There was no way of knowing in real time, of course, but 50 years ago, right around this time, college basketball in our town suffered three losses that finally, 20 years after the gambling scandals and one year after the 1970 Knicks, formalized and made permanent the transfer of basketball power from the colleges to the pros.
Now, all we have left is the occasional St. John’s foray into the Top 25, but in truth the Johnnies haven’t really galvanized and unified the city since Chris Mullin and Walter Berry moved on. We get the odd power surge from a Manhattan or an Iona, but those are generally contained to campus and alumni.
It was the scandals of 1951 that started it all, precipitating the stunning downfall of CCNY and LIU. But even after that, the college game kept a foothold. The NIT still drew well for years after that, and so did the Holiday Festival. The Knicks took their sweet time getting good, so the colleges managed to hang around. That all started to change exactly a half-century ago, though.
March 27, 1971: Bobby Knight leaves West Point for Indiana
Bobby Knight was just 30 years old, but he’d already been a head coach for six seasons and compiled a 102-50 record at Army, bringing the Black Knights to four NITs. The Cadets might have done their finest work an hour north of the city, but New York gladly adopted them whenever they played at the Garden, especially in the NIT.
The New York papers dubbed him “Bobby T,” because even then his volatile style stood out, and he was a regular recipient of referee wrath. And, damn, his teams played hard. The high-water mark was 1970, when Army lost by a heartbreaking point, 60-59, in the NIT semifinals then took Press Maravich’s LSU Tigers to school in the consolation game, beating them 75-69 (Maravich’s son, Pete, chose to sit out his college finale).
“For the longest time, I truly believed coaching in the NIT was as good as coaching basketball got,” Knight said a few years ago, at a luncheon for the preseason NIT when he was coaching Texas Tech. “Every game I ever coached there, I remember every detail. I remember the smell. I remember the lights. That meant everything to me as a young coach, and it still means so much to me.”
Knight had actually turned down the Wisconsin job three years earlier, but the lure of Indiana proved too tempting. Within two years, the Hoosiers were in the Final Four; within five they had finished off a two-year stretch at 63-1 that included the 32-0 1976 team, the last to go undefeated.
April 16, 1971: NYU drops basketball
Hard times had befallen the Purple Violets, who went 5-20 in 1970-71. Just 11 years earlier, Satch Sanders had led them to the Final Four and just five years earlier, they’d lost the NIT Finals to BYU. NYU had long been a basketball staple at the Garden (and fell one game shy of the 1945 NCAA title), but decided the cost of big-time NCAA hoops was no longer worth it. There had been talk of de-emphasizing the program, but ending it shocked just about everyone.
“You have to be competitive or get out,” AD Ben Carnevale explained. NYU returned as a Division III team in the 1980s but never again even hinted at a return to past glory.
May 4, 1971: Digger Phelps leaves Fordham for Notre Dame
This one really hurt, because Phelps had guided Fordham to a 26-3 record and the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1970-71. He’d recruited a killer class as a follow-up, and there was momentum building for a new arena on campus. Then Johnny Dee retired in South Bend, Phelps left for $18,000 per year (even though Fordham countered with $20,000). The Rams have been to one NCAA Tournament since, that recruiting class never happened, and they still play at Rose Hill Gym, built in 1925.
“People have never believed me, but it ripped my heart out to leave Fordham,” Phelps told me not long ago. “But I’d dreamt of coaching at Notre Dame for as long as I’d dreamed of anything. I took a pay cut to go there! We were building something at Fordham, and if Johnny Dee hadn’t left, I might still be at Fordham, who knows?”
Phelps guided Notre Dame to the 1978 Final Four, he was on the sidelines when the Irish ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in 1974, and he finished his career with a 419-200 record in 21 years,
New York basketball has never been the same, though there was a brief spasm when Jim Valvano coached Iona (95-46) from 1975-80 and Mike Kzyzewski worked at Army (73-59) those same five years. Interestingly, they both left for greener pastures within two weeks of each other in 1980, landing 10 miles away from each other — Krzyzewski to Duke on March 18, Valvano to North Carolina State on March 27.
Of the many wonderful surprises the Knicks have given us this year, the one at the top of my list is watching RJ Barrett — whose overall games seem to improve these days by the quarter, let alone the game or the week.
I really wanted to dislike watching James Harden play for the Brooklyn Nets with the fervor I disliked watching him play for the Houston Rockets. But he has made that utterly impossible.
I can’t be the only long-time watcher of “Law and Order: SVU” who is not only looking forward to the Stabler-Benson reunion but also wondering if they are finally going to get around to their Sam Malone-and-Diane Chambers moment (make that Pam-and-Jim for the younger crowd). Because we’ve been waiting over 20 years for it by now. Even if it ends as badly as Sam-and-Diane did.
Cheers to the crew at Chaminade High, my alma mater, who cut down the nets for another Long Island Catholic League basketball title this week. It makes me feel all the worse for all the basketball players in the boroughs who were denied an opportunity to play even a minute of season this year. Life isn’t just unfair sometimes, it’s vicious.
Whack Back at Vac
Coach Rob Schwartz: In order to go far in the NCAA Tournament, the Bonnies need to recruit Sister Jean! (Please do not tell St. John’s, Notre Dame or Boston College.)
Vac: I keep waiting to see her name in the transfer portal.
Larry Weitz: A gentle reminder: You Post sportswriters pretty much all projected the Knicks to win 22 games this season, a number they’ve now reached at about the 60 percent point of the season. I think that fact needs to be loudly and publicly acknowledged.
Vac: I sort of think we do that with every piece of poetry set in iambic pentameter devoted to the wonders of Tom Thibodeau.
Nick Caimano: Folks are again writing about Gary Sanchez’s stumbling. I’m wondering why. From Day 1, he has been on the same “see-saw,” and his current down turn is nothing new. That’s the way he is both offensive and defensively. So, you either accept it or you don’t. Frankly, as a long time Yankees fan I would not. His monstrous, blasts are not worth putting up with his strikeouts, nor the passed balls.
Vac: There are times he is so good. And times he can make those tones feel like hallucinations.
@ps_sobol: I’m a lifelong Mets fan, and I’m rooting for Matt Harvey with his comeback in Baltimore.
@MikeVacc: Athletes rarely get to write a proper Second Act to their careers. Here’s hoping Harvey does, because the first one, brief as it was, was pretty spectacular.