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Dave Gavitt, Big East founder, basketball Hall of Famer; at 73

Dave Gavitt, then the Celtics’ executive vice president, comforted guard Dee Brown (center) and forward Rick Fox during an emotional press conference following the sudden death of team captain Reggie Lewis in 1993. Dave Gavitt, then the Celtics’ executive vice president, comforted guard Dee Brown (center) and forward Rick Fox during an emotional press conference following the sudden death of team captain Reggie Lewis in 1993. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press/File)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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Dave Gavitt’s career was full of landmark achievements. Yesterday, many reflected on the life of the basketball giant, who died Friday at 73 after a lengthy illness.

Mr. Gavitt was a founder of the Big East Conference, perhaps the most dominant college basketball league of the past 30 years. He helped formulate the 1992 US Olympic Team, dubbed the “Dream Team’’ because it consisted of NBA players for the first time, and he served as a member of the Celtics’ front office from 1990 to 1994.

Mr. Gavitt also guided Providence College to the 1973 Final Four, leading a star-studded squad that featured Ernie DiGregorio, Marvin Barnes, and Kevin Stacom. As athletic director at Providence in 1979, Mr. Gavitt and several other northeastern college administrators created the Big East to keep local college talent from leaving the region.

The Big East became the most powerful and talent-rich conference in college basketball, producing NBA stars and NCAA champions. Georgetown, Connecticut, Syracuse, and Villanova went on to win national titles.

“I saw Dave maybe three weeks ago and his mind was sharp,’’ said Dee Rowe, a former UConn coach and Mr. Gavitt’s assistant on the 1980 US Olympic Team, which boycotted the Moscow Games. “He was an incredible friend and gave me the greatest honor I could ever have, being his assistant. Dave came to work with me at Worcester Academy maybe 50 years ago. He was so bright, the most humble guy in the world for all of his greatness. He was never taken with himself.’’

Rowe recalls traveling with Mr. Gavitt to Leningrad with a US National Team that featured future Celtic great Robert Parish. The two, admittedly nervous being behind the Iron Curtain, dived on each other walking down the street when they heard what they believed were gunshots. It was merely the sound of fireworks.

“He could have been anything in the world he wanted to be and he made such a difference with anyone he touched,’’ Rowe said. “His forming of the Big East, it changed our lives. He was a brilliant coach, a brilliant coach. To me, he is one of the greatest people to coach our game. This is a sad day.’’

A Rhode Island native, Mr. Gavitt played at Dartmouth College, helping the Big Green to the Ivy League title before becoming an assistant at Providence in 1962 under mentor Joe Mullaney. He returned to Dartmouth for two years as head coach before returning to lead the Friars in 1969. He took Providence to new heights four years later. The Friars went 27-4 in 1972-73, losing to Memphis State in a national semifinal.

“He was a great coach, a little bit like when I met Red Auerbach, he had that unique ability to motivate you and give you confidence,’’ said Stacom, who averaged 17.8 points on that 1972-73 team and went on to play for the Celtics. “He was a very strong, positive personality. A lot of coaches wouldn’t have let us play the way he let us play. We had a lot of great players and he just made the whole game enjoyable. We had a lot of fun going to practice every day. He really cultivated us with that team mentality.

“We had a number of characters on that team and if we had more of an insecure guy, it would have been a disaster. He led us in a different kind of way because he treated us like men and we really responded to that,’’ he said.

Mr. Gavitt was named commissioner of the Big East from its inception in 1979 until 1990, when he joined the Celtics during a time of transition from the glory days of the Larry Bird era to what they hoped would be the Reggie Lewis era, but Lewis died suddenly in July 1993. Mr. Gavitt also served as president of the NCAA Foundation and chairman of the board for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame until 2003.

Mr. Gavitt was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2006. Providence named its court at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center after him as a tribute.

“Dave will be missed incredibly by me as a mentor, confidant and friend,’’ said UConn coach Jim Calhoun in a statement posted on the school’s website. “He was always such a big picture guy and he has done more for the sport of basketball than anyone in my lifetime. His impact on athletics in the Eastern part of the country is immeasurable and the Big East Conference, created through his vision and foresight, has taken all of us to a place that we never could have imagined.’’

Big East schools Syracuse and Pittsburgh have applied recently for membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“It is especially sad,’’ Calhoun said, “considering today is certainly one of those days, with everything in the news about our league, I would love nothing more than to call him and ask him simply, ‘What do you think and what should we do.’ Sadly, we cannot do that.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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