By Jason Schott - Daly Dose of Hoops Contributor The Pitt Panthers will be coming to Barclays Center for the Legends Classic on Monday and Tuesday nights, and it will be a homecoming for one of their coaches.
Pitt Assistant Coach Barry Rohrssen is a Brooklyn native, growing up in Park Slope. He is very excited to return to his hometown and said, "In a way, it's like life coming full circle. I have been in there for some Nets games and I was actually at their first preseason game last year...It's a bit of a different feeling in there, but they put together a tremendous venue...It will be exciting to be participating in that building and certainly special for someone like myself who is from the borough of Brooklyn."
He went to Xaverian High School. He could recount memories from his youth in Bay Ridge, "How many times I passed there (Fort Hamilton High School) when I was running cross country and playing summer leagues in the park behind Fort Hamilton High School and I used to live on Shore Road when I used to coach at St. Francis College."
Rohrssen played for St. Francis College from 1981-83. He returned to St. Francis to be an assistant coach from 1993-95. He arrived at Pitt in 1999 and was there for seven years as an assistant coach, on Ben Howland's staff for four years and three years under Jamie Dixon, who was promoted to Head Coach when Howland left for UCLA. In 2006, Rohrssen accepted the head coaching job at Manhattan, and he had a successful run as every one of his four-year players graduated, and his recruits went on to a 21-win season and a postseason berth in 2011-12 after he was dismissed. Last season, he worked in the Portland Trail Blazers organization for their D-League team, the Idaho Stampede. There was a recent story in Basketball Times about Rohrssen, "and my quote to them is 'what's old is new again.' I'm back in a place where I'm very familiar. Having the opportunity to coach in a new conference is exciting."
On the changes in Park Slope from when he was a kid, Rohrssen said, "Unbelievable, I know what that word means, gentrification, don't know if I can spell it. The gentrification of the neighborhood is overwhelming, and Brooklyn in general, in its entirety, for someone who loves Brooklyn as much as myself, it's so wonderful to see the gentrification in the borough."
The Nets and Barclays Center have changed the attitude of Brooklyn, and Rohrssen says, "It's not just a big-league city, it's a major-league borough now. The Barclays Center provides a great venue to all the local teams in and around New York, but also has opened up the possibility for great programs around the country to come into the borough of Brooklyn and play, like when you look at all the teams that have come in there right, Kentucky, is Michigan State coming in this weekend? (for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic), Connecticut opened up a game there this year with Maryland. What that arena does is help promote the local basketball in New York and also brings some of the marquee programs from around the country into the great borough of Brooklyn." When told that last year's Legends Classic at Barclays Center featured UCLA, Rohrssen said, "Think about it, a program with as many national championships as UCLA, and they are accepting and flattered to play in the borough of Brooklyn."
Pitt will play Texas Tech in the opening game of the Legends Classic on Monday night. Texas Tech is coached by Tubby Smith, who Rohrssen respects a lot. "A coach with a national championship under his belt. We've crossed paths, he's a former president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, of which I'm a proud member of. He's not just a good coach...As good a coach he is, he's an even better person, which is as high a complement as you want to give someone. He's a championship coach and a championship person as well." Pitt will then face the winner of Houston-Stanford on Tuesday night.
This is Pitt's first season in the ACC, moving from the Big East. "It's synonymous with the best basketball in the country. There have been times where people have said, 'oh, the Big East is the best team in the country this year or the ACC,' you know it's been debated which is the better of the conferences, whether it's the ACC or the Big East, but now it isn't a debate which is the best conference. To think of what the ACC had, and now you add Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Notre Dame to that." The coaches of those teams are quite impressive, with Dixon at Pitt, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, and Mike Brey at Notre Dame. "You have two guys that have been National Coaches of the Year and another guy that's a National Championship coach.That's just coming in to a conference that already has two Hall of Famers. Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) is a Hall of Famer, Roy Williams (North Carolina) is a Hall of Famer, and now you're adding another Hall of Famer in Jim Boeheim."
On reuniting with Dixon, Rohrssen said, "Jamie Dixon has the most or as many wins as anybody has coaching their first ten years in the NCAA, and New York has been a second home to Pitt. We have had tremendous success at Madison Square Garden. Players like playing here because we try to epitomize what a team should look like, and this is a program built on 'we' guys, not 'me' guys." Rohrssen said something distinguishes Pitt from other schools. "One of the things about our team is that there is a mutual respect amongst all the guys and sounds kind of cliche-ish, but we don't put any I's in the word 'team.' You're looking at a group of guys that are unselfish and that play together." "I brought two Brooklynites to Pitt, Chris Taft and Levance Fields, (both Xaverian grads), and we also have a player that's on our roster right now from Brooklyn, Derrick Randall."
On recruiting players to Pittsburgh and features that make it like Brooklyn, Rohrssen said, "You have similarities in that you do have neighborhoods. It's a place that our recruits, kids from metropolitan areas, feel comfortable because there is concrete under their feet. In Brooklyn, there are a lot more pizzerias on each block, but there are enough here to keep you happy. Now if only we can get a Totonno's out here...My buddy owns the place, Larry Ciminieri and his mom Cookie. It's right in Coney Island." Totonno's is located on Neptune Avenue, and re-opened in May after suffering damage from Hurricane Sandy.
This turned the conversation, as it naturally does with most Brooklynites, to dining, and Rohrssen talked about his favorite spots. "You got the roast beef sandwiches at Brennan and Carr's on Avenue U and Nostrand, been around forever, my buddy Eddie Sullivan owns that place, it's kind of an institution there. Then you got Skinflints Pub on 79th Street in Bay Ridge for hamburgers. Gerard Bell, he owns that place there. Then you go to Williamsburg, Greenpoint, you got Bamonte's restaurant, great Italian place, Anthony Bamonte owns that place. Then, of course, of course, Peter Luger's Steakhouse. Those are some of my local stops when I'm back."
"Those are without a doubt some of the better places. Bamonte's has been around forever; it is the oldest family-owned Italian restaurant in New York City. Peter Luger's is the oldest steakhouse. These places have withstood the test of time." For dessert, "L&B Spumoni Gardens, for their spumoni."