I was a sophomore in high school when I attended my first Syracuse University basketball game. It was Feb. 13, 1980.
It was a school night… a Wednesday to be exact (the same night Eight Is Enough was on) and I remember my parents telling me that as long as I got my homework done, I could go with my brother and friends.
The Big East conference was in its inaugural season, and Syracuse was playing its last game ever in historic Manley Field House against the Georgetown Hoyas. The Orange, ranked No. 2 in the country at the time, was riding a 57-game home winning streak.
Syracuse led most of the game, but the Hoyas rallied back. One will never forget a guy by the name of Sleepy Floyd sinking two free throws with five seconds remaining to secure the 52-50. With time expired, legendary basketball coach John Thompson declared, “Manley Field House officially closed.”
Thompson, who was the head coach of Georgetown from 1972-99, died on Monday at the age of 78. He led the Hoyas to the 1984 national championship, and built the program into a perennial powerhouse. During the 1980s, the Hoyas advanced to three Final Fours and won seven conference titles. In 1988, Thompson coached the United States National team to a bronze medal in the Olympics.
The “House” was closed and I was told to never attend another SU basketball game. But, on that cold February night back in 1980, the greatest rivalry in Big East basketball began.
Over the next ten seasons, the Orange and the Hoyas met eight times in the Big East Tournament, four times in the finals and numerous times on national television during the regular season.
During that time, there were buzzer beaters, punches thrown, chairs thrown, oranges thrown, technicals and ejections. Names like Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas, Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Charles Smith, Reggie Williams, and Dikembe Mutombo dotted the SU and Georgetown rosters, with Jim Boeheim and Big John Thompson, with his patented white towel draped around his neck, leading their respective teams.
Syracuse and Georgetown were two college basketball goliaths and moreso then anything else, they were partners in building the mystique of the conference.
“He (Thompson) was a coach fans went to see,” Boeheim told the Washington Post. “Fans don’t go to see coaches. They don’t. Fans went to see Georgetown because they were great teams, but they went because John Thompson was there on the sidelines. That was a big, big part of it. He sold out every arena he went to.”
John Thompson was Georgetown basketball. Closing Manley Field House on Feb. 13, 1980 was just the beginning of so many Big East memories. In a weird way, SU fans can be thankful for that.