Thursday, December 04, 2003

Inside the BB&T Classic with John Feinstein

Originally posted on "TerpTown" on the network and syndicated to Yahoo

Maryland continues a recently established tradition on Saturday and Sunday by participating in the 9th annual BB&T Classic at the MCI Center. The Terps take on Gonzaga at 3:30 Saturday and will face either George Washington or West Virginia on Sunday.

This tournament has quickly become one of the premier early-season college basketball events in the nation. John Feinstein, the noted sports author, is one of the driving forces behind it. He took a few moments recently to share some of the behind-the-scenes details regarding the creation, staging, and future of this event.

Without realizing it at the time, Feinstein laid the foundation for this concept with a piece he wrote for the Washington Post in 1984. Shortly after Georgetown had won the National Championship, he wrote a column encouraging the major college basketball programs in the Washington, DC area, primarily Georgetown and Maryland, to resume playing each other on an annual basis.

At that time, the Hoyas and Coach John Thompson were at the height of their power and placed their basketball program above local rivalries. There had been bad blood between Thompson and Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell since their last regularly scheduled meeting early in the 1979-80 season, and Thompson would never agree to play Driesell's Terps again. The two schools did not schedule another game until the opener of the 1993-94 season. Gary Williams was now the Maryland coach, and his team won an overtime thriller over the more highly regarded Hoyas on Georgetown's home court, the US Air Arena. This was also Joe Smith's first college game and, as it turned out, his coming out party.

There were no more games scheduled between the two schools because, according to Feinstein, “Gary is still waiting for Georgetown to return the game in his building.” In 1994, Pete Teeley a man Feinstein calls “the single most important person associated with the (BB & T) tournament” saw a copy of Feinstein's 1984 piece on local rivalries and gave him a call.

Teeley, a former ambassador to Canada for George Bush the first and currently a vice president for AMGEN, the pharmaceuticals company, suggested to Feinstein that they put together a tournament featuring the local schools. Feinstein said, “I thought it was a pipe dream, but I said if it can be done, they should give all the money to charity.” Peely put together The Children's Charities Foundation, of which he is chairman of the board, to do just that.

Peely, Feinstein, and other well connected businessmen got together to organize this event. Putting together an eight-team tournament was initially discussed, but the final plan was to match two local schools and two major out-of-town schools in an early season event every year at the US Air Arena (and later the MCI Center). Maryland and Georgetown were approached as the two DC-area participants. Feinstein called Gary Williams, who bought in right away. Calls to John Thompson were not returned. Eventually, according to Feinstein, Thompson's aide Mary Fenlon called and said Georgetown “had no interest whatsoever” in participating. George Washington, a school that Coach Mike Jarvis had recently led to the NCAA Sweet 16, was contacted and quickly agreed to be the second local team in the event.

The first Classic was held on December 2 nd and 3 rd , 1995 at the US Air Arena. The marquee matchup was Maryland vs. Massachusetts, a game the Minutemen won 50-47. This put the Terps into the consolation game against GW, who had lost to Florida in the first round. Maryland beat the Colonials 98-81 to claim third place in the inaugural tournament.

The Terps have won four BB&T Classic championships, defeating George Washington in 1996 and 2000, DePaul in 1998, and Connecticut in 2001. GW upset Maryland to win the 1997 and 1999 titles, UMass won the 1995 event, and Notre Dame claimed the championship by knocking off #2 Texas last year. Keith Booth (1996), Steve Francis (1998) and Lonny Baxter (2001) are Terps who have claimed Tournament MVP awards.

Perhaps the two most memorable games in this event were Maryland's wins over #2 Kansas in 1997 and #5 Stanford in 1998, both coming in nationally televised games.

Putting this year's tournament together was a challenge for Feinstein, who with his vast contacts in the college basketball community is the driving force for bringing top teams in every year. He originally had Michigan State and Kansas lined up for this year, but Michigan State landed a national TV game vs. Oklahoma on the same weekend. New Kansas Athletic Director Lew Perkins (yes, the same Perkins that hired Gary Williams while the AD at Maryland) also backed out, wanting a better financial deal.

Feinstein was able to land Gonzaga under the unusual condition that they play Maryland in the first round. “It's usually the other way around,” according to Feinstein, who also said that Michigan State has already committed to next year's Classic.

So what about Georgetown? Feinstein told me “They weren't interested in the beginning; if they want in for a year as a visiting team, we'll consider it. They apparently haven't realized that Patrick Ewing isn't on the team anymore and think they can still dictate to people.” There's no love lost there, folks.

The future of the tournament is very solid. Feinstein says, “Maryland and George Washington will be in as long as they want.” Several of the Maryland games have been picked up by ABC television, and they have a contract with Raycom to broadcast all four games this season.

Even more important than the exciting basketball the BB&T Classic has provided is the way the community has benefited. The tournament has generated nearly $5 million for charities in the Washington D. C. area, distributed by the Children's Charities Foundation. In addition to the games, there is “The Basketball” Gala held annually the night before the tournament. This year's event will be on Friday, December 5 th at the new Washington Convention Center. There will be a silent auction, reception, dinner, and Al Green will provide the entertainment. You can call (410) 448-0700 for information regarding individual tickets or a table.

Tickets are still available for the games through TicketMaster. Prices range from $20-$75 for a four-game package. This is a wonderful opportunity to see some exciting basketball and help others in need. What a great way to get into the holiday spirit.


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