Madness at the Mecca


by Peter Walsh

The importance of Madison Square Garden to the game of college basketball can never be understated. Legends have been made, championships have been won, dreams have been crushed and players have become household names all due to the unprecedented magic and electricity that permeates throughout the building. The Garden and college basketball have a long, rich history with one another and for the first time in 53 years, the NCAA Tournament is returning to New York City this weekend.

On Wednesday afternoon, Madison Square Garden held a special press conference with former players and coaches who experienced their own bit of magic during March. Moderated by long time sports commentator Al Trautwig, the panel was made up of Cal Ramsey, Ron Nadell, Floyd Lane, Art Hyland, Oscar Robertson, Jim Calhoun, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington and Felipe Lopez.

SLAM was fortunate enough to be in the building to hear the amazing stories told by these hoops legends. Catch the best of what they had to say below…

Cal Ramsey

A staple in the New York basketball community. Ramsey was raised in Harlem, played his collegiate ball at New York University and was a member of the Knicks during his professional playing days.

His favorite memories at the Garden

I have several, one was when we played against North Carolina my sophomore year when they won the National Championship and went 33-0. I had a game of 27 points and 17 rebounds and we only lost by five. Another was a game against Brandeis University when I had 38 points and 33 rebounds. Then I played against Jerry West and West Virginia, Jerry had 20, I had 30 and we beat them in overtime. Then I had a chance to play against the great Oscar Robertson. I had 16 and held him to 48 [laughs].

What he would tell teams playing this weekend…

It will be one of the greatest thrills of all time. I grew up in Harlem, NY, and throughout my childhood years I always dreamed of playing in Madison Square Garden. I went to New York University because it was a great academic institution, it had great alumni and they played their home games at Madison Square Garden. I played 12 games a year, every year here. I forgot about the NIT; I played in that in 1959 where we lost to Bradley in the semis by one point but I was the leading scorer in the NIT. I had 81 points and four other guys had 80 [laughs].

Ron Nadell

A member of the 1950 City College of New York team—the last team to be crowned NCAA Champions at the Garden. That team was also won the NCAA Tournament and the NIT Tournament in the same year, a feat that will never be duplicated.

On the accomplishment of winning both the NIT and NCAA Title in the same season at City College of New York…

We were the last team to be invited into the NIT. We were the underdogs, no one knew who City College was and we went ahead and one the first two games. The third game in the quarters was against Mr. [Adolph] Rupp and Kentucky. They were the number two team in the country and we only beat them by 39 points.

I don’t think people in the audience remember back 65 years ago but that game got us over the hump. We knew at that point that we had our confidence and nothing was going to stop us. We won the semis then met number-one seed Bradley in the finals. We went out, we played team ball and what got us through all this was our great defense.

A week later we were invited into the NCAA Tournament. Again, we weren’t ranked; however, we went into the NCAAs on cloud nine. We went ahead and won the first two games then met Bradley again in the Finals. Then, deja vu, we beat Bradley again and that probably was the greatest moment of my life at that time. It was something that will never happen again.

Floyd Layne

Nadell’s teammate on the 1950 CCNY team, Layne returned to the school during the ‘70s and ‘80s as the program’s head coach.

On his collegiate playing days with City College of New York…

The respect and what we learned—going to school and our parents making sure we got our education and all the trials and tribulations we faced as the years went along, it was a great feeling.

The main thing I want to emphasize is we had no time to glorify anything when we were playing. It was day to day, we paid attention to everything the coaches told us and listened to all the scouting reports. We did the best we could. We were very fortunate to be coached by very fundamental, great people. The memories are great, just from the day to day to going on and winning championships was a wonderful experience and will never be forgotten.

Art Hyland

A former Princeton Tiger captain, Hyland during the 1961 NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

On memories of playing in and attending games at Madison Square Garden

Back in 1961 our [Princeton] team played at the old Garden and it was the last time the NCAA Tournament was here. I don’t remember anything that I did in that game to be honest with you, but what I do remember about the old Garden is the smoke. The smoke was incredible and I used to go there and watch NIT games and you would have to look through the cloud of smoke at the top of the arena. I also remember the infamous bank of telephones in the arena, they were usually filled right before game time.

The funny thing about our [Tournament] game was one of our guys got hit in the head and got a concussion and we all went to see him at the hospital and who was in the bed next to him? The goalie for the New York Rangers, a guy named Gump Worsley. They weren’t wearing masks and he just got hit in the face with a puck again so the captain of our team and Gump Worsley were roommates that night.

The old Garden was a special place especially for the people who played basketball on the East coast at that time. There were two places of note for basketball at that time, one was in Philadelphia at the old Palestra. The other was the Garden, of course, which was the capital, and still is the capital, quite frankly, of basketball.

Oscar Robertson

The greatest college basketball player of all time, Robertson led the University of Cincinnati to two Final Fours between 1957-1960. On January 9, 1958, Robertson set the MSG all-time scoring record with 56 points against Seton Hall.

On New York City and playing at Madison Square Garden…

I think the first time I came to New York City, the Midtown Tunnel fare was 50 cents. I got in a cab and the driver was going so fast I thought he was going to kill us! We stayed at the Manhattan Hotel on 42nd and 8th Avenue and walked down to Madison Square Garden.

It was very interesting to me, the first time I picked up a ball there I went on the court to dribble and I threw down and the ball didn’t come back up. I realized that I would have to dribble the ball a lot harder than I would at other gymnasiums. They also had guide wires behind the basket and if a guy was playing well and someone didn’t like it, they would shake the guide wires (laughs). It was interesting for me because unlike Cal [Ramsey] I didn’t know I had 56 points when I played here. I was playing my game and playing hard and at the end of the game the guys came up to me and said, ‘You scored 56 points!’ I said, Really? I was just trying to win the game.

On averaging a triple-double…

It’s the way I learned to play basketball. If I’m inside, I play like a forward or center and if I’m outside, I play like a guard. I think what’s going on with assists and assists-to-turnover ratios is overrated, it’s about who wins the game, that’s what it’s all about. You might have 30 assists against the Sisters of the Poor but when you get in those big games and have 6 or 7, it can still be enough to win the game. They didn’t keep assists, turnovers or triple-doubles at all when I played so I guess it didn’t mean much to them either. I really didn’t know I was doing it to be honest, I thought everyone was playing the same way.

Advice for younger players going to college…

I would tell them to go to a school that had better players going there. I’d make sure there were other All-Americans going and I’d choose a school with a high graduation rate and find out what kind of academic help I can get. I’d also go to a school with a large black or Hispanic student community. I had no social life at Cincinnati when I was there. I was the only black player, there was nothing for me.

People don’t think about that, parents don’t think about that. Is the school in a great city? Are there counselors there? Do they have any Hispanic or African-American students there that a kid can go and talk to if they have a sensitivity problem? These are the things they should think about but they don’t and it’s unfortunate.

Jim Calhoun

The head coach at former Big East staple UConn, Calhoun won seven Big East tournament championships and three National Championships. Calhoun was part of some of the most epic college games at Madison Square Garden, including the now notorious six-overtime thriller against Syracuse in 2009.

On his memories at Madison Square Garden…

When I first started coming here, we had to sit down lower not to see the game but so you could see through the smoke. I always thought as a Bostonian that the Boston Garden was pretty special, and it was. You had Holy Cross and other great teams playing there for years but when I came here and heard that this was the Mecca of college basketball, this has been it, this is it, and this will be it. This is an incredible, incredible place.

There’s magic in this building. I’m a romantic about the game, about movies, about novels, about movies; Madison Square Garden and basketball is a great romance. There are great stories being told all the time. This is a place that needs college basketball and college basketball needs the Garden.

On his history with UConn…

When I came here in 1988 and the school wasn’t doing particularly well in the Big East and had to catch up Syracuse and Georgetown and other programs we beat Boston College and turned around and beat Ohio State to win the NIT title. In Connecticut in 1988, it was a big deal, they had parades, it was unbelievable. Two years later we beat Syracuse and Georgetown on a Saturday and Sunday to win the Big East tournament. I think I’ve coached 60-70 games [at the Garden] and won some championships here and am very proud of that.

I think some of the kids I recruited early on truly believed in me because I believed in the program. When I was at Northeastern and we had Reggie Lewis—God rest his soul—I always believed that Northeastern was going to win no matter what. I’m the guy that gets shocked when we lose in the NCAA Tournament or in a triple-overtime game against Villanova at Nassau Coliseum. The desire to win, compete and instill the belief in other people that they can do this is very special. If you’re a coach and can impose your will and get the team to believe they can win, the kids can then impose their will on the other team.

On the best games he coached at Madison Square Garden…

The Allen Iverson-Ray Allen game was one of the great games I ever coached in. The six overtime game against Syracuse was OK—it was a great game but not a great ending. Everyone always says, “You seem upset you lost.” I’m like Oscar, I thought you played to win the game! In retrospect it was a great moment, a great game, it was wonderful. An hour after the game I wasn’t using the word wonderful very much. There’s been so many great moments.

In 2011, we had a pretty good run here of five games in five days with the incredible Kemba Walker and the Miracles. I think anyone who has every played the game of basketball saw some unique joy in the way that team played basketball. They enjoyed playing basketball, they weren’t worried about being tired, they wanted to play. We didn’t think about numbers or anything else, all we thought about was winning.

Dwayne “Pearl” Washington

One of the most entertaining players in college basketball history, Pearl dazzled crowds at Madison Square Garden with a finesse and style that was rare at the time. While at Syracuse, Washington was named Big East Rookie of the Year, Big East Tournament MVP, First Team All Big East three times, and was named an All-American.

On playing at Madison Square Garden…

To me, Madison Square Garden is the Mecca of basketball. My greatest memory was punching Patrick Ewing in his side (laughs). I always came to Madison Square Garden to put on a show and that’s really what it was all about; making people happy to see me and Syracuse play.

On what advice he would give to younger players…

Listen to your coach, especially if you think you have a chance to take your game to the next level at the NBA. I was fortunate to have that option but I never planned on leaving after two years, I was going to stay in school all four years. Somehow there was a deal made for me to go to New Jersey, which was home for me, and I took that. I didn’t know Derrick Coleman was coming to Syracuse. So I called Derrick and asked him, “DC, how come you never told me you were coming to Syracuse?” He said, “Pearl, when I came to school you were never around!” I would have stayed in school, my plans were to stay in school and have one more year to get to an NCAA Championship.

On Syracuse’s future in the ACC…

I think the team is still going to do well as far as recruiting. I was hoping that Syracuse would become the first team—I don’t think anyone else has done it—to leave one conference and go to another and win the conference tournament the first year. Unfortunately they lost the first game.

I feel bad for the Big East, the Big East was great. It was a show for me to come out and play. I think back then when I was playing with Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, those guys who were great players but also good people it was just phenomenal. A lot of people say the Big East was the best and now the ACC is the best but in the end it will work out for everybody.

Felipe Lopez

Appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated before playing a single game at St. John’s University, Lopez came into college with unprecedented hype. A four-year player for the Red Storm, Lopez holds the St. John’s record for most three-pointers in a single season. He was drafted by the Spurs in the first round of the 1998 Draft.

On the importance of Madison Square Garden…

I grew up in the Dominican Republic, I got here when I was 14 years old and there were two places that I was able to recognize when I moved to the United States. They were the Lakers arena, the old Forum because I used to love the Lakers, and the Garden. When I came here, I pretty much had the opportunity to go to any university in the country and knowing that St. John’s played at the Garden, I wanted to be a part of that history.

The pressure on big-time college freshmen now vs Lopez’s freshman year…

The kids now are under less pressure than I was coming out of high school. When you have the information out there like Twitter, Facebook and all those accounts, people are able to relay messages much easier from so many different outlets, it’s not so concentrated. When I came out there was no social media. There was the Daily News, News Day, the New York Post, the covers of Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News. Anyone who was on the cover, that was the only thing people were seeing so it was a lot more concentrated. I think that created a notion that you had to be successful regardless.

On one and done players in college…

When you talk about guys like Allen Iverson and Ray Allen, they all played more than one year in college. Now a lot of guys only focus on playing one year, no matter what happens they’re only playing one year. For me, I finished school and I made it to the NBA. I was able to have the pressure of playing in the NBA but also fulfilled a life goal of getting a degree and lived up to my parents goal who came to this country for the purpose of me going to school.

I really feel that the kids have people in the corner who have their best interest in minds but these people may not have all the information to make those kinds of decisions. When you throw someone out in the water without a life vest, they’re going to struggle. That’s what’s happening right now, there’s too many people telling these kids how nice they are and parents saying that their kid is the best player on Earth but that’s how it is because they have a personal interest in them. You have to be able to look at the big picture.

On his decision to stay at St. John’s all four years…

There was a lot of speculation of me going to the NBA after high school. My parents kept me grounded and humble and it could have been a whole lot different if I didn’t go to school. At the end of the day you have goals that you want to meet, some of them come early, some of them come late. To be able to fulfill the goal of finishing school, I would never be where I am today.