By Neil Beldock
The timeline for this article is the 2nd week of March, 2017. Perhaps the greatest week for college basketball in the history of New York City since 1950 is about to occur.
The Big East Tournament will be playing it’s annual tournament at it’s usual location; Madison Square Garden.
At the same time, for the first-time ever, the ACC Tournament will be playing it’s tournament in New York City at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
What an amazing week of not only college basketball, but basketball, period.
Starting on March 7th, 2017 New York City will truly live up to it’s reputation as the “Mecca of College Basketball” as it once was many, many years ago; timeline 1934-1951……
After the 1950-51 season, college basketball in New York City would become virtually non-existent as it relates to playing on a grand scale and grand stage in the city most responsible for bolstering the popularity of the sport, and leading to the enormous popularity it now enjoys and revels in today.
It would take over 30 years and the formation of a new conference for the grandiose excitement of college basketball to once again transform New York City into the “Mecca of College Basketball”, as it had once been.
Timeline March, 1950. There is absolutely no question as to who the best team in college basketball is as both the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), the most prestigious college basketball tournament of it’s time, and the ascending NCAA Tournament conclude play at Madison Square Garden in successive weeks.
Here’s who isn’t the best college basketball team in the nation at the conclusion of the 1950 season; Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio State and Kansas.
Nor was UCLA the best team in the nation in 1950. But the best team, just like UCLA, was identified by four capitalized letters.
The best team in college basketball at the conclusion of the 1950 season was CCNY……..Who?
That’s right……CCNY………..City College of New York……
CCNY proved to be the crème-de-la-crème of college basketball in 1950 after beating Bradley University in the finals of both the NIT and NCAA Tournaments. This marked the only time up to that point and since that a single team won both tournaments.
This would be the high-water mark for the dominance of college basketball by New York City colleges which commenced in the 1930’s.
Sadly, this also marked another beginning which could be described using 4 letters as well, four “D’s” in fact; The dismantling, destruction, demise and disgrace of college basketball of and for New York City colleges.
To understand how CCNY became the best team in the nation in 1950, we must turn the clock back to 1933 and the efforts of one man by the name of Ned Irish. It was the genius of Ned Irish which turned New York City and Madison Square Garden into the “Mecca of College Basketball”.
Ned Irish was a young sports reporter for the New York World Telegraph. On one particular night in 1933 he was assigned to cover a basketball game at Manhattan College. Upon arriving at the school’s gymnasium, Irish found the gym packed to capacity with the doors locked, thus denying him entry to do his job.
Being the enterprising young journalist which he was, Irish found an open window which he was able to crawl through to gain entry into the gym.
It’s hard to fathom that something as innocuous as climbing through a window would ultimately result in college basketball becoming the game it is today. But that’s exactly what happened.
Upon entering the packed gym housing wildly enthusiastic fans, it occurred to Irish that this (college basketball) was ready for the big-time.
Before Irish crawled through that particular window of the gymnasium at Manhattan College, college basketball was relegated to lower citizenship within the New York City sports scene behind baseball, football and even hockey. But Irish had a vision.
Irish’s vision saw the game of college basketball being played on the big, shiny and elaborate stage of Madison Square Garden in front of thousands of wildly enthusiastic fans instead of small, dimly lit on-campus gymnasiums where just hundreds of fans could gain entry at a time.
Irish’s vision was to have schools from outside of New York come to New York and Madison Square Garden to compete against New York City schools such as St. John’s, LIU, NYU, Manhattan College and CCNY.
His first test came on December 29, 1934 when he set-up and promoted a doubleheader at Madison Square Garden which pitted two New York City colleges against two out-of-town schools.
On that night, St. John’s would play Westminster College from Wilmington, Pennsylvania, and NYU would play Notre Dame University from South Bend, Indiana. This date also marked the very first big-time college basketball doubleheader, an event which would become a staple of college basketball for years to come.
In the first game of the doubleheader Westminster defeated St. Johns by the score of 37-33. In the nightcap, NYU beat Notre Dame 25-18.
But it wasn’t the results of the games which were so eye-opening. It was the fact that 16,188 fans packed Madison Square Garden to watch the two games, proving the accuracy of Irish’s vision. These intersectional games would become as popular a sporting event as any in New York City elevating the popularity of college basketball and the quality of play of the New York City colleges to levels never before seen.
But there was an undercurrent brewing.
As the New York City colleges got better and better, and the paydays for teams from out-of-state coming to New York getting bigger and bigger, new dynamics were forming, dynamics which would ultimately lead to the “4 D’s” previously referenced.
Teams coming to New York to play the various New York City colleges were finding it increasingly more difficult to compete with the New York schools as these city schools had rosters filled with New York City kids who were demonstrating how and why basketball had become “The City Game”.
More often than not, games were proving to be lopsided affairs in favor of the New York City schools, thus making the games less entertaining for the fans. There was a “fan-solution” of sorts created which would not only re-define the college basketball experience at Madison Square Garden, but re-define sports viewership forever.
The “fan-solution” created is best known as the “Point-Spread”. And fans loved it!!
Gambling enterprises and bookmakers began to identify who the favorite was to win each game, and by how many points. The activity as it relates to betting on these games and utilizing the “point-spread” was brisk to say the least. It would seem as if every fan attending the games at Madison Square Garden had money on the game, utilizing the point-spread.
The result was that CCNY might be beating an out-of-state school by 20 points with just a few minutes to go in the game. Although who the winner of the game would be was not in question, what would be in question was whether CCNY could “cover” the 19 point spread established.
Fans would be rooting wildly for their personal bet to wind up on the right side of that 19 point spread. So it no longer mattered to the fans who won, but rather by how much. And it also didn’t matter if the game was blow-out or not. The only thing that mattered was, as a fan, which side of that point-spread did your money reside (sound like the world of fantasy sports today?).
Timeline: 1940’s: CCNY is emerging as a basketball powerhouse led by the brilliance of their coach, Nat Holman and a roster composed of “city-bred sons of immigrants and descendants of slaves”. The team was beloved in New York City for it’s representation of the diversity of the city itself.
Aside from CCNY basketball being on the rise in the late 1940’s, so too was sports gambling.
With more and more money pouring in, those running gambling rings sought out more sophisticated means for ensuring that they would come out on the winning side of the bets they were booking.
Having already invented “the point-spread”, the idea of controlling the point-spread as a means of increasing winnings became paramount to those running the numerous gambling and bookmaking rings. Thus, point shaving was born.
Shaving points is the art of a player not altering the outcome of a game, but rather altering how many points they win the game by.
From the gamblers and bookmakers perspective, if they could get enough players to agree to manipulate the final score in favor of their position in regard to the point spread, they stood to reap huge monetary benefits. This represented an illegal act in accordance with a bill passed in 1945 prohibiting the bribing of participants of sporting events.
With the violation of laws never having been a consideration or detriment in the minds of the gamblers and bookmakers, plots were hashed to facilitate point-shaving schemes.
First on the agenda was identifying and reaching players who could potentially be players not only on the court, but within the point-spread manipulation game as well.
Enter summers in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
Every summer, New York City residents would flock to the numerous hotels located throughout the Catskill Mountain region in upstate New York to escape the sweltering heat which accompanied summers in the city.
And the Catskill region would become a basketball hotbed during the summer months.
College players from New York City schools would be hired to work as bell-hops and waiters amongst the numerous hotels located throughout the Catskills.
The allure for the hotels was that by hiring college basketball players and forming hotel teams to compete against one another, the hotels would be able to provide a high level and desirable form of entertainment each evening for their guests. Each hotel team was loaded with the best and most recognizable college basketball players from New York City colleges.
The open forum and relaxed atmosphere offered by the hotels of the Catskills presented the perfect opportunity for the gamblers and bookmakers to be able to meet and converse with the numerous college players employed at and by the hotels. And the offers being made proved to be too tempting and too good to turn down for some.
There’s no telling how many games were affected by point shaving schemes and when exactly they commenced, but the first crack within the operation(s) occurred in January of 1951.
On January 17th, 1951 Henry Poppe and Jack Byrnes, two players who played for Manhattan College, and gamblers/bookmakers Cornelious Kelleher, Benjamin Schwartzberg and his brother Irving were booked on bribery and conspiracy charges. The charges alleged that in 1949 both Poppe and Byrnes had received $50.00 per week from Kelleher during the off-season plus $3,000.00 to shave points during the 1949-50 season.
It was alleged that point shaving occurred in games Manhattan College played against Siena, Santa Clara and Bradley University. All three games had been played in Madison Square Garden. It was also alleged that Poppe and Byrnes were paid $2,000.00 to shave points in games against St. Francis College of Brooklyn and NYU.
The dam was about to break wide open.
On February 18, 1951, bribery/point shaving allegations would initiate the arrests of CCNY players Ed Warner, Ed Roman and Al Roth. They were arrested in Penn Station in New York City upon their return from Philadelphia where CCNY had just beaten Temple. That same evening Harvey Schaaf of NYU and Ed Gaard, a former LIU player were arrested as well, charged with the same crimes.
Two days later on February 20th, LIU players Sherman White, LeRoy Smith and Adolph Bigos were arrested for taking bribes to intentionally impact the result of games as well. The day before, February 19th, Sherman White had been named the College Basketball Player of the Year by The Sporting News.
LIU was scheduled to play Cincinnati at Madison Square Garden two night later on the evening of February 22. In what can be considered a foreboding of what was to occur in the near future, the game was cancelled.
The arrests would continue a month later when on March 26th former CCNY players Irwin Dambrot and Norm Mager and current CCNY player Herb Cohen were apprehended. Then, on March 30th, former LIU players Louis Lipman and Richard Feutardo were arrested as well.
The scandal was not limited to New York college players only. Players from Kentucky, Bradley and Toledo were also indicted for shaving points in games they participated in at Madison Square Garden.
In all, 32 players from 7 schools were implicated, indicted and charged with accepting bribes to alter the outcome of games. The scandal would rock New York City college basketball to it’s core. Two of the greatest coaches of all time, Nat Holman (CCNY) and Claire Bee of LIU would never emotionally recover from the scandal(s).
As a result of the scandal, Madison Square Garden shut it’s doors to college basketball. LIU and CCNY temporarily discontinued their basketball programs and others, with the exception of St. John’s, de-emphasized their basketball programs. In essence, college basketball in New York City was issued a death-blow.
The city which had been the “Mecca of College Basketball”, was rendered a cemetery. Sadly, big-time college basketball in New York City would go dormant for over 30 years.
The NIT would still be played in New York City every March of every year, and remain a popular tournament through the late 1960’s substantiating that the thirst within New York City for big-time college basketball remained.
And Madison Square Garden would also host the ECAC Holiday Festival every December which would also substantiate that the a lust for big-time college basketball in New York City existed.
But aside from a week in December and a week in March, college basketball was non-existent at Madison Square Garden with no local team for the fans to embrace.
Through the early years of the 1970’s, the growth of the NCAA Tournament began to render the NIT as a secondary tournament with waning popularity and declining attendance. But the want for big-time college basketball in New York City was never questioned.
Finally, redemption arrived for big-time college basketball in New York City.
Timeline 1979: The Big East Conference was formed with St. John’s being a charter and founding member. If the Big East Conference was able to survive, big-time college basketball would return to New York City and Madison Square Garden.
And survive it did, as we all know. St. John’s started playing a number of their regular season games at Madison Square Garden, once again providing New York City with a New York City team for local fans to embrace as they once had embraced the likes of CCNY, LIU, NYU and St. John’s years and years before.
To further the resurrection of big-time college basketball in New York City, commencing in 1983 the Big East Conference moved their annual year-end tournament to Madison Square Garden with St. John’s winning the inaugural Madison Square Garden tournament and reviving visions of yore.
Timeline March 2017: Commencing on Tuesday, March 7th, both the Big East Tournament and the ACC Tournament will commence tournament play in New York City.
New York City has not seen college basketball on this level since March of 1950 when in successive weeks CCNY captured both the NIT and NCAA Championships on the floor of Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York City.
Once again, New York City will be the unquestionable “Mecca of College Basketball”.