OP-ED Madison Square Garden III: Basketball's Capital

by Rene A. Henry
OP-ED Madison Square Garden III: Basketball's Capital

Seattle, WV (HNN) – It’s basketball tournament time and teams are competing in arenas throughout the country hoping in a few weeks to be crowned the 2011 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion.

In a bygone era, the best teams in the country were invited to play in New York City’s Madison Square Garden -- not for the NCAA championship, but for what was considered the championship – winning the National Invitational Tournament, or NIT. From 1938 until the mid-1950s, the NIT was considered on a par with, if not more prestigious than, the NCAA tournament. The winners of the NIT were hailed by many as the best of the best. (Editor's Note: West Virginia University won the NIT in 1942 and has invited to compete in the tournament many times.)

 

When Madison Square Garden was located on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, and until it was closed in 1968, it was the world’s capital of basketball. It was where New York area colleges played double headers and the New York Knicks anchored professional double headers. The greatest thrill for any basketball player was to play in The Garden. Much changed when the new Madison Square Garden opened February 11, 1968. There are no more college or professional doubleheaders. Gone is the Holiday Classic which treated fans to 12 games in three days. The new Garden also was built over historic Penn Station and destroyed what had been one of the most beautiful railroad passenger terminals in the country.

In the ‘40s and ‘50 there was no television at all. National media coverage of college basketball was very limited. New York City was the home of the three wire services – Associated Press, United Press and International News Services. Seven metropolitan newspapers printed several editions every day. And it was the home to the three radio networks – ABC, CBS and NBC. Television was black-and-white and Pittsburgh was the western most city for live broadcasts. Because of this, college teams from all over the U.S. wanted to play in The Garden. The New York media was primarily responsible for determining which players were named All-American.

At one time teams could play in both the NCAA and NIT tournaments. Duquesne was the first to do so in 1940. NCAA tournament champions Utah in 1944, and Kentucky in 1948, lost their first round games playing in the NIT.

In 1950, City College of New York accomplished perhaps the greatest feat in basketball history, winning both the NIT and the NCAA tournaments. However, one year later the bubble burst when seven players from that team were indicted for shaving points. The betting scandal eventually involved seven schools and 32 players and nearly destroyed college basketball in New York.

In 1970, Marquette, ranked eighth in the country in the final AP poll, rebuffed the NCAA’s bid to protest where it had been placed in the tournament brackets, accepted the NIT’s bid and won the championship. NCAA rules would prohibit this today.

I spent a lot of time in The Garden. During the 1957-1958 season I saw every college and professional double header. On January 5, 1955, I was sports information director at West Virginia University when Hot Rod Hundley scored a Garden record 38 points for the Mountaineers against NYU. It was Hundley’s sophomore year and his first appearance in New York.

Just four years later I saw another outstanding college sophomore break Hundley’s record. On January 9, 1958, Oscar Robertson scored 56 points against Seton Hall. Robertson single-handedly outscored the Seton Hall team as Cincinnati easily won 118-54. I was sitting right behind Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola when Cincinnati Coach Ed Jucker substituted for Robertson with several minutes left in the game so the fans could give him a standing ovation for his outstanding performance. Berra and Garagiola both protested vigorously yelling to let Robertson add more points to the record. Then Berra said, “This would be like pulling Mickey Mantle for a pinch hitter if he had hit four home runs and was ready to hit his fifth!”

“I knew that Madison Square Garden was special and that every college player wanted to play there. In the world of sports, the Garden was the equivalent of Broadway in theater or Carnegie Hall in music,” said Robertson. “In 1958, neither college nor professional sports enjoyed the news media exposure they do today. So a good performance there, before the world’s most critical audience, could immediately establish your credibility and increase your national profile.”

The New York Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association originated the NIT in 1938 when only six teams were invited. The writers then turned the administration of the tournament over to the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association (MIBA) which was comprised of representatives from five New York City colleges – Fordham, Manhattan, NYU, St. John’s and Wagner.

The tournament was expanded to eight teams in 1941, 12 in 1949, and 14 in 1965. Then increased competition from the NCAA began to overshadow the prestige of the NIT. The MIBA took the NCAA to court claiming it used its powers to compel teams to play in its tournament rather than the NIT and the expansion of the NCAA tournament to 65 teams was done to destroy the NIT. The NCAA settled the litigation in 2005 paying the MIBA $56.5 million for the 10-year rights to the NIT.

Madison Square Garden was also the home of the New York Rangers professional ice hockey team. It was the site of world championship boxing matches. It was where families went to see the circus, the rodeo, or equestrian shows. Evangelist Billy Graham preached before packed houses at the Garden. In 1957 Mike Todd held a party for his wife Elizabeth Taylor and to promote his movie, “Around the World in 80 Days.” In

May 1962 the Garden was the site of President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party and Marilyn Monroe sang happy birthday to him.

Based on ticket sales, the new Madison Square Garden is the third busiest arena in the world. Now 43 years old, it is the longest active major sporting facility in the New York Metropolitan area.

The Garden is still considered by many to be the basketball’s capital. It certainly will be this week when the Big East holds its tournament starting tomorrow (Tuesday, March 8). Depending on the poll, eight or nine of the 16 teams are ranked in the nation’s top 25. Former ESPN Emmy-award-winning sports producer Gil Parmele believes that as many as 10 Big East teams will be in the NCAA tournament and those that don’t will be favored to win the NIT. “It may even be tougher to win the Big East tournament than the NCAA because some teams may have to play as many as four games in four days against nationally-ranked teams,” Parmele said.

To me, the old Garden was and still is The Garden. After watching a great basketball doubleheader at The Garden, it was fun to walk a couple of blocks around the corner and have a great late night dinner at Mamma Leone’s. Today both are only memories.

 

Rene A. Henry is an author and writer who lives in Seattle. His career spans five decades in sports at collegiate, Olympic, professional, international and recreational levels. Many of his commentaries are posted on his website at www.renehenry.com. Handcolored postcard shows Madison Square Garden III on Eighth Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets, which is now the site of a skyscraper.

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