“Once you have lived in New York and made it your home, no place else is good enough.” —John Steinbeck
I admit it. I was a hater. A skeptic. A Midwesterner. Move the Big Ten Tournament to New York? Why? The decision touched rattled two characteristics that abide in any decent person from America’s heartland: an overdeveloped reliance on commonsense that drifts towards complacency, and an underdeveloped sense of our own adequacy.
We’ve always had it in Indy or Chicago. It’s hard to get to New York. We should keep doing what we’ve always done. Is the Midwest not good enough?
But it was another Midwestern instinct that carried the day for me: thriftiness. Tickets were cheap and I had a buddy I could stay with. I had never been to the Big Ten Tournament. So I hopped on a flight. Five days and thirteen games later, I now hold an opinion I never would have imagined a week ago. The Big Ten has to come back to New York.
The venue was fantastic. Madison Square Garden is not only the world’s most famous arena, but it’s also the world’s best-designed arena. In terms of sight lines, the layout of restrooms and concession stands, and production value, I’ve never seen better at any college or NBA stadium. Everyone from the ticket guy to the ushers to the concession stand girl was cool. (I asked an usher which events at the Garden brought out the best fans to deal with and which brought out the worst. He said he loved Billy Joel fans and hated the people at the Westminster Dog Show.) And we sold the place out.
But as good as Madison Square Garden was, it wasn’t the Garden that changed my mind. You could drop the Garden in the middle of a rural Wisconsin cornfield, and I’d still have the same opinion: the Big Ten has to come back to New York.
And it’s not because this tournament was successful, but because of what it represents. Mark Titus can warn against rewarding the Big Ten for making a bad decision by betraying its roots, but I’m here to argue that New York can actually fulfill a devotion to those roots like no place else on Earth.
First: patriotism. Here in the Midwest, we love America, damn it. And any good romantic story about coming to America starts on a boat steaming towards New York harbor, where a lady stands in green, holding aloft the torch of liberty. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The Big Ten Tournament coming to New York let Big Ten fans have that quintessential American experience. Surrounded by strangers in a strange land, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds and smells, wondering if you made the right decision to leave your homeland behind and come here. And then you see it: a man on your train in a Wisconsin jacket. Here is someone from the Old Country. Sure, it’s a different part of the Old Country, but you speak the same language. Can you believe the season Bates-Diop is having? And then you ask: Do you know if there are any more of us around here?
New York is probably the most diverse place in the country in every sense of the word but one: fashion. New Yorkers wear plain black clothing. Or if not black then brown or dark gray. Through city block after city block, it’s one hot mess of stylish but drably-dressed humanity. But then you get to 28th street and you see an Iowa hat. On 29th, a Minnesota jacket, then a Michigan t-shirt. On 30th, a group of blue-clad fans in matching WE ARE shirts, a kid in candy-striped cream and crimson pants, and a lady with Chief Illiniwek painted on her cheek. And you realize—this is us, we diehard Big Ten basketball fans, coming together as a community. Only once a year do our fourteen schools, like the twelve tribes of Israel, converge to worship together. Only at the Big Ten Tournament. And only the crucible of New York City can fuse us all together to make us one. It’s the melting pot that starts as the home of no one and becomes home for everyone.
Second: nostalgia. What Big Ten graduate can’t remember their first tour of campus as a high school junior or senior? The buildings were beautiful. The people were ambitious. But most of all, there was an overwhelming sense that the place was BIG. At your high school, everybody knew you, and you could do OK just by showing up. Here, it was different. You had to make your name, find your people, forge your own path ahead.
“Isn’t it too huge?” your relatives would ask. “Do you want to be one of fifty thousand?”
For me, and for most Big Ten graduates, the answer was, “Absolutely.”
Having the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis is like reliving high school. It’s familiar, safe, and you’re a big deal in the whole place. Having the Big Ten Tournament in New York is like reliving college. College, if you’re living life the right way, is better than high school in every meaningful way.
I love the Midwest. I love the people, the places, the culture, even the weather. The Big Ten should never abandon its roots. But the Big Ten coming to New York was a very, very good thing. We should come back in the future. There’s absolutely no substitute.