The Barclays Center sits 450 miles north of Greensboro, N.C., location of the ACC’s headquarters and the traditional home of its storied basketball tournament. Beginning Tuesday in Brooklyn, N.Y., the tournament will be staged north of Washington, D.C. for the first time in its history.
Despite the distance from its home, the league’s illustrious basketball history has deep ties to New York, and that includes Georgia Tech and the great Bobby Cremins.
“There’s so much New York connection with the ACC, and it all started with Frank McGuire,” Cremins said.
In part because of the legendary McGuire, Cremins raised Tech to the heights of college basketball with the play of New Yorkers John Salley, Kenny Anderson and Stephon Marbury.
“It’s all because of Frank McGuire coming from New York,” Cremins said.
A history lesson: McGuire grew up in New York, played and then coached at St. John’s before taking the job at North Carolina in 1952, the year before the ACC was founded. McGuire heavily recruited New York – it was called the “underground railroad” – and in 1957, the Tar Heels finished a 32-0 season by winning the school’s second national championship with a starting lineup of five New Yorkers.
The rise of North Carolina to basketball powerhouse can be attributed to McGuire, status that remains 60 years later, as can the ACC’s efforts to try to keep pace with the Tar Heels.
“Frank McGuire put the ACC on the map in 1957 winning the national championship with five New York guys,” Cremins said.
McGuire resigned in 1961 in the wake of major NCAA violations, followed by Dean Smith. In 1964, McGuire returned to college basketball, at South Carolina (at that point an ACC member), and continued luring New Yorkers to the South. Among his recruits was a star point guard from All Hallows High School in the Bronx by the name of Bobby Cremins.
“If you were first-team all-New York City, you had to go play for Frank McGuire,” Cremins said.
Cremins became an assistant to McGuire at South Carolina, then left for his first head coaching job to Appalachian State in 1975. After striking out with early recruiting attempts, Cremins followed his mentor’s path home. A legendary scout named Tom Konchalski helped Cremins find a number of New York prospects, “and that started the program at Appalachian State for me,” he said.
After Cremins’ hire at Georgia Tech in 1981, Konchalski blessed Cremins again. Watching prospects at the famed Five-Star Basketball Camp, Cremins got a tip from Konchalski.
“There’s a skinny kid playing on Court 4 you should go see,” Cremins recalled Konchalski telling him. “I think he’s going to be a sleeper.”
The sleeper was Salley, a Brooklyn prep star who teamed with Mark Price to help deliver Tech’s first ACC championship, in 1985. Why did Konchalski want to help Cremins? In a phone call Monday, he explained it rather simply.
“He’s one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet in the game of basketball,” Konchalski said.
McGuire likely had an assist with Cremins’ recruit of Anderson, who joined Dennis Scott and Brian Oliver to form Lethal Weapon 3 and take the Jackets to the 1990 Final Four.
Cremins made a point every summer to attend the camp of Jack Curran, the legendary coach at Archbishop Molloy in Queens. One summer, Curran, who played for McGuire at St. John’s, pointed out a youngster to Cremins and told him that he was going to start for him as a freshman.
“I knew no freshman ever started for coach Curran,” Cremins said. “I said, ‘Coach, if he’s going to start for you, I’d like to meet him.’ And I met Kenny Anderson and recruited him from that day on for four years.”
Marbury, from Abraham Lincoln High in Brooklyn, later joined the New York-to-Atlanta trail, joning Matt Harpring and Drew Barry to lead the Jackets to the conference regular-season title in 1996. In his recruitment of Starbury, Cremins had an opening for him to come in to replace Travis Best, but Cremins thought he wasn’t interested.
“His high-school coach called me one day and said, ‘What’s going on? You’re still number one,’” Cremins said. “And so I flew back up there.”
Cremins said that, had it not been for his ties to New York and McGuire, he wouldn’t have recruited the city. He recalled how well the city’s high-school coaches like Curran treated him.
“I was just trying to do what Frank McGuire did,” he said.
Rather unfortunately, Cremins will not be in Brooklyn for the tournament. He will be in Nashville, Tenn., for the SEC tournament, to be recognized as an SEC legend for his performance at South Carolina (which at the time he played was, of course, in the ACC). He had hoped to sneak up to Brooklyn to catch Tech on Tuesday, but the 7 p.m. start will preclude it.
He is nonetheless eager for it, recognizing the litany of legendary ACC coaches and players with ties to New York. Since McGuire’s days, North Carolina great Kenny Smith went to the same high school as Anderson. Duke legend Bobby Hurley is from neighboring New Jersey. Louisville coach Rick Pitino is from Long Island. Even the greatest, Michael Jordan, who grew up in Wilmington, N.C., was born in a hospital about a mile north of the Barclays Center.
“I think it’s going to be a home run,” Cremins said.
And Cremins is well aware that Tech coach Josh Pastner has signed a point guard out of New York – Jose Alvarado from Christ the King Regional High in Queens.
“I’m glad Josh got a New York kid,” Cremins said. “I’m looking forward to watching him play.”