Thursday March 25th, 2010

As the NCAA tournament heads toward the regionals, as the NBA bides its time until the playoff push begins -- that is, as basketball rules the day -- it's ironic that New York, the city where the game really gained popularity at Madison Square Garden, has never been more of a basketball laughingstock.

Why, if Damon Runyon was eating cheesecake at Lindy's today, this is what he'd be saying: "It is a pretty pass indeed when, as it is indisputably known to all guys and not a few dames, that it is here that the hardwood game first flowered, but we have now not one team of quality, and I give you six-to-five that our fabled Garden is itself full of weeds."

Ah, the Garden -- the place where college basketball first gained an urban foothold, starting in 1934 when a promoter named Ned Irish began scheduling college doubleheaders. Later, he invented the National Invitational Tournament, which was a bigger salami than the NCAA for many years. New York teams like NYU, St. John's, Long Island University, CCNY packed the joint and were the powers in the sport. Every team in the country wanted to play there, as sure as every chantoosie wanted to sing at the Copa.

Then, when the NBA got going, sure, the Knickerbockers may have often been bums, but now there were pro doubleheaders -- meaning that, for many years, half the league's eight teams were sometimes all there together in the same smokey barn. For the guys wearing satin shorts, it was their Broadway, and, in fact, the Garden was invariably referred to as the "Mecca of basketball."

Today, deferentially, the teams that come into the Garden still profess to swoon at working the Mecca, but it's merely being polite -- like asking for an autograph from some faded old movie star -- because the fact is now that every city of any size and most big-time colleges possess basketball cathedrals every bit as impressive. After all, arenas and stadiums are what passes nowadays for American infrastructure. The Garden and New York live off basketball memories. Not a single New York area team even got a whiff of the NCAAs.

Not only that, but the Knicks have been toxic waste for years, and across the river, the Nets are striving, manfully, to put up the worst record in NBA history. New York high schools still produce lots of terrific players, but as soon as they pass their SATs they get the first jet out to some bucolic campus in the sticks.

Not only that, but to add to the Big Apple's basketball disgrace, the upstate of New York -- which, for the city's sporting types, has historically only consisted of the Saratoga race track -- not only produced a number-one seed in Syracuse, but also in the regionals it has . . . Cornell.

Cornell! From the Ivy League. Cornell, from far above Cayuga's waters. Wherever. Syracuse and Cornell. And there in New York City, a basketball vacuum. It's like they took the kangaroos out of Australia.

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