LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In more than 20 years in journalism, I've never been much on souvenirs. Sportswriting provides great access to sports, but other than hanging on to a credential or two, maybe a program here and there, I've never given much thought to collecting anything.
I have a champagne cork from the Cincinnati Reds' locker room celebration after winning the National League Central Division title in 2010. I saved some items from my one and only trip to cover The Masters at Augusta National. I scooped up some petals from the garland after Zenyatta beat the boys in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Did the same with some confetti from the NCAA championships of the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville. Most of the things I've saved over the years would probably be of little value to anyone else.
But this past March, as I was getting ready to leave Madison Square Garden after the last Big East Tournament before the league splintered every which way, I walked out into the historic arena and looked around. Workers were breaking down the court to convert it back to the home of the New York Knicks, and I knew I wouldn't be back there to cover many more games. It was then that I noticed that the nets were still on the baskets.
The University of Louisville basketball team had made a point of leaving the nets up after winning the tournament. Turns out, they'd decided as a team, long before the tournament, that they weren't cutting down any nets until the national championship, if they should get there.
A little while later, Steve Andress of WDRB and I were just about the last media members to leave the building. It was almost 3 a.m. And I remarked to Steve that the nets were still there on the baskets, which had been lowered after the game. Next thing I knew, Steve was rifling through the offices at the Garden looking for scissors, and soon had in his possession both nets.
Steve later told me, as he cut down the nets, his main concern was tournament officials lurking around a corner. I wondered, in fact, if someone hadn't taken the tournament nets earlier, and that they'd already been replaced with new ones. But these in our hands were stained by the orange rims, unlikely had they been freshly installed.
I never gave much thought to the journalistic question of the situation. It just seemed like a pretty cool thing. And it seemed like these historic items were as well off in our hands as being lost to history, or even just the next game. Maybe you'd have done the same, maybe not.
Regardless, we snapped some pictures, then hid them away and told no one. No point in jinxing the Cardinals' championship effort. As it turned out, we didn't. U of L went on to the NCAA title, and cut down the nets in Atlanta after the school's third national title.
Steve and I, meanwhile, had these nets of our own. Our intention was to present them back to U of L coach Rick Pitino at some point. I told Kenny Klein from U of L what we'd done, but we all got busy over the summer and the net sat up on top of my refrigerator, largely forgotten. Pitino and I finished his book, "The One-Day Contract." He had some celebrating to do after the championship. There was a trip to the White House, and Pitino was inducted into the Hall of Fame in September.
This week, finally, on the occasion of a half-hour interview Rick Bozich, Steve and I conducted with Pitino in the basketball offices on Tuesday, I told Pitino the story of the net, and presented it to him.
"That's great," he said. "This is one of the best Christmas gifts, I have to tell you, that I could get. You know, every time I see -- we play a video for our recruits, and Sean McDonough says 'It's time to bring down the lights on one of the greatest conference tournaments ever played,' as the lights get dim, I always get misty eyed every time we play that for our recruits because I realize I'm going to be coaching basketball, but I'm never going to be coaching at Madison Square Garden like that again. To win back-to-back, to win the last one, to have President Clinton in the locker room the last two nights, it's really special."
I wasn't sure how Pitino would handle the net. But he talked with us about what the Garden had meant to him. He grew up just blocks away from the Garden. He coached for the Knicks. It's been, in some days, a central place in his basketball career. He remembered signing with Massachusetts in high school.
"Back then they didn't have letters of intent," Pitino said. "When Al McGuire turned down the NCAA to take his New Yorkers to play in the NIT, I signed when Dr. J (and UMass) lost to Al McGuire in the NIT. I signed my scholarship papers there on the floor at Madison Square Garden. And now I have a piece of this history. I never keep a lot of team things. The boosters this year gave me a present, a replica of the crystal trophy, they chipped in to put it in my house. And now I have the second thing, I'll keep in my home and not here."
I had just one request: No Internet auctions. I'd like to have Thanksgiving off. (This Pitino interview was taped before news broke on Chane Behanan's 2012 Final Four ring appearing on an online auction site. Details here.)