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College Basketball

NCAA tournament returns to NYC, where it was once the main event

Photo: AP

CCNY won the NCAA title at Madison Square Garden in 1950 and then captured the NIT 10 days later.

They have been allies as well as opponents, capable of patting each other on the back but also going for the other fellow's throat. Their relationship through three-quarters of a century has been a blend of Kentucky vs. Louisville and the Starks vs. the Lannisters from the Game of Thrones.

Madison Square Garden and the NCAA tournament, two of the mighty houses of college basketball, will be reunited for the first time in 53 years Friday night and Sunday when Virginia, Michigan State, Iowa State and Connecticut gather for three East Regional games in midtown Manhattan.

The return of college sports' preeminent tournament to the premier arena in the nation's largest city recalls a legacy of memorable players, legendary teams and great games, but also gambling scandals that rocked the sport.

From the 1930s through the early 1960s, college basketball and New York City were one of the most successful partnerships in sports. The NIT, college basketball's first postseason tournament, began in 1938 at what is known these days as the old Garden (1925-68). The NCAA, whose tournament started one year after the NIT, staged its East Regional and championship game at the Garden every March from 1943 to '48 and again in 1950.

From 1943 to '45, the NCAA and NIT winners filled the Garden for the Red Cross Benefit, a kind of college basketball Super Bowl. Schools could play in both the NIT and NCAA. In 1944, Utah lost its first-round NIT game but then captured the NCAA crown and defeated NIT champ St. John's in the Red Cross Benefit. In 1949, Kentucky lost an NIT quarterfinal to Loyola-Chicago under questionable circumstances but rebounded to win its second straight NCAA championship in Seattle. Most famously, City College of New York (CCNY) won both the NCAA and NIT titles over Bradley in 1950 before rollicking crowds of more than 18,000 at the Garden.

And it wasn't only postseason tournaments that made New York the capital of college basketball. Doubleheaders featuring local teams against out-of-town powerhouses were big events in the Garden every winter. Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson became a national name when he scored 56 points against Seton Hall at the Garden. The ECAC Holiday Festival after Christmas was considered the top regular season tournament in the nation. Perhaps the best Festival came in 1964 when Bill Bradley scored 41 points as Princeton nearly upset No. 1 Michigan and Cazzie Russell. When Bradley fouled out the Garden crowd erupted with a four-minute standing ovation. In the title game, hometown favorite St. John's rallied from 12 points down in the final minutes to stun Michigan, 75-74, in coach Joe Lapchick's last season.

New York schools hardly played the role of the Washington Generals to the nation's top-ranked teams. Not only St. John's but also now-forgotten names like Long Island University, CCNY and NYU produced strong basketball programs. From the 1940s through the late '50s, when the NBA was in its infancy and the NFL was far from the behemoth it is today, college basketball was second only to baseball as New York's favorite team sport.

"College basketball during that time was tremendously successful and interesting to the fans," said former St. John's athletic director Jack Kaiser. "The doubleheaders were packed. George Mikan and DePaul [in the 1940s] were a great attraction. There was great prestige to playing in the Garden. You could get some TV exposure and great publicity."

In addition, out-of-town schools viewed New York as an opportunity to show their flag to the metropolitan area's huge pool of high school basketball talent. North Carolina's 1957 NCAA championship team that toppled Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain featured a roster filled with New Yorkers under the guidance of New York-bred coach Frank McGuire.

As for the Garden itself, its sheer size dwarfed the capacity of most college basketball arenas, gyms known affectionately as "barns." Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium (capacity 10,000) played host to the '40, '41 and '42 NCAA tournaments. The NCAA moved much of the tournament to Madison Square Garden in 1943 and attendance nearly doubled.

"The NCAA wasn't drawing flies in the venues where they were having their tournament," recalled former Fairfield University basketball coach George Bisacca, who later served as the attorney for the NIT. "The NIT was selling out the Garden and the NIT, at that time, was the stronger tournament."

Calling the NIT stronger than the NCAA tournament today would be like saying the Belk Bowl was more prestigious than the Rose Bowl. Yet such was the case through the early 1960s. NIT schools received better exposure in New York, the competition often was tougher and the Big Apple offered far more attractions to players and fans than NCAA sites in Kansas City, Seattle, Louisville or the campus of Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., where the '39 and '56 tournaments were played.

*****

Golden Ages, however, seldom last and New York City's love affair with college basketball suffered a major hit in 1951. An investigation headed by New York district attorney Frank Hogan revealed that more than 30 players at seven schools, including Kentucky, Bradley, CCNY and LIU, had conspired with gamblers to throw games and shave points in 86 games between 1947 and 1950.

Remember that 1949 NIT first-round game that Kentucky lost before winning the NCAA title? Wildcats stars Alex Groza, Frank Beard and Dale Barnstable later admitted they had accepted $1,500 in bribes to throw the contest. When 7-footer Bill Spivey, the Most Outstanding Player in Kentucky's run to the '51 NCAA title, also was linked to gamblers, the Wildcats' basketball program was shut down for the 1952-53 season, the first school to receive what is now called the NCAA death penalty.

Kentucky recovered, winning its fourth NCAA championship in 1958 and building one of the elite programs in college basketball. CCNY was not so fortunate. The Beavers quickly fell from the ranks of major powers and today compete in Division III.

NCAA officials, most notably the straight-laced Walter Byers were appalled. Viewing New York City as cesspool of gamblers straight out of a Damon Runyon story, the NCAA took the tournament's later rounds out of Manhattan. Even though only Louisville's Freedom Hall could match the Garden's capacity at that time, the NCAA tournament began to develop a national profile. Television ratings proved more important to advertisers and recruits than in-house attendance.

The NCAA-New York union still had a few years to run. Early-round NCAA games continued to be played at the Garden through 1961 when yet another gambling scandal shook college basketball. Players from city schools St. John's, Columbia and NYU, along with North Carolina State and St. Joseph's, whose 1961 third-place NCAA finish was vacated, once again were tied to gamblers.

Byers and his allies at the NCAA office in Kansas City had seen enough, and the tournament began a half-century-plus absence from the Garden. Indeed, the only the Final Four played in the metropolitan New York area since 1950 was in East Rutherford, N.J., in 1996.

Was there another reason the NCAA wanted out of the Garden? George Bisacca, who would ultimately battle NCAA lawyers in court, believes the NIT was a bigger thorn in the NCAA's side than it liked to admit.

After CCNY's NCAA-NIT double in 1950, the NCAA ruled that a school could no longer compete in both tournaments. Yet some schools continued to prefer playing in New York, and as long as the NCAA field was limited to conference champions and a few at-large independents, (usually 24 or 25 teams), there were plenty of worthy NIT candidates.

The NCAA-NIT feud came to a head in 1970. No. 8 Marquette (23-3) was picked for the NCAA tournament, but not in its usual location in the Mideast regional in Dayton, Ohio. Instead, the Warriors were sent to Fort Worth. Marquette coach Al McGuire, a native New Yorker, had no interest in playing in Texas. He turned down the NCAA in favor of the NIT.

And what an NIT it was. Playing in the new Garden (capacity 19,500), the tournament easily outdrew the Final Four at Maryland's Cole Field House (capacity 14,000). Instead of watching yet another UCLA title in College Park, basketball fans enjoyed an NIT that featured Marquette, St. John's, a tough Army team led by an up-and-coming coach named Bob Knight, LSU and college basketball's all-time leading scorer Pete Maravich, plus Massachusetts with its supremely gifted sophomore Julius Erving. Marquette throttled LSU and Maravich in the semifinals and then topped St. John's in the title game as McGuire, who basked in the New York spotlight all week, enjoyed the last laugh.

The NCAA was not amused. It instituted a rule saying that if a school were invited to the NCAA tournament it had to attend -- or stay home. In 1975, the NCAA expanded its field to 32 teams, taking away some of the power conference runners-up that had enjoyed success in the NIT. That year North Carolina State, the '74 NCAA champ, refused an NIT bid as Wolfpack star David Thompson branded it "a loser's tournament."

The NCAA field grew to 40 teams in 1979, 48 by 1982, 64 in 1985 and to its current size of 68 in 2011. There wasn't much left for the NIT, which eventually moved its first three rounds to the home courts of competing schools with only the semifinals and final played at the Garden.

The NCAA's expansion was no accident, Bisacca said. "The minutes of the meetings from the early NCAA committees are full of comments like 'we've got to get rid of these guys,' meaning the NIT," he said. "We used all of [those comments] in our court case."

That case was a 2004 antitrust suit brought by the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association, which ran the NIT. MIBA sued the NCAA, charging it with trying to kill the NIT by limiting where schools could play postseason basketball and by expanding the NCAA field. Of course, by the early 21st Century the NCAA tournament was a massive enterprise, making close to $300 million while the NIT was netting less than $4 million. Bisacca believes the NIT might have won had the case gone to a verdict but the NCAA opted to buy out the NIT for $56.5 million. It now runs both tournaments.

As television and expansion helped the NCAA tournament extend its national dominance, Madison Square Garden concentrated on local and regional rivalries. Since 1983 it has been home for the popular Big East conference tournament, a competition that served as a stepping stone to national championships for Georgetown and Villanova as well as for former members Connecticut and Syracuse. The Garden also hosts the NIT Season Tip-Off each November and continues to stage occasional regular-season doubleheaders.

With the NCAA East regional coming to town Bisacca isn't quite ready to toss bouquets. "The NCAA never makes a decision based on sentiment," he said. "They will tell you they didn't come back to New York because of the gambling scandals but they were strong enough to go wherever they wanted. I don't know why they're coming back now."

Despite the bad blood and rocky history, Jack Kaiser believes the return of the NCAA tournament to Madison Square Garden benefits New York and college basketball.

"I think it's all positive," said Kaiser who helped found the original Big East. "March Madness is a wonderful, wonderful event and is national in scope. The NCAA has gone its own way [since leaving New York]. They have moved the Final Four around the country and made sure a national game was developing. College basketball is so important now and so attractive. The prestige is distributed throughout the entire country."

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