Miami coach Jim Larranaga, who is as NYC as NYC can get, will get his chance to show about 20,000 fans in the City that you can return home again. The Bronx-born coach will get his first opportunity to enjoy New York in March and possibly April as a coach in the most famous college basketball building in America.
Tennis has Wimbledon. Soccer has Wembley. Baseball has Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. For college basketball, the Mecca is simply known as "The Garden".
"When I come to New York, I like to have a good dinner, take in a Broadway show and do some shopping with my wife," Larranaga said Monday afternoon by phone in an exclusive with the State of the U. "But this time, there is no time for any of that. None of that is on the agenda. This is a business trip and we are here to win a national championship."
Frank Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board since before Tonye Jekiri was born, used to sing that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Well, Larranaga has proven that adage to be true. After ruling the Courts of Park Chester in the Bronx, he made it to Providence College and then went on to a very successful coaching career that currently has the Miami Hurricanes playing in the National Invitational Tournament Semifinals.
Larranaga grew up playing ball in the Bronx. His friends assembled at a park simply known as "The East." It was place that was open from 9 am to 9 pm and you could usually find little Jimmy Larranaga there playing with the bigger kids as he honed his skills and developed his shooting touch.
"It was great growing up there, we played from 9 to 9 in the summer time," Larranaga said. "All my friends from the neighborhood would meet there, we would just say, "Meet at Down the East" and everyone knew what time and what we would be doing there."
During his stint at the east, Larranaga learned enough game to impress Jack Curran, the coach at the Archbishop Malloy High School in Queens where Larranaga would later attend. He went on a full scholarship, which was big in those days as high school recruiting was common place.
"I took the Q44 bus an hour and a half each way to get to and from school," Larranaga said. "When we had practice, I might not get home until after 9. It was a long ride, but I did it each day and it was the happiest time of my childhood."
While in school, Larranaga attended the Garden once to see his brother Bob play a game for St. Johns University. He would later return there twice while at Providence as a student, once against a Lew Alcindor soon-to- be-renamed Kareem Abdul Jabbar-led UCLA squad and the second time, in his final game as a collegian, where his Friars lost to North Carolina, coached by a young Dean Smith and led by George Karl. Larranaga would eventually honor Smith by wearing Carolina Blue after his death.
While Larranaga might appear to be giddy about having his team play in the Garden and he has his first opportunity to lead a team as a head coach in the building, Larranaga is more concerned with winning a first national title for Miami and it does not matter that it the NIT. A title is a title and it something that Miami has never won, outside of the conference title that it won two years ago.
"I have been instilling in the team that is not important who you play and it is not important where you play. If you notice, we seem to play better on the road," Larranaga said. "When it is over you can look back and say it was nice to be in the Garden, but we tell the team that you have to play your best, wherever you play and beat a Temple team that was one place out of the NCAA tournament this season."
Larranaga was rooting for his team during the Alabama game and then at Richmond as he knew that it was his ultimate desire to coach in this game, in this arena. However, he tried not to let them see the emotion that was wrapped up in this trip. His wife, also a New Yorker, gave the team added motivation when she told Jim that she wanted him to take her to New York this week. Larranaga knew that the only way he could do that was to win the bracket and advance to the semifinal game at the Garden.
"This team never gave up and they looked deep within themselves, even when they were down 18 at Richmond, I knew that we would win that game,'" Larranaga said. "It was important for us to play well until the very end and we kept battling. This team is very resilient."
It also did not hurt knowing that the Coach was getting added pressure from the wife and he passed that on to his team to perform at their very best.
"The team knew that my wife wanted to go to New York and that this was the only way we were going to go," Larranaga said. "They took it upon themselves to win these games and play good basketball. We still have a long way to go to win this championship."
Coach Larranaga said that he has driven into each player that they have to remain positive, no matter what happens and that you have to look forward to playing in these games and to give it their all.
"We have to focus on why we are here and what our mission is," Larranaga said. "We are playing against a very good Temple team and we have to take care of business."