When my teenage running mate Phil Mark and I stepped into the frenzy of taxi cab traffic on 50th Street outside of Madison Square Garden late on the afternoon of March 18, 1967, I had no idea it would be the last college basketball game of the sort I would ever attend. Or at least for the next 56 years.
Over that half century plus, I graduated high school, university, started a career, ended a career, raised two kids, owned 14 vehicles, seven houses in six states and bagged two holes-in-one.
There’s been men on the moon, Archie Bunker, The Fonz, Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage, Derek Jeter was born and inducted into the Hall, Dr. Richard Kimble finally caught the one-armed man, the Jets won an NFL championship, only one, but still better than the Cleveland Browns who haven’t. Jimmy Carter was a maligned president only to become a great human being while a former Heisman Trophy winning running back from USC, who later led the NFL in rushing before becoming a Hertz pitchman and movie actor, has become a social pariah.
When Marquette and Southern Illinois Universities took the Madison Square Garden basketball court that 1967 afternoon for the championship of the NIT, the tournament still meant something. When I finally went back, ten days ago, it meant nothing.
In the day, many days ago, the NIT or National Invitation Tournament was the most prestigious post-season event in college basketball. Today the NIT, more aptly meaning No Interest Tournament, is a throw away with casual interest from the participating schools, students and alums. However, it’s still a drug for college basketball wagering degenerates who need action.
The first NIT was played in 1938 with Temple beating Colorado in a field of six teams. That NIT was played in Madison Square Garden as were the next 85 editions. Prior to 1950 the rival NCAA tournament only invited eight teams, one from each of eight earmarked regions, so national exposure was limited. The NIT on the other hand, being played in the media capital of the country with half a dozen sports-heavy daily newspapers, got all the attention and was the most prestigious of the two end-of-season events. In fact, in several years some schools played in both tournaments. In 1944 Utah lost its first game in the NIT but then won the NCAA. The Utes squared off with NIT winner St. John’s and won that one for postseason royalty. In 1950 CCNY, City College of New York, won both the NIT and NCAA beating Bradley in both finals. That would have been a sweet parlay.
The NIT was owned by the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association while the NCAA tournament was operated by, well yes, the NCAA. Finally, in the mid-1940s the NCAA decided they wanted to get on the back page of the metro tabloids too and moved to the Garden, sharing the building at that time of the year with the NIT, the Rangers, the Knicks and Ringling Brothers.
The NCAA with a boatload of money behind it grew while the NIT shrank. By the mid-1980s the NIT was relegated to distant also-ran status. The NCAA wanting to keep its friends close but its competition even closer, bought the NIT in 2005 as a settlement to an anti-trust suit filed by the NIT.
Today 68 teams play in the NCAA; 32 in the NIT. The NIT field is completed right after the big dance pairings are announced on that given CBS Sunday afternoon. The NIT picks up the scraps not chosen to play on the big stage.
However, let’s backtrack to that Saturday in 1967 when the NIT still had value and prestige. The NCAA tournament only had 23 teams so there were many other really good ones looking for a place to play. The NIT was that vehicle for 16 of them, which meant 39 quality college basketball teams in the postseason in one of the two events. The best of the 1966-67 season was UCLA who won the NCAA beating Dayton by 15.
When Phil and I went to the Garden in ‘67, it was also a day of independence for us. I was 14, he 15. We were old enough to take the train to New York, with the Long Island Rail Road going right into Penn Station. From there it was 16 blocks uptown to 50th Street. Sometimes when we went to see the Knicks or Rangers we walked; other times we splurged for 15 cents and took the A, C or E subway two stops right to the Garden. No trip was complete without a visit to The Flame Steak House, on 49th and Broadway, where for $1.29 you got a piece of meat as tough as Nurse Ratched. Also a salad and baked potato. Pricey to a lad. From there it was a block or two walk to the Garden with a pack of Tums in tow.
That Madison Square Garden, the ‘old’ one, opened in 1925 and hosted the NIT championship every year. It closed in 1968 and the ‘new’ Garden moved downtown, atop Penn Station, eliminating lunch at The Flame and a subway ride for the cool kids coming in from Long Island.
The ‘old’ Garden experience was impressionable to a youngster. So much so that one of my dreams would be to go back and experience it one more time. The Eighth Avenue entrance, the main one with the legendary marquee, was a hub of activity. Excitement for whatever event headlined penetrated the air. Men were dressed dapper: a coat, tie and fedora. If you didn’t have a hat, you could buy one at Adam Hats, a store right at the front entrance. Ladies were scarce at sporting events then but those who were there wore dresses. Scalpers hovered, “Who needs tickets?” If you were hungry and couldn’t get a coveted table at The Flame, then grab a hot dog at Nedick’s, right across the front lobby from Adam Hats. Ah, a Nedick’s dog, the smell and taste of the only chain hot dog served between a rolled in half piece of white bread. Wash it down with their famous Orange-aid. Inside the Garden turnstile, no matter the event, the air was always heavy with smoke from Pall Mall’s, Chesterfield’s or White Owl’s. Even if you didn’t partake you’d still leave with a mild case of emphysema.
I remember a little about the 1967 NIT final, not a heck of a lot. Southern Illinois beat Marquette 71-56. I looked up the score. There was a consolation game played for third place between Rutgers and Marshall. Don’t know who won. What stood out however is Phil and I sat in seats too good for two acne-laden teens. Not sure how we bagged those. Also, the play of the shooting guard for Southern Illinois, a guy we never heard of. Heck, we never heard of Carbondale, Illinois, where Southern Illinois was located. Their nickname, a saluki, had no meaning to two city kids either. Walt Frazier, that Saluki who scored 21 points and despite being only 6’4” had 11 rebounds, was the MVP of the tournament. SIU finished the season at 24-2. A month later the Knicks selected him fifth in the NBA draft, giving Frazier a permanent home at Madison Square Garden and changing every Knicks’ fans life for good.
So, that’s the long road taking us to the week before last and the NIT Final in Las Vegas. Madison Square Garden threw the tournament out of New York last year after being there all its life. Vegas took it and with all the great basketball venues we have here, its new one-year home became the Orleans Arena, in the back of the off-Strip Orleans Hotel. The arena has all the character and charm of the Kramden’s apartment in Bensonhurst. Next year the event moves to Indianapolis.
UAB made the NIT final and a trip to Vegas and a stay at the Orleans was the reward, if you can call it that. UAB — Alabama-Birmingham — is a university Andi and I had a personal connection with during our 20 years living in Birmingham. We were corporate and personal contributors to both the University and the basketball program. We knew Andy Kennedy, UAB’s head coach, from the days when we first arrived in Alabama. He was an assistant then on head coach Murry Bartow’s staff in 1998, our first UAB season. Kennedy called and invited us to the NIT championship game. I never thought of saying no despite my NIT indifference.
UAB’s opponent was fellow Conference USA rival North Texas, who the Blazers played three times during the season, losing twice. UAB and North Texas were the second and third place finishers in Conference USA this season. The league champ, Florida Atlantic, was frying bigger fish on a much larger pier. A case can be made that UAB and North Texas should have been in the dance, and maybe do some damage like FAU did. But there were too many automatic bids for conference champions a lesser caliber than both schools, relegating them to the NIT in a numbers game.
By the time the NIT arrived here ten days ago, Vegas was experiencing a basketball hangover from the electricity of the NCAA West Region Final played five days earlier at a packed T-Mobile Arena, won by UConn. Packed and electric doesn’t describe the Orleans Arena for the NIT Final. Even though attendance was announced at 2,951 there weren’t 1,500 in the 9,000 seat arena. If 2,951 tickets were really sold, it meant half the people got confused and must have thought that’s where Carrot Top was playing. So, they walked in, saw a basketball floor, then walked out and headed to the Luxor for the watermelon smash. Of those that remained, there were maybe 200-300 true UAB fans in the building; Andi cheered with them like we were back in sweet home.
On the other hand, I wanted to see UAB win but surreptitiously rooted for scoring. North Texas won the entertaining game 68-61. The over/under point total at the Orleans sportsbook was 128.5.
I played the over. Easy win. I bet on it just like any other college basketball gambling degenerate who still watches the NIT.