Hoyas vs. Orange, one final time

Originally Published: March 14, 2013
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- There is a blanket on John Thompson Jr.'s bed, a gift from his former high school principal, Sister Helen Lewis.

Years after her student grew to become a national figure, Sister Helen invited him to upstate New York, to the high school where she was working at the time, to talk about his life and his experiences.

"She said to me, 'How much will you charge me?'" Thompson remembered recently while sitting in his cramped office at McDonough Arena on the Georgetown University campus. "I said, 'Sister, how am I going to charge you?' So she gives me the blanket."

[+] EnlargeBoeheim
Mark Goldman/Icon SMIThe Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry, built by John Thompson Jr. and Jim Boeheim, will have its finale tonight at Madison Square Garden.

A year later, Sister Helen put in another call to a famous basketball coach, the one that called New York state home.

She asked Jim Boeheim to come speak to her students.

"And so right away, she tells me that he says, 'I want the same amount that John got,'" Thompson said. "You know what she said? 'OK.' I always laugh about that."

Thompson retold that story then, as we are here today, to drive home just how deep the roots of the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry run.

This is not a manufactured battle that exists only in the stands and in the minds of fans; this is real, coursing through the coaches, the players and the history books, a distaste that is passed along like a generational heirloom.

And for once and for all, it will be over on Friday night.

The Hoyas and the Orange will tangle in the Big East tournament semifinal, and that officially will be it, the last run between the two schools as conference brethren.

As it should be.

How else should the Big East close out its 34-year run and dim the lights at Madison Square Garden than with the two schools that helped define the conference going head-to-head one last time?

The only way it could be better is if it were on Saturday night in the title game. But seeds and regular-season finishes don't cater to the whims of made-for-TV movie scripts, so this will have to do.

As a B side, it's not too bad.

Ticket scalpers are already salivating at what might just be the hottest college basketball ticket this building has seen, and even Boeheim, not one for sentiment or emotion, gave in to it.

"It's a good way to go out if this is it, for this league as it's constituted now," Boeheim said.

Indeed, to trace the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry is to trace the growth of the league itself. Other schools have made indelible marks -- St. John's with Chris Mullin, Villanova with Rollie Massimino, Providence with Rick Pitino -- but none have defined the ferocity and intensity of the Big East more than the Hoyas versus the Orange.

The first time they played, John Thompson Jr. ignited the flame by declaring Manley Fieldhouse closed. The last time during the regular season, the old coach stood courtside while his son was in charge, father hoisting a Georgetown scarf above his head, baiting the frenzied Hoya fans as they won in a rout.

In between, there were epic battles with once-in-a-generation stars, games that were equal parts brawl and basketball.

Sadly, the way the two are being separated, like prized fighters in a heavyweight bout, is equally emblematic of the conference. The Big East first fought to stay relevant, then to stay afloat, but eventually realized that divorce was really the only way to survive.

Thompson has watched from afar as football has, in his opinion, bastardized the sport he loves so much. A week ago, he called the football schools "pimps" for coming into the Big East, ransacking it and moving on.

He has tried to remain philosophical about the changes, but when Syracuse announced it was leaving for the ACC, Thompson was stunned.

"None of it bothered me until Syracuse left," he said. "When Syracuse left, I said ,'Et tu, Brute?' That got me."

Now Thompson is trying to imagine Boeheim, who was perfectly at ease in the often crass and salty language-filled Big East coaches meeting, sitting with the ACC group.

He chuckles when he thinks about it -- "Jimmy will get to whining, saying we don't want this and we want that, and they'll say, 'Boy, you're in the South now; that's not how we do things' -- but his sweet is tinged with plenty of bitter.

Not at his old adversary but at the people who have made the decisions.

"What's Jimmy going to do? Go down to the ACC and talk about John running his mouth and how, 'I beat his butt?' That's what you talked about when you went to dinner," Thompson said. "You had a certain regionalism. Now we're going to bring in SMU? What the hell? They're nice people, but they don't belong here. The thing you like to brag about, to kick it about, the tradition, it's gone."

It gets to Boeheim, too.

He has toed the company line well, managing to say what he thinks without throwing daggers at his employer. But there is no doubt that finishing his career in Greensboro instead of Madison Square Garden isn't what he had in mind. While the practical side of him might recognize how Duke-Syracuse will move the needle nationally, he knows it won't match the Hoyas versus the Orange for depth.

Getting ready for Georgetown -- a team that beat the Orange twice this year, including a 61-39 pasting just a week ago -- won't allow Boeheim much time for reflection, but he admitted to a little introspection on Wednesday night after Syracuse beat Seton Hall.

"Things have kind of been two years coming but now that it's here, your whole life has been spent in this league and the last 31 years coming to this building, that's a lot," Boeheim said. "That's a lot of memories, a lot of time."

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsJim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange are headed south next season.

Like the rivalry, the dislike between Thompson and Boeheim wasn't manufactured at the beginning, either. They were young, hot tempered and trying to claim and protect their territory in a Northeast ripe with good basketball. The fights were real and the memories, even this long ago, still fresh.

The 1984 Big East title game -- the one where Michael Graham wasn't ejected after throwing a punch and Georgetown went on to win? Boeheim can give you a play-by-play like he just watched the game film yesterday.

The only part he forgets -- legitimately or conveniently -- is when he inadvertently head-butted then associate commissioner Mike Tranghese.

The rivalry between the schools hasn't dimmed or diminished over time, not even with Thompson Jr. giving way to Thompson III.

The games in Syracuse and Washington this year both set attendance records -- the most to witness a college basketball game for the Orange, the most to witness one in the metro D.C. area for the Hoyas.

But wins, national championships and time have thawed the relationship between the two old coaches. The two are good friends now, have been for some time, and where there once was enmity, there is now a deep respect.

Back before Boeheim won a national championship, a reporter asked Thompson why the Syracuse coach couldn't win the big one, expecting Thompson to throw his rival under the bus.

"He said to me, 'Why is that people say Boeheim isn't a good coach?'' Thompson said. "I told him, 'I never heard anybody say that who knew what they were talking about.'"

Of course, some habits -- like good traditions and rivalries -- die hard. I asked Boeheim about his appearance at the behest of Sister Helen. He remembered it, but when I asked him if he, like Thompson, got paid with a blanket, Boeheim wasn't so sure.

"I may not have even gotten that," he said.

And then the zinger: "That would be the only time John didn't get paid."

Et tu, Brute?

Yes, and won't we miss it?

Dana O'Neil | email

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