He was easy to find in those lockout-strangled days during the 1998-99 NBA season. Jeff Van Gundy was a coach without a team and he was an eternal gym rat, so if you wanted to find the then-Knicks coach, you started by seeing which MAAC team was playing at home that night.
Often as not, there he was, at Manhattan’s Draddy Gymnasium, or Iona’s Mulcahy Center, unshaven, wearing a ball cap and sweats, inconspicuous, just needing his basketball fix. I found him one night in Poughkeepsie, at the McCann Center on the Marist campus.
“The MAAC,” he declared, “is the best league there is. Every team is the same. Every game is super competitive. One of these years, I swear, every single team in the league is going to finish 9-9.”
It feels like a good time to recognize and celebrate the MAAC — the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference — which began its life as a loose confederacy of metro-area schools that weren’t St. John’s, and has grown east into Connecticut and north toward Albany and Buffalo, and features 11 almost entirely like-minded schools who now beat the hell out of each other 20 times a year (so the new Van Gundy standard would be 10-10 all around) and take on all comers beyond.
Entering Sunday, the MAAC hasn’t been entirely overtaken by parity, but the fact is the difference between first place (Monmouth, at 7-4) and last place (Canisius, 4-8) is as thin as in any basketball conference in the country. Nine teams are within 21/2 games of each other. Every time two MAAC teams battle, you’re getting all of the best of college basketball: ancient rivalries, ferocious competition, excellent coaching (specifically, check out the job Jay Young has done in his first year at Fairfield) and toss-up games all over the place.
This is a special anniversary year for New York’s college basketball fans. It’s 70 years since CCNY brought home the city’s only national championship (in the innocent hours before it forever would be associated with point shaving), a year when CCNY added the NIT title to boot. It is 35 years since St. John’s most recent Final Four team, which finally flamed out against Georgetown in Lexington, Ky.
It is also the 25th anniversary of what may have been the MAAC’s best-ever team, Fran Fraschilla’s 1995 Manhattan Jaspers, who not only earned a rare at-large berth for the league (after St. Peter’s beat them in overtime in the MAAC conference finals), but also stunned Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament.
La Salle’s Lionel Simmons-led teams of the early 1990s, Tim Cluess’ Iona teams of recent vintage and Bobby Gonzalez’s 2004 Manhattan team (which beat Florida in the NCAA Tournament) might take issue with that designation, but if nothing else those ’95 Jaspers proved the MAAC was more than just a cute assemblage of mid-majors, setting a standard for all the MAAC teams and seasons that have come after.
Those Jaspers were celebrated and welcomed back to Draddy Gym on Friday night, and this year’s team did their ancestors proud by soundly defeating Niagara, 77-59, to move to 10-10 (of course) on the season, 6-5 in the league, one of five teams that sit one game back of Monmouth in the loss column.
As much as ever, the MAAC is a celebration of good local basketball, even as its boundaries have grown beyond the New York border. It remains a pity that Fordham doesn’t play in the league, but a long time ago the perennial fools on Rose Hill made a grievous mistake leaving for the then-non-scholarship Patriot League (in a move that unwittingly signaled a clear de-emphasis of basketball) then compounded the error by joining the Atlantic 10 — a rivalry-free league for the Rams in which the highlight every year is to see Dayton and VCU come to Rose Hill, fill the old gym’s seats with visiting fans and hammer the hapless home team. There ought to be room for a 12th MAAC team, and hopefully someday Fordham returns home (and if not, charter member Army would be a nice fit, too).
For now? The MAAC will be the most reliable form of basketball entertainment available — whether you trek to Jersey City or Lawrenceville, Hamden or Riverdale, Loudonville or anywhere else these games are played — with a ferocity and a passion you just don’t see every night in the Big East or ACC, with a skill level a step above many other mid-major leagues. What was true in the fall and winter of 1998-99 is ever more true now: One of these years, they’re all going to go 10-10. It’s that kind of conference. The best kind.
I’ve had the great good fortune to write three sports-themed books in my career, and like everyone else afforded that gift, I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to Roger Kahn, who died this week at 92 and who, with “The Boys of Summer,” provided us all with the template for how it’s done best.
If it’s Edie Falco, I’m there, even if so far “Tommy” feels like just another network cop procedural.
How long has “Homeland” been on the air? Long enough that Nick Brody has gone on to be a hedge fund wizard on “Billions” named Bobby Axelrod, and it’s hard to remember that Major Winters used to be the co-star of that show. (What a career, Damian Lewis).
There has always been a perception that, end of the day, the Mets will always kowtow to the wishes of their fans. After this week, I think we can dismiss that theory forever, right?
Whack Back at Vac
Leo Finnegan: If Mets fans don’t boycott the Wilpons, they deserve what they get.
Vac: If there’s one thing we’ve learned around here the past few years, it is this: Fans — all fans — love their teams a lot more than they hate owners.
Frank Connolly: I have never seen a picture of James Dolan at a Knicks game where he wasn’t sitting next to a different model type. At least he can do that right.
Vac: As Mel Brooks once put it: It’s good to be the king.
@scooley1023: Wilpon/Cohen felt like Conan and Leno right from the start.
@MikeVacc: One big difference: Steve Cohen ain’t settling for TBS.
Philip Rubin: So the Wilpons’ idea is to get the $2.6 billion or so but want to retain control forever. That’s like selling your house but not moving out.
Vac: Have I mentioned? It’s good to be the king.