MSG didn’t need March Madness to be the “Mecca of Basketball”

Old Madison Square Garden on 49th Street earned the title “The Mecca of Basketball” thanks to men’s college hoops.

But MSG has always had an inconsistent relationship with the biggest event in sports: the NCAA Division I Men’s Tournament.

The Garden ranks fourth overall for most NCAA Tournament games held at one venue – but almost all of those occurred before 1962. After hosting annually between 1943-61, the world’s most famous arena would not host another for more than a half a century later, in 2014. In an era of men’s Final Fours in soccer stadiums, it will never have an opportunity to host a title game again.

But now March Madness is back. This week, the Garden will host an East Regional for just the third time in more than half a century. And in the years to come, MSG officials plan to make it a much more frequent host of men’s tournaments — and perhaps the ever-growing women’s as well.

Here’s how college basketball made the Garden the sport’s most prestigious venue, despite decades without an NCAA tournament appearance.

Manhattan Mecca

The two-time champion 1950 CCNY men's basketball team.
The 1950 CCNY men’s basketball team won the NIT and NCAA tournament. Credit: CUNY

MSG quickly established a reputation as a perennial home for the best events in sports, and it happened to be in the city where the most competitive teams played.

On December 29, 1934, the arena hosted its first pair of college basketball games. About 16,000 fans watched a warm-up game between Westminster College and St. John’s, followed by the main event: NYU vs. Notre Dame.

Local sportswriter Ned Irish, whom the Garden had tapped to help schedule games, reportedly wrote: “After years of survival under adverse conditions, tonight college basketball gets its first chance to develop into a major sport. »

Irish, who also eventually became MSG’s president, conceived the NIT in 1938. While the NCAA Tournament began just a year later, the NIT was considered highly prestigious for many years. Then the NCAA Men’s Tournament arrived in the Big Apple in 1943.

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There will be no local teams in Region East this week. But back in the 40s, 50s and 60s, local New York teams like NYU, LIU and the City College of New York dominated the scene.

The most iconic moment of this era was in 1950, when CCNY became the only team ever to win both the NIT and NCAA tournament titles. At the time, the team was led by coach Nat Holman.

After CCNY’s victory, the students staged a New York-wide celebration that would put the Cameron Crazies to shame.

6,500 students stop work for snake dances, conga lines and endless cheering. … It was ‘Allagaroo’ [the CCNY chant] through the alleys, the side streets, in Times Square, Fifth Avenue and all over the boroughs of Manhattan throughout the night and late afternoon yesterday.”

Irving Spiegel’s report for The New York Times

The NCAA Tournament grew in size and prestige, but it left MSG in 1961 and would not return for more than 50 years later. The NIT remained, but it began to lose its luster in the growing shadow of March Madness.

A large east building

02/27/1985 No. 2 ranked Georgetown Hoyas defeated No. 1 ranked St. John's Red Storm, 85-69, in "sweater game," when Georgetown coach John Thompson (right) wears a sweater that matches St. Johns coach Lou Carnesecca's lucky sweater.
The famous 1985 Big East Tournament championship, dubbed the “Sweater Game,” when Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. wore St John’s coach Lou Carnesecca’s jersey. Credit: St. John’s Athletics

If local teams carried the Garden during the first half of the 20th century, the Big East took it through the turn of the millennium – during the years it did not host an NCAA Tournament.

In 1983, MSG hosted its first Big East Tournament where St. John’s, led by star Chris Mullin and legendary coach Lou Carnesecca, took home the title. It was also the first time during the postseason that the future king of MSG, a junior phenom named Patrick Ewing, would grace the venue’s maple tree.

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“It was commissar [Dave] Gavitt’s vision,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman told FOS at this year’s Big East Tournament. “Bringing the Big East to the Big Time. That was it. And it was New York. And it was here.”

In turn, the tournament produced many of the Gardens’ most historic college basketball moments: the “Sweater Game,” the six-overtime Syracuse-Connecticut thriller and the Allen Iverson-Ray Allen matchup.

“We have a tremendous relationship with the Big East,” MSG Entertainment’s current EVP of Marquee Events and Operations, Joel Fisher, told FOS during the daytime quarterfinal between Marquette and St. John’s. On the other side of the wall, the intermission music blared.

However, a Big East tournament in 2023 almost never happened. MSG came close to losing it a decade earlier, when the conference broke up.

“We were a little worried,” Fisher said. During the restructuring, the ACC and Big Ten tried to swoop in — but the Garden fought them off. “Ultimately, we made a decision that this was a Big East building.”

That decision is a major reason why the Big East, which just celebrated its 41st anniversary with the Garden, became the thriving conference it is today.

A return fit for Broadway

March 27, 2014;  New York, NY, USA;  Connecticut Huskies guard/forward Niels Giffey (5) shoots the ball during practice for the East Region in the 2014 NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The UConn Huskies are getting ready for the 2014 East Regional at MSG. Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

For years, the only basketball at MSG after the conclusion of the Big East Tournament was forgettable: the NIT, which had lost its meaning, and the perennially struggling Knicks.

At one point, an entire decade went by where the Garden reportedly didn’t even bid for an NCAA Tournament berth.

It finally returned in 2014 for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. The first event in more than 50 years — and the first at the 34th Street location — did not disappoint. Tickets reportedly soared to over $1,000 each, in part because of a hometown game including eventual national champion UConn — who ended up advancing to the Final Four.

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After the Huskies cut down the yardage net, CBS called Fisher and fantasized about production value. “CBS said, ‘You have to keep having the tournament!'”

Fisher obliged. MSG hosted again in 2018, and was scheduled to host in 2020 until the pandemic shut down March Madness. Next week, teams like Duke and Marquette may get a chance to play under lights that make the hardwood look more like a Broadway stage than a basketball game.

“It’s a good thing for the sport,” Ackerman said.

More New York moments

After this year’s festivities, Garden officials hope to make the East Region a permanent part of the site’s future. And while MSG is no longer eligible to host a men’s Final Four given its meager 20,000-seat capacity, it would be interested in hosting a women’s Final Four, Fisher confirmed.

However, MSG remains tied for preseason blue blood matchups and neutral games. Fisher noted that trainer Mike Krzyzewski even secured his historic 903rd win there. And he is optimistic about showing the arena to other teams as well.

“It’s not like we sit back and say, ‘We’re the best building in the world, that’s why people come to us,'” he said.

While the NCAA returns, the NIT has left. The consolation bracket, which started at the Garden, is no longer big enough for 34th Street. The NIT’s late rounds have moved to the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas for the foreseeable future.

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