Ankur Patankar | Presentation Director2012 Basketball Preview
Building mystique: The Carrier Dome proved to be a key factor in the Big East’s growth during the 1980s
The building was unlike anything seen before in college basketball. Opened in 1980 on the Syracuse University campus, the Carrier Dome could seat more than 30,000 fans.
It quickly became a national phenomenon while the Big East fought to establish its place in the game in its second year of existence.
“Then the Carrier Dome helped the Big East to just explode,” said Len Berman, the first television announcer for the Big East. “It seemed like every time we were there we were setting an on-campus record for attendance and there were 30,000-plus for some wild Syracuse-Georgetown games.
“And that’s where it really exploded.”
The Carrier Dome became a symbol of the Big East in its early years, serving as the backdrop for so many classic matchups and ESPN broadcasts. But more than 30 years later, the Dome’s run as the Big East’s iconic arena will end in 2013 as Syracuse will make the jump to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It’s a move that will bring new visitors to Central New York each season. And it’s hard to believe for those who witnessed the conference grow up with the arena that captured the imaginations of college basketball fans.
Steve Lappas, who was an assistant coach at Villanova from 1984 to 1988, said the Dome, coupled with the personalities of SU head coach Jim Boeheim and star guard Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, were crucial to the Big East exploding onto the national scene.
“Those three things together created a real aura for the Big East, for TV, for Big Monday, the whole thing,” Lappas said. “And you put those things together and now all of the sudden you really have something special.”
Washington was the showman who electrified the Syracuse crowds and national television audiences. His dazzling moves were matched by his penchant for making the big shot in the big moment.
He hit the game-winning shot in the waning seconds in the Orangemen’s 65-63 victory over No. 2 Georgetown at the Carrier Dome on Jan. 28, 1985. The shot capped another memorable chapter in the teams’ rivalry, one in which the SU fans hurled oranges at Patrick Ewing and John Thompson.
The third-largest crowd in Carrier Dome history at the time — 32,229 — witnessed the instant classic and rushed the court after the win.
“The fact that it was on campus and you’re getting over 30,000 fans dressed in orange, that was pretty eye-opening for a national audience.”
Len Berman, former Big East basketball television announcer
Washington’s heroics created a similar scene a year earlier when Syracuse took on Boston College. Washington’s running prayer from half court as time expired was answered, and the SU guard famously veered right off the court with his hands in the air.
“That’s all over the country that day so we got incredible, incredible exposure,” former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. “And the Dome played a really significant role in helping promote the conference in those early years.”
The television exposure played a major role in Washington’s decision to come to Syracuse.
The highly touted guard out of Brooklyn said he decided he would attend SU during his junior year in high school. Washington wanted to play on national television, something only the Big East could offer.
“I knew that when I came to Syracuse, I knew coming into the Carrier Dome was going to be great,” Washington said. “And I knew that we were going to be on TV too just about all our games also, so for me, that was perfect for me.”
The same factors grabbed the attention of high school players across the nation as the Big East continued to establish its presence. They watched Washington and his Orangemen teams regularly take part in games in front of 30,000 fans against Georgetown and St. John’s.
Suddenly, they flocked to Syracuse and other Big East schools rather than UCLA and the ACC powerhouses. They wanted to play in the Carrier Dome and become a part of the rivalries.
“Jim Boeheim was recruiting kids from California to play at Syracuse and I said to myself, ‘Have they ever been to Syracuse in the winter? Why anyone would leave from California to come to Syracuse, New York,’” Berman said. “But that was the appeal. That was the allure of the Carrier Dome.”
Tranghese called the Carrier Dome “a huge factor” in the league’s growth. Lappas said he was always excited to make the trip to Syracuse. Washington considers the Dome the “second mecca” of basketball behind Madison Square Garden.
And Berman said the arena — like the league — was simply “big time.”
“The fact that it was on campus and you’re getting over 30,000 fans dressed in orange,” Berman said, “that was pretty eye-opening for a national audience.”
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