Luke DeCock

DeCock: As ACC changes, will tournament wind up in Madison Square Garden?

In her in seat above center court, Christine Abernethy eagerly awaited N.C. State’s arrival on Friday, not for the first time in her life. Surrounded by two dozen members of her family, Abernathy was ready for her 60th ACC tournament.

She’s been to every one. Every single one. Find another event that demands that kind of loyalty. Ask her to pick a favorite. Try it.

“I couldn’t,” said Abernathy, who lives in Newton. “I love them all.”

Eighty-seven years old, still as fired up for the Wolfpack’s game against Virginia as her granddaughter in the next seat, she’s a woman who considered Everett Case “a dear friend.”

That used to mean something around here. Shaking the hand of someone like Case or Dean Smith was the ACC equivalent of shaking Frank Sinatra’s hand, a secret password to an exclusive fraternity. What will that mean, if anything, in a decade?

With the Big East as we know it imploding and the ACC continuing to morph from a grouping of philosophically-aligned southeastern schools into a more diverse collection that spans the entire Atlantic coast, there’s no avoiding a single, pressing question: If, or perhaps when, will the ACC tournament be played in New York at Madison Square Garden?

The debate is the collision of the new and old ACC, with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim mocking Greensboro with the same arriviste elitism of any transplant from upstate New York complaining about being unable to find a decent bagel in Cary.

“I don’t blame (Boeheim) for politicking, for putting in his two cents’ worth,” former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said. “And it’s valuable. But those schools that are just coming in, they know what they’re coming into. They know that. It’s not likely to change. This is the heart of college basketball, right here. That’s not going to change.”

For decades, the ACC tournament served as a basketball rebuttal to that arrogance and everything Big Eastern: first in Raleigh, then in Greensboro, both as far from Manhattan as possible in both philosophy and temperament.

The schools coming to the ACC have no time for that. They’re not interested in what the ACC is or once was, and it’s been a long time since the tournament was played under a haze of cigarette smoke, from tobacco grown just down the road.

What it once was, it isn’t anymore.

Nine years ago, this arena was the site of the final nine-team tournament, with eight of the nine fan bases packed into the building on Friday and staying for the weekend. Miami and Virginia Tech arrived the next season, and Boston College after that, along with four games on Thursday. With further expansion and a fifth day of games on the near horizon, it won’t be again.

So fighting to keep the tournament in Greensboro may be fighting to preserve something that already has been lost, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the fight.

“As long as it stays in Greensboro, or in proximity to Greensboro, this tournament will live and flourish,” Odom said. “Every mile that you get from Greensboro, the challenges increase exponentially. I understand why those schools in the outlying geographic footprint push hard for the tournament to be near their home. I understand that totally.

“But part of being a conference is doing what’s best for the conference. And having been part of this conference for over 30 years, I have yet to see the wisdom in moving this tournament out of the middle, the core of the conference.”

Still, an ACC tournament in New York wouldn’t be an ACC tournament. That doesn’t make the ACC tournament better or worse. It just makes it something different, and it’s been something different for a while now.

“Wherever it is, you have to play, whether it’s here, whether it’s in New York, whether it’s in Florida,” said former North Carolina star Phil Ford, a Rocky Mount native. “That’s the nature of the beast these days. Every league is expanding, and you’re bringing in teams from different states. It wouldn’t be fair just to have the ACC tournament in the state of North Carolina.”

So play it in New York, at Madison Square Garden. Christine Abernethy is game: “As long as I’m able.”

It’ll always be the ACC tournament to her, wherever it is.