NEW YORK — It’s been two years since Kyle Smith wore a suit while coaching a basketball game.
“But I break one (Tuesday) night,” the third-year Washington state coach said. “I want to pay homage to Mecca.”
Smith is referring to perhaps the most iconic venue in the sport – Madison Square Garden, which hosted an NIT semi-final between the Cougars and Texas A&M on Tuesday night, won by the Aggies 72-56.
“You try to play as part of the team, but there’s going to be some nervousness and excitement,” Smith said. “NBA guys, they don’t make it easy. They talk about “the most famous arena in the world”. Kobe had 60 here and whatever, all kinds of great games. You kinda gotta talk about this (MSG) legend. “
It was a balancing act this week for the Cougars, who enjoyed the New York experience while remaining focused on the task at hand — hoping to extend their stay in the Big Apple. With a win, WSU would have faced Xavier at MSG in Thursday’s NIT Championship game.
The Cougars had a lot of support.
“It’s a homecoming for a lot of guys,” Smith said. “It gives us a little motivation.
WSU staff presents a flavor of New York. Smith spent six years running the program at Columbia, located about 7 miles north of MSG.
“I know I’m paying a lot of money for the extra tickets,” Smith said. “A lot of people are asking, so that’s a good sign.”
Assistant Derrick Phelps’ phone exploded with messages after WSU punched his ticket to New York with a blast from BYU last week.
“They were like, ‘Welcome to New York,'” he said. “I can’t tell you how many I had.”
Phelps was born in Staten Island and raised in Queens. .
“In those days, it was huge. Every game was a battle,” said Phelps, who led the Royals to the New York State title in 1989. it was like all eyes were on that game. It was always packed. We were the very first game on SportsChannel. That’s how huge it was in the 90s.”
Phelps earned a McDonald’s All-American nod before a successful college career in North Carolina, which included a national championship in 1993.
A lifelong New York Knicks fan, Phelps has traveled to MSG to watch a few NBA games over the years. As a Tar Heel he played there a few times but had never spoken as a coach at the Garden until Tuesday.
Most of his family members still reside in the New York City subway. Phelps owns a home in Harlem and lives there during offseasons and East Coast recruiting trips.
“I’m very grateful to be here,” said Phelps, who began his coaching career with stints at Fordham in New York and Monmouth in New Jersey before joining Smith at Columbia.
“As a coach at WSU, people on the East Coast don’t get to see us. If we’re on TV, it’s usually late.
“Actually being here in Madison Square Garden, “the most famous arena in the world”, and for them to come to a game and see us in person, is huge for me and my family.”
Three other WSU staff members are connected to the New York metropolitan area. Assistant John Andrzejek, a native of New York, is a Columbia graduate and coach. Anthony Lorenzo, the Cougars’ operations coordinator, hails from Piscataway, New Jersey, a southwest metro suburb. He attended Division III Rutgers-Newark. Graduates manager Steve Frankoski played at Columbia and hails from Florham Park, New Jersey – just west of Newark.
Standout second-year guard TJ Bamba grew up in the Bronx before moving to Denver as a teenager.
“TURN ME HOME,” he tweeted after WSU beat BYU in the NIT to advance to the Final Four.
The majority of WSU players had never been to New York before this week. It was an unforgettable trip.
“It’s a definite bonus for them,” Phelps said. “To get to this point is an accomplishment. … Getting to this stage of the playoffs is huge for our guys and the most important thing for them is to have the opportunity to win something.
“Our guys are locked in and focused. We’ve been on the road for about 10 days and still have. Being in New York is the icing on the cake.
The Cougars support staff prepared the team with tickets to Sunday’s Brooklyn Nets-Charlotte Hornets game at Barclays Center. WSU even had its own cordoned off section. The Cougars watched as the Nets star kept Kyrie Irving on the court and the remarkable Hornets kept LaMelo Ball’s dazzling performance in Charlotte’s win.
“It was a big deal for our guys,” Smith said.
Smith is family friends with Nets guard Joe Harris, who is from Chelan, Wash., near where Smith’s wife, Katie, was raised.
“Joey didn’t respond to my texts,” Smith said with a laugh.
The Nets opened their practice facility to the Cougars on Monday afternoon. WSU held a practice the day before at the Basketball City courts in Manhattan, where they met a New York legend.
Acclaimed artist Jadakiss was working on his game with friends. Phelps, being an avid fan of the rapper, showed up before practice. Jadakiss was still playing pickup when WSU practice ended.
“So I went over there and said, ‘Would you mind taking a picture with the team? said Phelps. “He was like, ‘I was going to ask you myself.’
“It’s lucky you meet people like that in town.”
During downtime, the Cougars had the opportunity to visit Times Square and Central Park to “get a sense of the vibrancy of the city, the people, the action, the activity,” Smith said.
“It’s a little different from Pullman.”
It was a rewarding and memorable experience, but the Cougars fell short of the program’s first NIT championship appearance.
WSU coaches say the players performed professionally in the Big Apple.
“We tell our guys that coming to New York there will be a lot of distractions,” Phelps said.
“You take it as a business trip and stay focused…”