Welcome back, NCAA Tournament. My, how big you have grown.
It’s been 53 years since Madison Square Garden hosted the Big Dance, and this Friday, the Madness returns to the game’s biggest stage as Sweet 16 teams Virginia, Michigan State, Iowa State and UConn make the long-awaited pilgrimage to the Mecca of Basketball.
As Marty Glickman would open his famous broadcasts of the doubleheaders: “Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the basketball capital of the world.”
Since that last first-round tripleheader at the old building on Eighth Ave. between 49th and 50th in 1961, the NCAA Tournament has flourished to astronomical heights, expanding from 24 teams to 68 and filling the coffers of the NCAA with $11 billion over 14 years in its current television contract with CBS and Turner.
Maybe the late Garden impresario and Knicks president Ned Irish was on to something.
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It is a legend that grows with every telling, but it never fails to entertain.
Irish, a reporter for the World Telegram and part-time publicity director for the NFL’s Giants, goes to Manhattan College one evening in 1933 to cover a basketball game between the Jaspers and City College.
Upon arriving at the gym, Irish finds the doors locked. The game is sold out and no one else is being let in. So the intrepid Irish, who is in his late 20s, crawls through a small window, ripping his best pair of pants in the process.
This struggle to get into a tiny, overflowing gymnasium turns on the promoter light bulb for Irish: College basketball is too big for these little gyms. It’s ready for something bigger.
So Irish sells an idea to Madison Square Garden president Gen. John Reed Kilpatrick, who had been looking for ideas following a few successful college basketball events at the Garden during the previous few years. And thus is born the idea of the college basketball doubleheader, which became an immediate success that would make the Garden the center of the basketball world for decades to come and the forerunner of the National Invitation Tournament, which was held at the Garden for the first time in 1938. The NCAA Tournament began humbly the next year and made its way to the Garden in 1943, where the tourney took place in some form for the better part of 19 years. This Golden Era of college basketball at the Garden solidified it as the Mecca of Basketball.
While the NIT has been a mainstay at the Garden for 76 years, the NCAA returns to the World’s Most Famous Arena for the first time in 53 years and the first time for an Eastern Regional in 62 years.
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If Irish was the visionary for big time college basketball at the Garden, John Goldner helped set it in motion.
A graduate of NYU, Goldner helped book the first college doubleheader under Irish on Dec. 29, 1934. The twin bill, which was played before more than 16,000 patrons, featured Westminster and St. John’s and a matchup that would become a staple at the Garden for the next two decades, NYU vs. Notre Dame. As the doubleheaders grew in popularity, Goldner’s early role helped formulate the first major postseason tournament, the NIT in 1938.
“Let me just tell you that there was nobody more important to college basketball in New York than John Goldner,” says Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight, who forged friendships with Goldner, Joe Lapchick and Clair Bee during his time at West Point. “John was very instrumental in the development of the NIT over the years and the doubleheaders that were a huge thing. He was not just for the Garden and New York, but for giving teams the chance to play in New York.”
When Irish became president of the Knicks, Goldner returned from serving in World War II to become the NBA club’s business manager and would soon take over all the bookings for the Garden, especially the college doubleheaders, which lured teams from all over the country to face the New York schools that basically called the Garden home.
“(Irish) was a guy that was major domo of the Garden. He kind of had his finger in a lot,” says Knight, who, following his days coaching Army, always made sure his Indiana and later his Texas Tech teams came through the Garden as often as they could. “The guy that was really the guts behind it, in terms of making the teams comfortable was John Goldner.”
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The smoky haze. The crowd barking right in the players’ ears. The packed houses. The obstructed views.
“The college games always had preference at MSG. The doubleheader, 19,000 people in that smoke-filled area at MSG, and it was a smoke-filled arena,” said Ron Nadell, one of the two surviving members of the 1950 CCNY NIT and NCAA champions and a star at Erasmus Hall before that. “Those were the good old days. Part of the charm of the old place was the fans were almost on the court. They were so close to the court. It was fun times.”
The charm could only be equaled by the constant flow of SRO crowds that packed the old building for college basketball.
Basketball was the city’s game, and the Garden was its showcase. Pro ball played second fiddle, the Knicks often playing their home games at the 69th Regiment Armory.
“Madison Square Garden was the biggest thing for us,” says Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes, a star player at DeWitt Clinton HS in the Bronx, then for NYU in the mid-1940s before becoming one of the great pioneers of the early NBA. “Every game was a sellout when I played at NYU. Most games were a hot ticket because of City College, LIU, St. John’s, the rivalries they engendered.”
The NIT was an instant hit in the city and around the country, so much so that the fledgling NCAA Tournament looked to capitalize on its popularity by staging its Eastern Regional and championship game there in March of 1943.
After both tournaments were completed, the Garden staged the Red Cross Benefit Game between the two champions — the NCAA’s Wyoming beating the NIT’s St. John’s, giving the NCAA a little more credibility.
The next year, Utah’s Blitz Kids bowed in their NIT opener, received a late bid to the NCAA Tournament when a fatal car accident forced Arkansas out. The Utes played their way back to the Garden by winning the Western Regional in Kansas City. Utah beat Dartmouth on Herb Wilkinson’s shot in the waning seconds of overtime for the title and then beat NIT champ St. John’s in the second Red Cross Benefit.
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In 1944, Oklahoma A&M’s Henry Iba introduced New York to the first dominant 7-footer in basketball history — Bob Kurland — who led the Aggies to a fourth-place finish in the NIT.
“All I remember is walking into that locker room and seeing (Kurland) bending over tying his shoelace,” says Wat Misaka, a 5-7 point guard for Utah’s NCAA champions who scrimmaged A&M before the NIT got started. “His rear end came up to about my eyes.”
In 1945, Kurland, known as “Foothills,” came into his own, and the Aggies, with Hall of Fame pitcher and fellow Okie Carl Hubbell cheering from the bench, ran roughshod through the NCAA Western Regional, setting up the final against NYU and a 16-year-old, 6-6 Schayes at the Garden.
In the Eastern Regional final against Ohio State, Schayes sparked a late rally from a 10-point deficit to help NYU win in overtime. The Daily News called it “the most rousing, raving, roof-raising event at the Garden in many a year.”
But against the Aggies, “The City of Skyscrapers had to bow to the biggest basketball being ever to trod the Garden floor” in Kurland, who scored 23 points in the 49-45 victory.
“We preferred to move the ball and get up and down the court, but with Kurland, they were very structured and always would set up in a halfcourt,” Schayes says. “I don’t think they ever ran. They just ran everything through Kurland, big as a mountain he appeared to me.”
In the final Red Cross Benefit, the Garden crowd was witness to a clash of giants between Kurland and 6-10 George Mikan of NIT champ DePaul. The two played evenly before Mikan fouled out and A&M prevailed, 52-44.
Kurland ended his college career the next season by edging North Carolina, 43-40, in the final. “Bob Kurland was crowned the best basketball team in the nation” quipped the Daily News as he scored 23 points and the Aggies became the NCAA’s first back-to-back champions.
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After George Kaftan, Bob Cousy and a bunch of New York high school stars propelled Holy Cross to the 1947 NCAA championship, Adolph Rupp’s vaunted Kentucky team finally broke through for its first national title in 1948, the first of three crowns in four years for the Wildcats, all originating at the Garden. The only hiccup for Kentucky was the 89-50 drubbing by CCNY in the NIT quarterfinals during the Beavers’ magical “Grand Slam” season in 1950.
The Daily News said “only 16,174 turned out” to watch Kentucky’s Fabulous Five, which included Alex Groza, Ralph Beard and Wah Wah Jones, crush Baylor, 58-42, in the 1948 final at the Garden to finish the season 36-3. That summer, the Fab Five followed Rupp to the London Olympics, winning the gold medal.
Rupp’s 1949 and ’51 teams won the Eastern Regional at the Garden en route to national titles, the latter being the last regional final staged at the Garden until this Sunday’s matchup that will determine a Final Four entrant.
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The point-shaving scandal of 1951 changed the city basketball landscape and began the slow decline of the Garden’s participation in the NCAA Tournament.
With members of the great CCNY team, LIU, Manhattan and NYU involved — as well as Kentucky and Bradley — the impact was felt most in the city, which was the epicenter of the nationwide scandal. A stigma was fairly or unfairly attached to the Garden for housing so many teams caught up in the scandal and the NCAA began to distance itself.
That year marked the final regional played at the Garden before this weekend, although the first-round triple- and quadruple-headers provided plenty of drama from 1955-61.
In the interim, the tournament’s meteoric rise as one of the nation’s major sport events came about with tales of Magic vs. Bird, Michael Jordan, N.C. State, Villanova and Christian Laettner.
The NCAA Tournament is back, and as Garden executive vice-president Joel Fisher said on Wednesday: “We’ve had many conversations about bringing the tournament back in the near future.”
It’s a perfect fit and a long time coming.
“There’s magic about this building,” retired Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun — who won seven Big East championships with UConn, including one in each of his three NCAA championship seasons, at the Garden — said on Wednesday at a special Garden press conference. “Even though I may not seem it — I’m a romantic. . . . Madison Square Garden and basketball is a great romance. This place needs college basketball. College basketball needs the Garden.”