NEW YORK – It’s been two years since Kyle Smith sported a suit while coaching a basketball game.
“But I’m breaking one out (Tuesday) night,” the third-year Washington State coach said. “I want to pay homage to the mecca.”
Smith is referring to perhaps the most iconic venue in sports – Madison Square Garden, which played host Tuesday night to an NIT semifinal between the Cougars and Texas A&M, won by the Aggies 72-56.
“You try to play within the team, but there’s going to be some nervousness and excitement,” Smith said. “The NBA guys, they don’t make it easy. They talk about ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena.’ Kobe had 60 here and whatever, all kinds of great games. You kinda gotta talk about that legend (of MSG).”
It was a balancing act this week for the Cougars, who enjoyed the New York City experience while keeping focused on the task at hand – hoping to extend their stay in the Big Apple. With a victory, WSU would have faced Xavier at MSG in the NIT championship game on Thursday.
The Cougars had plenty of support .
“It’s a homecoming for quite a few guys,” Smith said. “It gives us a little motivation.”
WSU’s staff features NYC flavor. Smith spent six years at the helm of Columbia’s program, 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 blew up with messages after WSU punched its ticket to New York with a blowout of BYU last week.
“They were like, ‘Welcome back to New York,’ ” he said. “I can’t tell you how many I had.”
Phelps was born in Staten Island and grew up in Queens, starring at prep power Christ the King in the late 1980s and early ’ 90s while competing with and against a multitude of future high-major and professional players in one of the nation’s premier hoops hotbeds.
“At that time, it was huge. Every game was a battle,” said Phelps, who led the Royals to the New York State title in 1989. “No matter who you played against in the city, it was like all eyes were on that game. It was always packed. We were the first game ever on SportsChannel. That’s how huge it was back in the ’90s.”
Phelps earned a McDonald’s All-American nod before a prosperous college career at North Carolina, which included a national championship in 1993.
A lifelong New York Knicks fan, Phelps has visited MSG to watch a few NBA games over the years. As a Tar Heel, he played there a couple of times but had never taken the floor as a coach at the Garden before Tuesday.
Most of his family members still reside in the NYC metro. Phelps owns a home in Harlem and lives there during offseasons and recruiting trips to the East Coast.
“I’m very grateful to be here,” said Phelps, who began his coaching career with stints at Fordham in New York City and Monmouth in New Jersey before joining Smith at Columbia.
“Coaching at WSU, people from the East Coast don’t get a chance to see us. If we’re on TV, it’s usually late.
“Actually being here in Madison Square Garden, ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena,’ and for them to come to a game and see us in person is huge for me and my family.”
Three other WSU staffers are connected to the NYC metropolitan area. Assistant John Andrzejek, a New York native, graduated from and coached at Columbia. Anthony Lorenzo, the Cougars’ coordinator of operations, is from Piscataway, New Jersey, a southwestern suburb of the metro. He assisted at Division III Rutgers-Newark. Grad manager Steve Frankoski played at Columbia and hails from Florham Park, New Jersey – just west of Newark.
Standout sophomore guard TJ Bamba grew up in the Bronx before moving to Denver in his teenage years.
“GET ME BACK HOME,” he tweeted after WSU topped BYU in the NIT to qualify for the Final Four.
The majority of WSU’s players had never been to NYC before this week. It’s been a trip to remember.
“It’s a definite bonus for them,” Phelps said. “Making it to this point is an accomplishment. … To get to this point in the postseason is huge for our guys and the biggest thing for them is having the opportunity to win something.
“Our guys are locked in and focused. We’ve been on the road for like 10 days and still got it done. Being in New York is the icing on the cake.”
The Cougars’ support staffers set the team up with tickets to Sunday’s Brooklyn Nets-Charlotte Hornets game at the Barclays Center. WSU even had its own section roped off. The Cougars watched star Nets guard Kyrie Irving’s return to the court and standout Hornets guard LaMelo Ball’s dazzling performance in Charlotte’s win.
“It was a big-time deal for our guys,” Smith said.
Smith is family friends with Nets guard Joe Harris, who is from Chelan, Washington, near where Smith’s wife, Katie, was raised.
“Joey didn’t answer my texts,” Smith said, laughing.
The Nets opened their practice facility to the Cougars on Monday afternoon. WSU conducted a training session the day prior at the Basketball City courts in Manhattan where they ran into an NYC legend.
Acclaimed recording artist Jadakiss happened to be working on his game with some friends. Phelps, being a staunch fan of the rapper, introduced himself before practice. Jadakiss was still playing pickup by the time WSU’s practice ended.
“So I went over there and said, ‘You mind taking a picture with the team?’ ” Phelps said. “He was like, ‘I was going to ask y’all myself.’
“It’s fortunate you run into people like that in the city.”
In the downtime, the Cougars have had opportunities to sightsee in Times Square and Central Park to “get a feel of the vibrance of the city, the people, the action, the activity,” Smith said.
“It’s quite a bit different than Pullman.”
It’s been a rewarding and memorable experience, but the Cougars were unable to reach the program’s first NIT championship appearance.
WSU coaches say the players have handled themselves with professionalism in the Big Apple.
“We tell our guys that, coming to New York City, there’s gonna be a lot of distractions,” Phelps said.
“You take it as a business trip and stay focused …”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.