PURCHASE, N.Y. -- In the course of the upcoming college basketball season, dozens of men and women will coach games at Madison Square Garden without so much of a glance toward the rafters.
Such is life when one does something repeatedly. Lip service be damned, do Syracuse's Jim Boeheim or Georgetown's John Thompson III really find themselves awestruck by the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Arena? Do they stare glowingly at the banners honoring Red Holzman and Bill Bradley and Willis Reed?
Pat Scanlon, a 29-year-old Division III coach you have almost certainly never heard of, will stare. He will guide his hand along the railings, study the color of the seats, touch the surface of the court, gaze wistfully at the names dangling from above. He will inhale deeply, hoping the mythical (and pleasantly pretzel-scented) Madison Square Garden air somehow takes up residence in his lungs.
"I could say this is a dream come true," he said. "But this is such a giant dream, I'm not sure I ever really believed it'd happen."
Early last month, while sitting in his office on the campus of Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., Scanlon received a call telling him that the Garden wanted to host the Manhattanville-Purchase College matchup on the night of Dec. 19, following a pair of Division I women's games in the Maggie Dixon Classic. Scanlon's jaw dropped. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "We've been trying to get a game there for years, but never with any luck. I didn't even try this year and they call out of the blue. The timing is crazy."
Across New York, there are undoubtedly thousands of basketball diehards who would love to be in Scanlon's shoes, walking along the MSG sideline, a rolled-up program in one hand, barking out instructions, guiding his players. For the Manhattanville coach, however, a chance to make good at the Garden holds extra significance.
Growing up in the Westchester County town of Bronxville, N.Y., Scanlon would regularly pester his father, Don, to score tickets to see Michael Jordan and the Bulls take on the Knicks. "My dad worked as a stockbroker and he wasn't a basketball fan," said Scanlon. "But he'd make it a point every season of getting Chicago tickets because he knew how much it meant to me." Though years have passed, Scanlon is warmed by the memories of he and his father, sitting side by side, drinking Cokes and eating hot dogs and watching Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley fight and claw (and usually lose) against the hated rivals. "My dad and I had such a strong bond," he said. "Those days are very special to me."
Last January, following a 22-year battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Don died. Though the family knew his passing was near, the news hit Pat like a bag of bricks -- his father was his best friend, his closest confidant, his trusted adviser, his guru. "He had so many side effects through the years, I almost thought he was indestructible," Scanlon said. "Heart failure, lung failure, stroke, another tumor, diabetes, having his pancreas removed. He was easily the strongest, most impressive human being I've ever seen."
When he graduated from Manhattanville with a history degree in 2003, Scanlon landed a job as a clerk at the New York Stock Exchange. It was solid work with a potentially lucrative future -- and he was miserable. Upon telling his father that he was thinking of ditching Wall Street for the (notoriously non-lucrative) world of Division III coaching, Don smiled. "He knew how much I loved basketball," said Scanlon, who started at Manhattanville as an assistant coach and is beginning his seventh season as the head coach. "He wanted me to love what I do."
Now, he does. Unlike the majority of Division III basketball coaches, Scanlon has no interest in moving up the ladder. His thoughts about one day coaching a Duke or Kentucky or UCLA? "Not for me." His irritation over also having to serve as the director of Manhattanville's student fitness center? "Love it," he said. "A chance to do different things." The frustration over having no scholarships and a cassette tape-sized budget? "We recruit creatively," he said. "It's a challenge I enjoy." (Indeed, the Valiants' roster is a geographic hodgepodge, with players from four countries and six states. One, junior guard Felipe Vargas, is about to join Ecuador's national team. Another, junior guard Trevoy Pointer of Dallas, is a Division III All-America candidate).
"Plus," he adds, "when you're at this level you come to appreciate things much more. You see how much work everyone around you puts in, and you want them to succeed because of it. You want their payoff to be special."
For Pat Scanlon, the payoff is a night at Madison Square Garden.
It will be special.