By Bob Socci
Shortly before stepping into the center circle for the opening tip-off, Jeff Clark nodded, smiled and extended his right hand. Wearing his black-and-white stripes, with a whistle hanging from his neck, Clark was dressed and accessorized for work.
So was I, standing at mid-court, in my navy blue, network-issued blazer. Any minute now, I was going to turn to a camera, raise a microphone affixed with a “CBS Sports Network” flag, and welcome a national cable audience into the intimate Kirby Sports Center in Easton, Pa.
Pleasantries taking precedence, I first reacted to Clark’s cue, and stuck out my own right hand.
“I saw you working Georgetown-Syracuse yesterday,” I told him, approvingly. “Wow, that was quite an atmosphere.”
Sixteen hours earlier, and several hours to the north, Clark was one of three officials who took the floor with the Hoyas and Orange in front of 35,012 — the largest on-campus crowd in college basketball history — at the Carrier Dome. In, presumably, Georgetown’s final visit to Syracuse, due to the unraveling of the Big East as we knew it, the Hoyas triumphed, 57-46.
True to the history of one of the most star-studded and compelling rivalries in the game’s modern history, Otto Porter scored 33 points to help end the Orange’s 38-game home winning streak. Thirty-three years ago, G-town closed the ‘Cuse’s prior hoops residence, Manley Field House, by halting a string of 57 straight home victories.
Clark’s smile, like his eyes, widened. He circled his finger, pointing to the wooden bleachers overlooking both sidelines and one of the baselines. They were filling fast in the final minutes of last Sunday morning, as longtime adversaries Lehigh and Lafayette went through warm-ups.
“So is this,” Clark replied, enthusiastically.
So what if there are 31,000 fewer fans than where he worked the day before. In its own way, this environment is equally exciting. In every way, this game is equally important. That’s what Clark seemed to be saying, without actually saying it.
He was right, of course.
The game we were both about to call — with Clark’s version, unlike mine, impacting the event — wasn’t one of the last episodes of a long-running series. It wouldn’t affect national rankings. And no attendance records were being shattered.
Yet it included every element of what made Georgetown-Syracuse, well, Georgetown-Syracuse. Longtime adversaries. Great players. Emotion and excitement that can’t be contrived; but only cultivated through competition.
There also just so happened to be a common ingredient off the court. At each venue — one a cavernous stadium, the other an intimate gymnasium — humans masqueraded as fruit. In Syracuse, Otto the Orange bobbed around behind the backboard. In Easton, kids literally went as bananas in the student section.
Meeting for the 216th time, in a series summed up along a short stretch of Pennsylvania highway as ‘The Rivalry,’ Lehigh and Lafayette staged a performance worthy of their predecessors. The Mountain Hawks led at the half, living mostly on the inside. The Leopards rallied, relying in large part on their outside shooting.
In their final regular-season appearances opposite an arch rival, Lehigh’s Holden Greiner scored a career-high 27 points and Lafayette’s Tony Johnson matched a personal best with 29 points. Greiner made 10-of-14 shots, while Johnson converted 10-of-12, including all five three-point tries.
Less than 11 minutes left, the Hawks led by 10. Another 9 1/2 minutes later, the Leopards held a 10-point lead. The final was 79-71, giving Lafayette a sweep of the season series and a hold on second place in the Patriot League standings.
There’s a strong possibility of a rematch in the upcoming conference tournament. Just as there was three years ago, when Lehigh beat its cross-Valley foe to earn its way into the NCAA Tournament. If such circumstances realign, whether in the Patriot League semi’s or championship game, we’ll be treated to great theatre again.
Exactly as fans enjoy in the small gyms that house annuals like Calvin and Hope, and the mammoth arenas that stage made-for-TV spectaculars like Georgetown-Syracuse. The Patriot League has Lehigh-Lafayette, as well as Army-Navy, which occupies a place made unique by both the history and meaning behind it.
The last few years, a third matchup within the conference has become worthy of marquee billing: Lehigh vs. Bucknell. They first met in 1902, and have since accounted for the last three league championships. They too could be headed for a tournament collision, like last March, when the Hawks won a thriller for the conference title.
Whether or not 2012 repeats itself in 2013, the next couple of weeks will lead us to a special place. Whomever is at play. Wherever they meet. And whoever is there to see it.
That’s the nature of these great games, this wonderful time of year.
Rivalries may all be relative. But the beauty in each is absolute.
On Saturday, March 2, Bob and broadcast partner Chris Spatola return to the Lehigh Valley to call the Patriot League regular-season finale between Lehigh and Army. Coverage begins at noon, on the CBS Sports Network.