It hasn’t been easy to see, what with Georgia Tech going 13-18 and 11-20 the past two seasons, but there’s history here. And where there’s history, there’s hope.
On Friday the Jackets christened their rebuilt arena. The McCamish Center was nice and bright and, at least for this one night, nearly full. The new place cost $45 million — in baseball terms, $45 million might buy two years of Josh Hamilton’s services — and if it comes to house a serious basketball team the redo will have been worth the cost. If not …
The sad part of 13-18 followed by 11-20 was the memory of what Tech basketball once was. From 1981, when Bobby Cremins arrived from Appalachian State and began charming big-name recruits despite his penchant for wearing a green suit during home visits, until the unraveling near the end of the Paul Hewitt era, this program mattered. It mattered in the high-falutin’ ACC (three conference tournament titles), and it mattered nationally (two Final Fours). But the momentum was lost under Hewitt, and it has fallen to Brian Gregory to reclaim it.
To be fair, Gregory has something working for him Hewitt didn’t: The new man has the McCamish Pavilion. But new digs will get a program only so far. Sometime soon, Georgia Tech has to start winning again.
Gregory’s second band of Jackets did their bit, beating Tulane 79-61 on Opening Night. Tech had 36 points with 3 1/2 minutes remaining in the first half, a number matching its total for the final game of 2011-2012. (Perhaps understandably, the main McCamish scoreboard remained dubious, short-changing the home side by two points and displaying only a big “34.”)
Forty percent of Tech’s starting five – forwards Robert Carter Jr. and Marcus Georges-Hunt — are freshmen, and so is the sub shooter Chris Bolden, who scored 12 points in 23 minutes. The holdovers appeared to have absorbed Gregory’s teachings in a way seldom seen last season, and the initial impression was of a bigger, deeper team that should finish above .500.
And that would be a big deal. The new building gives Tech a momentum it hasn’t known since the architects of the run to the 2004 NCAA championship game departed, but momentum is an ephemeral thing. Another down season would leave the impression that this program, no matter who’s coaching or who’s playing in what arena, has become a continuing mediocrity.
“You saw things tonight that are very important in building back what was a very proud program,” Gregory said, and you did. And for inspiration, Jackets of today had only to look at the Jackets of yesteryear gathered under this roof Friday.
More than 100 old Jackets took the new floor at halftime, and there were so many of them that they nearly ringed the court. “Tonight is a celebration of the past,” Cremins told the crowd, “but more importantly the beginning of a new era.”
Earlier, the old Jackets had been feted at a reception, and you could stock a pretty good team in the NBA Senior League — not that the NBA has such a thing, but let’s pretend — with the talent on hand. Said Gregory: “You see Kenny Anderson, John Salley, Tommy Hammonds, Duane Ferrell, Roger Kaiser … you know you’re in a special place.”
Standing next to Anderson in the back of the room was Bruce Dalrymple, Cremins’ breakthrough recruit. Someone said, “I remember that steal you made in the (1985) ACC final against …
“Kenny Smith,” Dalrymple said, and the deft flick-from-behind against the great North Carolina guard was the signature moment of a signature game.
Indeed, memories were once Georgia Tech’s stock in trade: From the Mark Price jumper at N.C. State to James Forrest’s Miracle in Milwaukee; from Scott’s astonishing steal-and-trey in front of Dean Smith to Anderson’s jumper at/after the buzzer against Michigan State in the Superdome;
from Will Bynum’s whirling banker against Nevada in the Sweet Sixteen to the same Bynum’s winning layup in the Final Four against Oklahoma State … back in the day, the wonders rarely ceased.
It’s far too early to know if Gregory and these Jackets can lift Georgia Tech to similar heights. But any coach will tell you it’s easier to rekindle a fire than to try to make a winner of a program that has never done a thing. “We talk about putting on that jersey,” Gregory said, “and treating it with the respect it deserves.”
Georgia Tech basketball used to mean something. On a night when the new Jackets took their first step into the future, we were reminded just how special college basketball can be. “Kind of a storybook day,” Gregory called it, and it was — Book 2, Chapter 1, Page 1.
By Mark Bradley