The Death of New York Basketball

Pro Football NYCSenior Writer IJanuary 3, 2008


When I get calls and emails from my friends around the country regarding big basketball games, I immediately change the subject or delete the email.

I'm a New Yorker. Basketball is dead here.

That's right, only the real diehards are following basketball in NYC these days. This used to be the Mecca of basketball—college and pro. The teams here were competitive, and interest in teams from other cities that New Yorkers played for was just as high. You could fill Madison Square Garden two or three times a week with great doubleheaders and tournaments. On the other nights, the Knicks would fill the place.

That's all gone now.

Last week, MSG hosted their annual Holiday Festival featuring St. John's, Virginia Tech, Marist, and Hofstra. If there were 10,000 total in attendance for the two days I'll eat my hat. Both sessions were far from memorable. The sparse crowds were treated to a sloppy brand of basketball in which—you guessed it—Virginia Tech prevailed.

The Decline

St. John's had a great tradition. Joe Lapchick, Louie Carnesecca, etc.—they were the kings of NY college basketball from the 1970's to the end of the century. The are currently fifth on the all-time win list in NCAA history.

When Louie left the program to Brian Mahoney it in 1992, it was one of the country's best. Mahoney didn't exactly drive it into the ground, but he did little to improve it. As college basketball programs around the country swooped in to lure New York teenagers away, Mahoney was over-matched in trying to compete. Consequently, the program began to sag.

In 1996, Fran Fraschilla was hired to rejuvenate the program. He got it back on track, only to be fired for his dalliances with other colleges. St. John's decided to hire Mike Jarvis in 1998 in an attempt to reconnect with the African-American population of New York City and the surrounding areas.

In the beginning it worked. Jarvis was an immediate success on the surface. What was unknown to the untrained eyes was the fact that Jarvis was doing minimal outreach to the high schools of NYC instead of embracing them. The plan backfired and SJU lost major recruits to surrounding schools.

Jarvis was fired in 2004 after several challenging seasons on and off the court. More than ever before, St. John's players seemed to be in some sort of trouble with the law. High school coaches in the area were steering their college-bound players elsewhere.

Now, Norm Roberts is the head coach. He has tried like hell to resurrect this program, but he is realizing that he is up against it. The Big East has expanded to 16 teams—many of them perennial NCAA powers—and SJU is now low man on the totem pole. That, along with the public relations nightmare that has surrounded the program the past decade, has made Roberts' job even more difficult. With eight freshmen on this year's team he does not expect to compete for a few years.

SJU is no longer a major force in the Big East or the NCAA. As a result, their ability to draw crowds has evaporated.

On the NBA scene, the Knicks have sunk to new lows. The Garden, which owns the Knicks and Rangers, is owned by Cablevision. Cablevision's founder, Charles Dolan, in an effort to steer his wayward and clueless son Jim in the right direction, put him in charge of the whole shooting match. Needless to say he screwed this assignment up, but is still firmly in charge.

In 2003, Jim Dolan hired basketball legend Isiah Thomas to retool the Knicks and bring them back to prominence. He's done just the opposite. The Knicks' payroll is currently the leagues' second highest. Their win-loss record is among the league's worst. Thomas has made poor trade after poor trade, taking on contracts that other teams were trying to shed and has been presiding over a revolving door of overpaid, underachievers combined with inexperienced, young players.

Oh, he is also the head coach of this mess. The only individual in the league that currently holds both titles of GM and coach in the NBA. 

In addition, Thomas was in the center of a sexual harassment suit brought on the Garden by a former employee. The plaintiff prevailed and the Garden was forced to pay $11.6 million in punitive damages. Thomas walked away from this unscathed and recently received a full endorsement from Jim Dolan.

Apparently, Jimmy boy can't read resumes too well. Thomas has left a path of destruction everywhere he's been. He was forced out of Toronto after multiple allegations of inappropriate conduct. He bought the CBA in 1999. By 2001, they were out of business after five decades. Now Thomas has brought his Midas touch to the Knicks. Things have gone from bad to worse and I'm sure we aren't close to reaching bottom yet. 

The Future 

It looks pretty bleak. 

New Yorkers have accepted that the golden age of college basketball in NYC is over and has been for awhile. St. John's will probably never return to national prominence, joining NYU, CCNY, and LIU as schools that have fallen into basketball anonymity. 

The Knicks can be fixed. Step one is for Papa Dolan to yank the reins away from his boy. That would mean the end of Isiah. A GM/President of Operations would need to be hired and from there a new scouting staff and head coach.

We're talking years of rebuilding here folks.

For that to happen, the hammerheads that show up every night to watch this debacle will have to revolt. Stay away. Don't go, don't buy tickets, don't watch on television. Form protests outside the Garden, write to the local papers and call the radio stations in outrage.