Big East demise leaves West sad

Doug West arrived at Villanova in 1985 – when the Big East was at its peak.

The Wildcats were coming off their national championship from a Final Four that included fellow conference members Georgetown and St. John’s.

The players from that era – Ewing, Mullin, Coleman, Douglas, Pinckney, Pearl Washington – were matched only by the legendary coaches such as John Thompson, Louie Carnesecca, Jim Boeheim and Rollie Massimino.

All were pillars that helped turn Dave Gavitt’s vision into the nation’s first basketball superconference.

And this weekend, as the Big East as we’ve known it plays its final tournament at Madison Square Garden, memories abound of just how special it was.

West, despite having spent 12 years in the NBA, still considers it “at the top” of his favorite times as a player.

“It would have to be because it was my first experience going to New York as a young freshman leaving Altoona, Pennsylvania for the first time,” he was saying the other day from Rio Grande, Texas, where he’s coaching in the NBA’s Developmental League. “It was big time.”

West found himself struck by the bustle of New York City and especially inside Madison Square Garden, where the players took the escalators up to the court and the piercing but understated voice of the late John Condon, would echo, “Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the most famous arena in the world.”

“You’d walk the hallways with all the pictures of the people who had performed there – in games, in concerts … the whole atmosphere was amazing,” West said.

When he was done playing and returned to Villanova, where he coached for four seasons (2007-2010 and last year), the Big East’s structure had changed for the worse.

“When I played, you had home and away against everybody, and when I came back, I had no record against a lot of the teams we played,” he said. “It’s sad to see it dissolve, but I like that the Catholic schools will retain the [Big East] name because they were the first ones in it.”

West, now 45, also noticed a difference in the way the players of today interact. Even though players from his era often stayed at least three years and often four, there wasn’t much fraternizing.

“When we’d come into the Garden for the Big East, the Georgetown guys would be against in the wall, in their trench coats, and they wouldn’t smile or say a word to you,” he said. “We didn’t want to talk to each other. It was business. It’s not like that now because all the players have all come through the AAU system and they’re friendly. It’s a different league.”

Maybe with the football schools going their own way, the Big East will return to its roots and re-establish some stability. Let’s hope so.

As for West, he was recommended to the NBADL by Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale, the former coach and general manager in Minnesota when West played there.

He’s paying his dues, enduring rugged travel from Idaho to Rio Grande and learning the pro coaching ropes with the idea that he’ll be a candidate for an NBA position in the future.

The Rio Grande Vipers are affiliated with Houston, and several players have been called up to the big league.

“I can’t lie: The travel is rough,” West said. “I’ve sat in more airports than I’ve been in my life, but the basketball is good. It’s very competitive, and it’s 85 degrees here. This is a great learning experience for me. I appreciate everything that’s going on, but the ultimate goal is to get to the NBA.”

And, should that happen, maybe it will bring a trip back in time … to Madison Square Garden.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or