Game 059: Wagner 62, at St. Francis (NY) 61Saturday, February 12, 2005
Pope Center - Brooklyn, NY
The Northeast Conference doesn't try to be something that it's not, and that's refreshing. Their mission statement strives for "athletic achievement, academic integrity and development, community outreach, and a renewed emphasis on sportsmanship," and there's nothing in there about sending two teams to the NCAA basketball tournament. It's never going to happen, and they know it.
|NEC sex symbol Tim Capstraw.|
The NEC began as a hoops-only league for small D1 schools that needed a place to play; it was the ECAC Metro Conference back when it started 24 years ago. They've added a bevy of new sports (and a new name) along the way, and now have 11 NCAA-eligible sports, including football. But it still has a round, orange, basketball-shaped heart. People might say that it's a flat one due to the league's terminally ill conference RPI, but that's okay. Those people measure quality differently than we do.
It's spread out from Connecticut to Maryland, but the NEC sparkles with real and actual regional rivalries. There's Central Connecticut
and Sacred Heart
up north, separated by a thin triangle of interstate highways. Robert Morris
and St. Francis (PA)
battle for western Pennsylvania. Fans of Fairleigh Dickinson
sparked a brawl that spilled out into Wagner's verdant campus after a conference tournament 3-6 game last year. And Brooklyn may owe the charmer under those Steely Dan guys (did anyone ever figure out what that meant?), but there's no love lost between St. Francis (NY)
and Long Island
. They're separated by six blocks of upscale shopping, and a lot of interborough politics.
What other Division I conference has two schools with the same name? That's right: none! There's St. Francis College in New York, and then there's St. Francis
University, which is out there in a town called Loretto, PA. And they play each other twice a year, giving flustered sportswire workers the same fits they must have experienced back when the American Hockey League had two "St. John's" teams. Radio announcers usually just call them "N.Y." and "P.A." when they're in the same gym. Insiders differentiate them by calling them SFC and SFU. I've overheard some folks at games go a step further in the St. Francis abstraction: "U." and "College."
There are fewer conferences with workable one-man and two-man shows than the NEC. Let's face facts: these players will be Europros at best and church league legends at worst, and won't come close to making lots of NBA bling. But occasionally, you'll get a player who can score, rebound and put his teammates in positions where they can look good, too. This year, we have two - Monmouth's
Blake Hamilton and Fairleigh Dickinson's Gordon Klaiber. Not suprisingly, their teams are the top two in the league. Both players are athletic, limber, and around 6'7". These are the type of guys who sit idly on depth charts at big schools - perhaps if recruiters showed borderline Big East prospects some game tape and said, "See? You could be The Man here!"
(But it's very important that one uses the right
Man. The NEC Man is not a guard like Quinnipiac's Rob Monroe who can simply shoot the lights out. Monroe might score lots of points and get nominations for national awards because of his gaudy numbers, but look at his team's record. Or actually, don't... trust me, it's crap. Just don't tell the Cousy Award voters that the potential "best point guard in the nation" has nobody to pass it to, and that's why he takes all the shots.)
Because most successful NEC teams have a singular point of focus, one might think that that might be enough to attract fickle fairweather fans who require a "hook" to enjoy a basketball game, the ones who want to see the big-time players make the big-time plays. While the "but the winner of this conference will just get killed by Illinois
, so it doesn't matter in the end" is a tough hurdle, convincing them that the game really is on TV is the real
'Cause the NEC does indeed have a television contract. They play a lot of games on New York cable TV, and a game or two every week is picked up by a Fox Sports station, which in turn sends it out to the millions of DirecTV subscribers all over the nation. So if you're out in Utah, you too can see the regionally famous "60 seconds to tip-off," where all the game's stories are rattled through with ridiculous speed. And no matter who's playing, the announcers will invariably describe them as "two of the top teams in the league," in a desperate attempt to sell the game to channel-flippers. As the commentators warmed up for this contest between 5-6 SFC and 6-7 Wagner (a battle for sixth place), I didn't have to read their lips. They were saying "These are two of the top teams in the league." I love it.
I'll admit it, I also love Tim Capstraw (pictured above). Capstraw is better known as the radio-side color commentator for the New Jersey Nets (and late-night NBATV viewers know him from Euroleague telecasts), but he's an NEC guy. He coached Wagner for a decade, was fired in 1999 after a tough season, and went straight to the booth. He's following in the footsteps of other great so-so coaches who became legendary talking heads - the NHL has Don Cherry,
baseball has Bobby Valentine
(sorry, scratch that), and the NEC has "Capper."
Capper is the anti-Vitale. Since 1999, this dashing Jim Lampley-type has hosted a halftime feature called "Holding Court With Tim Capstraw." He interviews two players from the game's opposing teams, and tries to get them to talk smack at each other. Invariably, they realize that despite their differences, they agree on one thing: the host is a goofball who needs to get served. They turn on him, usually making fun of his "hairpiece," and our hero is stunned. Stunned!
At first, I was amused. Then, I got all postmodern and rolled my eyes at it. Now, after six years of "Holding Court," I realize that the act never gets old.
When financial issues forced the NEC tournament to forego a bracket-gathering this year and return to a system of higher-seeded home games, the NEC put a positive spin on it. The conference was going "back to campus," they said. But they probably won't be there for long. There are beautiful new facilities opening at Long Island
and Quinnipiac in the next few years, and last year's edition was held at Wagner's shiny Spiro Sports Center. When your school has a nice building and your league has a television contract, somebody somewhere's going to find some extra money to host a little eight-team tournament for a couple of days. Right, America East Conference? Right, Binghamton
None of this would mean anything unless the games were relatively decent. And they are - the teams are usually evenly matched, and no NEC game I've ever seen has been completely snore-inducing or completely devoid of interesting qualities. Take this one, for instance - a game of four distinct runs. Wagner was into the 20's while SFC struggled to get above five; the score was tied at halftime. Wagner's Seahawks delivered the first blow of the second half, which was met in turn by the homestanding Terriers down the stretch. The score was tied with two seconds remaining and Wagner on the line.
The crowds at NEC games, for their part, usually display raucous behavior that belies the small attendance figures. Because most of the kids on the floor are local, there are a lot of moms and girlfriends and posses making a whole lot of noise. And there's something endearingly organic and gritty about it all, too. To wit: as time expired in this game, five talented Brooklynites in the back row of "College's" 1,200-seat Pope Center built up a thick polyrhythm by banging on a ladder that had been placed behind the seats. The enthusiasm spread across the hall, as everybody - opposing fans included - began clapping along. As the game built to its crescendo, the din became louder and more pulsating. And then, with a single free throw by WC sophomore forward Durell Vinson, it was all over.
As the patrons filed out, The Official Wife Of The Mid-Majority™ gave the SFNY-Wagner game her highest-possible approval rating. "That was exciting!" she exclaimed in delight.
The media coverage of The Mid-Majority is nice (yet distracting), and all the kindly e-mails that I'll never have the time to answer are awfully sweet, but the finest moment in the history of TMM has nothing to do with any of that. When the Northeast Conference put a link to this site on their official basketball page
College Insider's!), I knew I had made it for real. That silent acknowedgement (they never replied to my thank-you e-mail) was such an honor. If the folks you're covering think you're doing a good job... well, it just doesn't get any better.
The NEC is cool,
in that straight-from-the-streets underground fashion label kinda way. I bought a sexy black canvas drawstring baggie with the league's sky-blue logo on it at the conference tourney last March (best four bucks I ever spent). When I ran the Nova Scotia Marathon later that summer, I used it to store the things I wouldn't need while I was on the course - balms, lotions, extra socks, what have you. At the bag check-in, a friendly local wanted to make kindly patter with a visiting American, make him feel at home. "Oh, the Northeast Conference," he said. (And I'm not making this next part up.) " Syracuse
are in that, right?" Sorry, my friendly northern brother, you're thinking of the Big
East. And just so you know, it's an overrated league... entertainment-wise, that is.
(In the interests of equal-time disparagement, an incident dating back to last autumn. A gentleman in the locker room, apparently thrown off by the triangle or excited about the possibility of a quick pick-up, had this query in re: my black NEC baggie. "Is that from the Gay Games?" No, sir, it isn't.)
Somewhere in this league, there's a book waiting to be written. It might even be better than the cavalcade of player and coach profiles that made up The Last Amateurs
. Not that there aren't worthy coaches to talk about, mind you - there's Central Connecticut's fiercely loyal Calhoun protegé Howie Dickenman and Wagner's Del Harris look-alike Mike Deane, who may or may not be bionic and always
wears his sunglasses at night (and indoors). I have neither the qualifications nor the skills to pull something like that off, though I certainly wouldn't have tip times altered, nor get schools to open their pool facilities early. Maybe that writer is out there somewhere.
The games will be played no matter what, it's true. But without a poet laureate to immortalize the NEC, its story will fade further into silence as the years go by, just like so many other deserving ones.Photo Gallery