk of the night, but it galvanized in one poetic motion the energy of the majority Hoyas crowd.  Hibbert might as well have picked up the BET trophy on the way to the locker room for halftime.

I can still recall the feeling of unrestrained, almost confused excitement as the final seconds ticked away and I knew I was watching Georgetown achieve something they hadn't in eighteen years.  They'd follow their first BET triumph since 1989 in the coming weeks with their first Final Four appearance since 1985--and I'd be in Atlanta for that as well--but nothing will surpass that night in New York City.

On March 10, 2007, I learned what it was like as a college basketball fan to win something significant.

I spent the rest of the night in Café 31 hanging out with hundreds of our fellow Hoya fans from across the country.  I recovered in time to make my return train to DC with ease.

It's been a long journey for me with Hoyas basketball.  On this long day two years ago, I figured out there's actually a destination.

HOW TO FIND YOUR DESTINATION FOR GEORGETOWN-PITT TOMORROW

Time/Location: Saturday January 3, 2009 - Verizon Center, Washington DC

TV: ESPN (Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale on PBP)

Radio: WTEM 980 (Rich Chvotkin on PBP)

See you at Verizon tomorrow.  Hopefully it'll be another memorable experience.

John Hawkes (SFS '04)

Proud Member of Generation Burton

 

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