New York, New York. The city that never sleeps. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. We all know the clichÃ©s about the Big Apple and probably roll our eyes when we hear them. But there's an excitement and energy that keeps bringing people back. There's also a deep and rich college-basketball tradition that keeps bringing basketball teams back. Every college team worth its salt feels compelled to make the journey every few years, to renew itself in the waters. Duke's game against Pittsburgh this week at Madison Square Garden is the latest installment in the more than sixty-year history the Blue Devils have with the city.
There was a time when teams from NYC city ruled college basketball. Long Island University. City College of New York. St. Johns. New York University. Fordham. Manhattan. All were national powers and they achieved that status almost exclusively with local talent. CCNY even captured both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT in 1950, the only team to ever accomplish that remarkable feat.
This dominance unraveled in the early 1950s when it was revealed that players from CCNY, LIU, NYU, and Manhattan had accepted money from gamblers to shave points. The scandal eventually ensnared such heartland schools as Kentucky and Bradley but the gamblers and their gofers were almost exclusively from New York and the city's reputation was tarnished. Most of the city schools deemphasized basketball. NYU held on until the early 1970s. St. John's--the one school that didn't cut back at all--lost their coach Frank McGuire to the more fertile grounds of Chapel Hill.
But that's just part of the story. The nation's media capital, New York City has long hosted the nation's top college programs and they've usually been hosted at Madison Square Garden. There actually have been four Madison Square Gardens in New York. The first was built in 1879, the second in 1890. They were used from everything from circuses to political conventions.
The third MSG, built in 1925, was the first to have significant impact in college basketball. Boxing was the big attraction at the beginning and would remain so for the duration. Local college teams began using the Garden for basketball games, many of which funded Depression-relief programs, in the middle 1930s.
On December 29, 1934 Notre Dame visited the Garden to play NYU in the second game of a double-header; Westminster played St. John's in the opener. An astonishing 16,000 fans showed up to see the twin-bill. Westminster and NYU won. Remember, this was during a period when most college-basketball games were played on campus in front of crowds in the 2,000-5,000 range.
The intersectional Madison Square Garden doubleheader became a crucial component in the development of college basketball as a national sport. Some of the most important games in the history of the sport took place in this context. For example, in 1937 Stanford's Hank Luisetti popularized his one-handed shot when he led his team to a 45-31 win over LIU and became a national hero in the process.
In 1938 MSG began hosting the National Invitation Tournament. The NCAA began its tournament the following season. Since these eight-team tournaments could be completed in less than a week, the Garden was able to host both the NIT and all or part of the NCAA on several occasions.
Duke made its first trip to Madison Square Garden in 1944 under unusual circumstances. World War II transformed college sports, as it did virtually every other aspect of American life. The bulk of able-bodied men in the college-age-group were obligated to military service. Duke became a Navy V-12 officer-training school. The Navy allowed its officer candidates to participate in intercollegiate sports, so Duke was able to maintain its programs during the war, albeit with significant reductions in travel.
The Duke team was able to put together a train trip to New York for a January 1, 1944 game at the Garden. It was a disparate team of players sent to Duke by the Navy. Star guard Gordon Carver was a Durham native who had stayed at home to play football and basketball for the Devils. But Bill Wright had begun his career at Tennessee, Gene Bledsoe at Mississippi State, and Harry Harner at Washington and Lee. Center Henry Hyde had helped Georgetown to the 1943 Final Four. This is the same Henry Hyde who later became a longtime Congressman from Illinois and passed away recently.
Duke didn't much time for sight-seeing. Navy regulations limited absence from campus to 48 hours. The train from Durham arrived in New York a few short hours before tip-off.
Colgate and NYU opened up, with Duke and Long Island in the nightcap. Under the tutelage of the legendary Clair Bee, LIU had become one of the nation's top programs, capturing the 1939 and 1941 NITs. Bee was in the military in 1944 and the team was coached by George Wolfe. Long Island's lineup included Ed Younger, one of the first African Americans to suit up against Duke in an official game.
Duke was an up-tempo team, while LIU preferred to slow things down. Duke got some early transition baskets and jumped on top. Carver was the best player on the floor, a reality that stunned local fans. Duke led 33-28 at the half.
Duke expanded its lead to nine at 44-35 midway through the second half. Duke coach Gerry Gerard instructed his club to slow the pace down and the decision backfired. Duke lost its momentum, the partisan crowd got fired up, and Long Island crept back in the game. LIU's 6'7" center Irving Rothenberg tied the game at 48-48, Carver put Duke back up by a deuce, LIU answered. Again, a Carver foul shot was matched by an LIU foul shot.
At 51-51, Duke held for the first good shot. Bledsoe got loose underneath and scored on a short hook shot. There were 20 seconds left. Duke played solid defense, forcing Alvin Rubenstein to take a desperate 20-footer with time running out. The shot swished in, as the buzzer sounded. Overtime.
The sudden ending to regulation knocked Duke back. Long Island scored the first six points of overtime. Carver scored four but the home team was able to run out the final thirty seconds, as Duke tried vainly to force a steal. The final was 59-57.
Despite the loss, Gordon Carver and his 27 points were the talk of the town. No other college player would score as many points at the Garden during the 1943-'44 season. Orlo Robertson of Associated Press wrote that "Carver is one of the best shots we have seen in the Garden all season." Sam Davis, another national writer, observed "Carver is one of the finest floor men I've seen and in addition is one of the most uncanny shots basketball fans have ever seen in the Garden." Wright added 11 points for Duke, Bledsoe 9. Rothenberg led LIU with 18.
It took awhile for Duke to get that first MSG win. Duke lost to NYU 80-64 in 1950 and 74-72 in 1952. Duke's first NCAA Tournament game was a 74-73 overtime loss to Villanova at the Garden in 1955. After the game Duke coach Harold Bradley blamed the loss on his players "being too awestruck over appearing in Madison Square Garden". His players derided the claim, with star Ronnie Mayer calling the Garden "a pit."
Duke finally got its MSG maiden in 1960, Vic Bubas' first season at Duke. The Devils pounded Princeton in their NCAA opener, 84-60. It was the program's first NCAA Tournament win.
Bubas figured in several other memorable MSG moments. For years, the ACC had prohibited its teams from participating in the NIT, a holdover from the 1950s scandals. Bubas and McGuire, then at South Carolina, worked behind the scenes and finally got the league to reverse itself. The NIT agreed to hold a spot for an ACC team for 1967. It was an example of be-careful-what-you-wish-for. Duke got the bid after losing to UNC in the ACC Tournament finals on Saturday night. Two days later, Duke became the first ACC team to participate in the NIT. Playing their fourth game in five days, Duke fell to Walt Frazier and Southern Illinois 72-63.
On February 8 the following season Duke defeated the same team 78-54 in the first game of an MSG double-header. NYU beat Manhattan in the nightcap. These were the last two college games played in the third Garden. The fourth MSG opened about 18 blocks away the next week. Yes, Duke made the NIT in 1968, winning its first game and losing its second. So in the space of barely more than a month Duke played in two different Madison Square Gardens. You can win some trivia contests with that.
Duke didn't have any more luck in the NIT during the MSG-4 era but there is a another trivia winner coming up. Bucky Waters' first Duke team lost its NIT opener to Mike Newlin and Utah in 1970. The next year Duke was back and this time won twice to advance to the semifinals. They lost 73-67 to UNC and lost the consolation game to St. Bonaventure. The game against the Heels remains the only time these two programs have met in the postseason.
Duke has only been back to the postseason NIT once since then, 1981, Mike Krzyzewski's inaugural season in Durham. By this time the venerable tournament had moved the early games to on-campus sites. Duke won twice at home, lost at Purdue, and never made it to NYC.
But Duke has had better luck in the pre-season NIT. Duke won the first one in 1985, edging Kansas and St. John's to send notice that the Dawkins-Alarie-Henderson-senior-laden team was loaded for bear. Since then Duke has won the pre-season NIT in 2000 and 2005, finished second in 1996, and third in 1990.
There have been other appearances at Madison Square Garden, ranging from a pair of close losses in the Holiday Classic in December 1971 to a pair of equally close loses in the Coaches versus Cancer Classic to open the 1999-2000 season to last season's win over Gonzaga. Regular-season games with St. John's are held their.
The national media is concentrated in New York, while Duke has enough of a fan base in the area that many observers consider these contests home games for Duke. There's every reason to expect Duke to continue regular visits to Madison Square Garden and continue to enhance the traditions of the school and the venue.