Game 008: at Boston College 79, Clemson 70 Friday, November 26, 2004 Silvio Conte Forum - Boston, MA
Back then, you'd come in on the elevated line, chattering and clacking above the streets. Right before North Station, the train would sweep around a wide corner, and there it was - the tan bricks, tall thin triple windows, and the bright yellow letters that spelled out "Boston Garden."
There's no Garden anymore now. They're tearing up all the tracks, rebuilding them underground. They've got this new place now, an antiseptic arena named after a bank where the inside feels like you're in one. On this night, fans flow through its gates to see the Celtics play the Cleveland Cavaliers. Twenty years ago this was a meaningless matchup of Larry Bird versus World B. Free, and now there are as many LeBron James jerseys as Paul Pierce models. (Wearing an opposing player's shirt in the old joint would get you tossed over the yellow-painted balcony, over the long Panasonic sign, down into the loge seats.)
But that's not where we're going tonight. Take the Green Line, four fingers of ancient tracks that screech and claw into the western suburbs. Make sure it's the B train, the one that goes along Commonwealth Ave., the one with "Boston College" on the front.
"Hey, is it anyone's birthday here?" the conductor asks in a thick accent. "Come on up to the front and we'll sing 'Happy Birthday' for ya. Nobody? Okay, any Red Sox fans in here tonight?"
One month after the baseball team won its first World Series since 1918, just mentioning the Sox is a good way to get some cheap applause around here. If you were a seagull coasting over the sidewalks this afternoon, you'd see hundreds and hundreds of dark blue caps with red "B"'s. There's no doubt in anyone's mind that Boston is a baseball town, pure and simple.
But once upon a time, basketball ruled Boston. The city's residents didn't know it was under Babe Ruth's curse until October of 1986, when George Vescey (a New Yorker) told them they were. A week after the Buckner ball and the Game 7 loss, a green and white championship banner rose to the rafters of the Garden, easing the city's pain. And the primary reason why a generation of Boston sports fans has been marked with intolerable suffering is because that NBA championship banner was indeed the final one.
That 1985-86 Celtics team featured perhaps the finest professional roster ever assembled - talented, versatile, and deep to the last man. They were the final link in a proud legacy stretching back to the Fifties, a franchise that won title after title before glad-handing charlatans like M.L. Carr, Rick Pitino and Danny Ainge took their turns pissing on the grand old leprechaun logo. Even though the Lakers have narrowed the gap in the past decade, the Celtics still have more NBA championships than anyone else.
No, it's not a football town, never was. Despite the Patriots' recent Super Bowl scucess, that team still belongs to Foxboro and the far suburbs, even to New England as a whole (and for a time, they almost belonged to Hartford). And it's definitely not a hockey town - the four-college Beanpot tournament in February is the only thing on ice that gets Boston excited these days, strike or no strike.
In just about every sport other than hockey, Boston College towers over the city's other three Division I schools. Boston University and Northeastern do their time in the tiny America East conference, and Harvard tends to be an athletic afterthought even though they could surely kick everyone else's asses in Quiz Bowl.
Last October, the Eagles were invited to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, and it took them less than four hours to accept. While it was, in essence, a football decision (a dozen teams lets the ACC put on a meaningful championship game), this means the school will serve as the northernmost outpost of the premier basketball conference in all the land.
And from all appearances, Boston College looks ready for the move up. They play in a big, clean, beautiful building that gives the place downtown a run for its money - the Silvio Conte Forum was named after the late 17-term representative from Massachusetts whose dedication to cleanliness led to the "Conte-Crush-a-Cockroach" campaign on Capitol Hill. It features a JumboTron, luxury boxes, multiple team-stores full of Eagles merchandise, and 8,500 seats, each one with clear and level sightlines.
Tonight, the night after Thanksgiving, the Conte is almost packed full to see BC face Clemson, their future conference friends. The Tigers are the only ACC team never to have won the conference, and the now-obsolete tournament play-in game should probably be named in their honor.
Clemson has adopted an intense "40 minutes of heck" style of play this season, pressing hard on every inbound, running and driving at the basket on each possession. They use a nine-man rotation and substitute two at a time to keep things fresh, but the standout is a wiry 6-9 forward by the name of Sharrod Ford - his sweet jumpers fall while normal leading scorer Shawan Robinson suffers through a tough (4 for 11) shooting night.
BC employs a patient approach, and the game turns into a stark and striking contrast of styles: a group of disiplined chessmasters maintaining quiet pulses while fending off a wild, frothing pack of junkyard dogs. Many of the called plays set up heroics by members of the Eagles' talented starting five: whirling post moves by big Craig Smith, thundering dunks by high-flying duo Sean Marshall and Jared Dudley, sweet-swishing threes by Louis Hinnant. The Eagles lead the game throughout, successfully fending off Clemson's runs. The final score is misleading - the spread would have been 15 or so if they had pushed to the end.
The team should be better than the preseason predictions have indicated. They shouldn't miss graduated center and spiritual leader Uka Agbai too much, and while they may have bench issues in big games, they should contend in their final year in their present conference.
And once they're free of the lane-clogging brawl-ball of the Big East, the Eagles will have a chance to cut their teeth against the very best - the Tobacco Road squads - on a year-in year-out basis. If they can manage to escape the good-team-in-a-great-conference trap that Clemson finds themselves in every year, maybe they can hang around and compete. Give them a few years of increased recruiting and funding, maybe they can start contending. Maybe even winning. It's a valid question: could the Boston College Eagles realistically become one of the top teams in college hoops someday?
Could they make basketball matter again in a baseball town?
Once the B train has made it back to North Station, the other game has long since let out. A few people still mill about the platform, waiting for their subway rides home.
"You know when LeBron went through three guys to get that layup?" one kid says to another. "That was wicked sweet."