BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Even at rush hour, there isn't much conversation on the New York City subways, certainly not on the Brooklyn-bound lines full of folk that are drained after a long day at work doing something in a building that has more stories in it than teams that are changing conferences after the season.
You can call them mean or impolite, and you know what, they probably don't give a shit. Silence, especially in big crowds, has always been awkward for me, but I don't dare talk, except maybe to the person next to me. Most of the people on the train don't even have to look up to know if not a New Yorker, they can smell it on me.
And I don't really mean to be negative, either. We waste so much of our time trying to make people like us, making gestures and saying things that we don't really wholeheartedly believe. Why waste time and breath?
Whenever I'm in New York, or especially when I do something like walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, I sometimes try to count the number of different languages I hear. I've gotten up to a couple dozen before, ranging from Scandinavian to Eastern European to Middle Eastern. Tuesday, I got off at Nevins St., waited in a fairly disorganized line to get my ticket to the NEC final, and then wandered into a nearby teriyaki joint for some dinner. Unfortunately, I couldn't understand the man behind the counter, who was Korean? Japanese possibly? Eventually, someone stepped in that could translate well enough for me to get my food.
As I sat down none of the conversation around me had anything to do with the NEC Championship, even though LIU and the Wellness Center were a block away and tip-off was in an hour. That's really the beauty of the NEC and by extension, the Mid-majority, to me. It's not for everyone, especially in a place like Brooklyn and New York City where there are millions of things to do and only a few minutes to do them.
Not to worry, though, there would still be 2,000 fans at the sold-out for LIU Brooklyn against Mount St. Mary's, and in the tiny building, you could hear every one (including the solid contingent from the Mount that came the four hours on buses). It's not about the quantity of the crowd, but the quality. And if there's one thing you'll get in the NEC, it's quality fans.
Jack Perri is not truly a New Yorker by birth. In fact he still resides with his family in Manalapan, N.J., a good hour commute to and from Brooklyn for the first-year head coach. His team isn't truly a New York squad, either, as the New York Times mentioned when covering this game.
However, the community has embraced the Blackbirds anyway. Winning will do that for you.
This was Perri's eighth season with LIU Brooklyn, the first seven he was an assistant for Jim Ferry, who left for Duquesne after two straight NEC titles.
Perri was surely happy to be in charge, but it's tough to be the guy who follows success (ask Mitch Buonaguro, fired in the last few days by Siena
). Before he could even get started, arguably his three best players: Jamal Olasewere, Julian Boyd (the reigning NEC Player of the Year), and C.J. Garner were arrested after an on-campus fight (and it's not exactly a huge campus where they wouldn't be noticed).
Perri was told not to comment as the trio were suspended indefinitely. Without them, the Blackbirds were probably going to be in big trouble, but eventually the university relented and agreed to a two-game suspension which would be served when the NEC schedule began. So Perri dodged that bullet, but the team still started the season listlessly, losing four straight before running off five straight victories and conference play was ready to commence.
But in the fourth of those wins, a blowout at Rice, Boyd tore his ACL. The Blackbirds proceeded to lose their next six without him, including a lopsided loss to Saint Peter's - who would eventually finish at the bottom of the MAAC - and Lamar - who would win four games all season. After being regular season champs the last two seasons, LIU started NEC play 0-3, the third being a home loss to Wagner; under Ferry, LIU had the second-longest home winning streak in the nation at one point last season.
And so Perri must have wondered at 5-10 what the hell he had gotten himself into to. It's not like he had a young team, either.
Ironically, his first conference win came against Mount St. Mary's, at the time not surprising because The Mount was struggling under first-year head coach Jamion Christian, who was implementing a new system after being a Shaka Smart assistant. LIU then won at Fairleigh Dickinson in overtime with another senior - Brandon Thompson - hitting a buzzer-beater to send the game into extra time before the Blackbirds won it.
Funny how life works, FDU would not win another game the rest of the season with Greg Vetrone being fired before the season even ended
. Perri and LIU would go on to finish third in the NEC, and play its best basketball when it mattered most, culminating in this rout, to win its third straight conference title.
For some reason, I can identify with Perri a bit. We are about the same age, and have the same hair style. I like his sideline demeanor and fairly quiet on the sidelines, although not silent. With 7:30 left in the game, somehow Olasewere was called for a violation when he stepped inbounds after a Mount basket to hand the ball to a teammate to inbound. Technically a violation, but usually not called that way and seemed to me to be only called because the score was 71-50 in favor of LIU at the time.
I instinctively did a one-handed wave and Perri did the same, laughing and quietly telling the official next to him (not the one that made the call), "That's bullshit."
Perri could afford to smile. Without much stress on this night, he was about to head to the NCAA Tournament in his first season. The Mount, who certainly appear to be headed in the right direction after they overcame a tough start to the season to end up in this game, were hot from outside early, leading 20-12 at one point behind Julian Norfleet and Sam Prescott's #superhoops. But Perri made a simple switch, going to a zone, and eventually The Mount seemed to get tighter and tighter when shooting from the outside.
LIU took a 35-31 lead into the break, and quickly put the game out of reach. Point guard Jason Brickman, leading the nation in assists, almost literally dribbled circles around them as the game quickly got out of hand and it became obvious that the Blackbirds were going to win their third straight NEC crown.
The talk as it does everywhere in college basketball at this time of year turned to the NCAA Tournament. What would LIU be seeded? Could they avoid a Play-in Game in Dayton? Would they have a real shot to win a game?
And that's all fine and great, but I'm not sure Perri and the Blackbirds really cared all that much. I overheard Perri after the game say he thought they would probably go to Dayton, and that he was almost hoping that would happen because it would give his team and the NEC another chance to be on national television and give him a real shot to win a game.
But is winning a game in the NCAA Tournament everything? In the NEC, not really, although Robert Morris came pretty damn close three years ago against Villanova, the last time anyone but LIU represented the NEC in the Big Dance. Unlike many conferences around the country, the NEC knows its place, and when people stop chasing things beyond your means, they tend to be much happier, to enjoy their accomplishments in life a little more. Three-straight conference championships for the little school in the middle of Brooklyn? That's something to be extremely proud of, isn't it?
I mentioned before that I overheard Perri say something, and that's also the beauty of the NEC. I was able to stroll through the victory celebration, through proud parents and proud professors, and anyone else with a stake in the school. And it seemed like everyone at the WRAC had some involvement with LIU. Olasewere posed for picture after picture and didn't seem to mind until it was his turn to cut down the net, Perri talked with anyone who wanted to congratulate him, even The Mount watched on begrudgingly as they waited for their bus to make its way down Flatbush Ave.
It may seem small-time to some, not even worthy of Division I to others. But in New York and by extension the NEC, they really don't give a shit what you think.
And that's what makes it so much fun to watch.