The last time the NCAA Division I Men's basketball tournament was played in Madison Square Garden, the year was 1961, Nedick's was the spot to meet up and grab a hot dog and orange drink, and the entrance to the Garden was on Eighth Avenue between 49th Street and 50th Street.
Fifty-three years will have passed since the last time the Garden hosted an NCAA tournament game, but the 2014 East Regional Championship on March 28 and 30 will mark the return.
The Garden can now be found on Seventh Avenue between 31st Street and 33rd Street, and TGI Friday's and Lindy's have become the modern day Nedick's, but three New York City legends found their way back to the mecca to celebrate the Garden winning the bid for the East Regional Championship next year.
On Saturday, 1959-62 St. John's forward Willie Hall, and 1949-50 CCNY NIT and NCAA champion teammates Floyd Layne and Ron Nadel returned to reminisce about their NCAA moments in the "old Garden."
Former St. John's standout Hall spoke candidly about playing in the last NCAA tournament game at the "old Garden"—a day that featured a triple-header—Princeton vs. George Washington, St. Bonaventure vs. Rhode Island and St. John's vs. Wake Forest:
We gave it our best, because I love my team. Our team always stuck together. We didn't do anything other than stick together while we were playing. We had a tough coach, Joe Lapchick, and he was good. He had me guard the star player all the time. It was a tough thing playing against Wake Forest and we lost down the stretch by I think, four points.
While Hall has most likely tried to wipe the memory of that loss in the first round to Wake Forest 52 years ago, St. John's was in fact defeated, 97-74.
Hall was subsequently asked what it would be like if St. John's ever made it back to a Final Four, and since he played in New York City when college basketball was king, he knows that winning is all that matters in this town:
It's very difficult to say how they would be embraced, because it's all about winning. You have to win in this city, if you don't win, they don't pay any attention to you. The more you win a game, as long as you win it by one or half a point, I don't care what it is, you have to be a winner now a days to make it to any different level of play.
When asked what St. John's specifically needs to do in order to compete and give themselves a chance to play in the 2014 East Regional Championship at the Garden, Hall preached the following:
You have to really play hard, you have to have compatibility between the teammates. I watched St. John's today, they just need some more bulk on their team. They don't have enough bulk. The guys that play nowadays, they're monsters. You need some meat on you out there to push some people around too.
St. John's lost to Marquette on Saturday at the Garden, 69-67, on a buzzer-beater layup by Vander Blue.
The two gentlemen sitting to Hall's right—Layne and Nadel—remain New York legends for winning both the NIT and NCAA tournament at the "old Garden" in 1949-50, and doing so as an unranked team in both tournaments:
As I recall it, Layne said, it was a regular situation. I call it game-to-game situation. Each time we played, it was the usual getting ready, fundamentals being stressed as always. We were quite a ways along as far as the games and schedule was concerned.
The routine was pretty much the same as always. We addressed each game in the same fashion throughout the season. We were naturally trained to play together. We were a motion club, fast break club, good defensive club, and we played hard.
Nadel fondly remembered the indelible experience of winning both tournaments in the Garden that year:
Coming off that emotional high, Nat [Holman] was a taskmaster and there was nothing but drills and drills. We felt coming into the NIT, which we won, we beat Bradley and weren't even a seeded team, we came off that and we weren't even invited, in fact we were the last team invited to the NIT.
Winning the NIT was a great experience for us, and now we weren't ready for the NCAA, we weren't even knowing that we were going to be in the NCAA until we won that final game in the NIT.
Then we were invited into the NCAA. Sure as be, we ended up playing Bradley again in the finals, and it was an experience that I'll know I'll never forget, and I'm sure Floyd won't either.
Sadly, the 1951 point-shaving scandal, which brought down Layne among the 32 total college players, is still a blemish on CCNY's record 52 years later.
Nadel spoke for Layne on that subject:
Anything that had to be said, was said. There were books written on it, and case closed. We did what we did, we won two championships and things happened.
Hall chimed in on Nadel's comments:
In spite of what he [Nadel] said, all the guys, because when I was a young guy I used to go by and watch them, they were some great men. I don' t care what went down, but personally to me, they were some men to be followed after.
Focus shifted back to talking hoops, and since Layne is currently the head coach at George Washington High School in Manhattan, he spoke passionately about how basics still trump everything else in the game today:
Fundamentals. Fundamentals is the game, and it's an easy game. When I'm going back here, spinning and going back here, [behind the back] I'm not achieving anything. I'm just showing off. I'm not doing anything that's practical about getting me to the basket if I'm on offense.
Layne's attitude reflects what is often lacking in college basketball today, and his presence along with Nadel and Hall serve as a reminder that March Madness in the Garden is something that is sorely overdue.
The 2014 East Regional will mark the 18th time the NCAA tournament will be hosted by the Mecca of Basketball, and president and chief executive officer of Madison Square Garden Hank Ratner is beaming with pride:
We are honored to have the NCAA tournament, one of the most prestigious athletic tournaments in the world, return to the completely transformed Madison Square Garden in 2014.
When the tournament tips off, fans will experience the dramatic results of the Garden's completed top-to-bottom transformation, providing them a world-class experience and amenities from the moment they enter the brand new lobby to the final buzzer.
The addition of this tournament is exactly the type of premier event we expect to provide our fans and New York City in our new state-of-the-art Arena.
Over the course of the Garden's 133-year existence, there have been 71 tournament games, including seven first-round appearances (1955-61), nine East Regional's (1943-51) and seven Championships (1943-48 and 1950).
NCAA tournament game No. 72 in the Garden is all set to tip off next March, 53 years following game No. 71, and it's about time that tournament basketball returns to its rightful home.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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