Put on your high-heeled sneakers. Wear your wig-hat on your head. You hear what I said?
We're through fooling around with this college basketball season. Now we're into hard core. Okay?
Tonight, you've got your two best teams, St. John's and Georgetown; you've got your two best players, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin; you've got your two best pieces of coaching outerwear, The Sweater and The Towel, and you've got your all-time best place to watch college basketball, that profane cathedral to Hoop, Madison Square Garden. Nueva York, bro.
Be there, or be square.
They're saying that this is the toughest basketball ticket in years, that a $12.50 seat is pulling as much as $350. They haven't heard a clamor for a hoops ticket like this since 1970, the night Willis Reed limped onto the Garden floor to lead the Knicks into the seventh game of the NBA finals against the Lakers. Before that, what? Lew Alcindor's return home with UCLA in 1968? Bill Bradley's debut with the Knicks in 1967? Bradley's Princeton against Cazzie Russell's Michigan in the 1964 Holiday Festival final? CCNY's NIT and NCAA double win in 1950?
"Nothing like this," Looie Carnesecca told reporters camped out at St. John's yesterday.
And he's seen them all.
"I go way back, way, waaaaay back," Looie rasped. "And I don't think there has ever been any event that's had the particular hype this game has had. This is chaos, this is crazy, this is wild."
Little Looie hit the bottom line: "You could play it in the Sahara and sell it out."
The people at the NCAA offices in Kansas can't remember the last time that the Nos. 1 and 2 teams played off this late in the regular season. Maybe there hasn't been a last time. Maybe this is the first time. Maybe you could play it in the Sahara and sell it out. I'm just glad it's at the Garden.
What Wimbledon is to tennis, what Indy is to auto racing, that's what the Garden is to college basketball. I know it's not the old Garden on 50th Street. But when they built this new one in the '60s, at least they had enough sense to make the roof high and let the smoke rise thick and gray like thunderclouds. It isn't one of those Whirlydomes that they're building lately, the kind where you can land a 747 in the morning, play football in the afternoon and then recreate World War II at night. It's as intimate as any 19,500-seat arena gets, which is not very. And it's not real clean; you're never sure what -- or who -- you might find under your seat. But somewhere down there in the grit and the grime you'll find some little bits of history, some ghosts, some echoes. The Whirlydomes give you high-tech; the Garden gives you the breath of life.
There was a time, before the scandals of the early '50s, when New York was the college basketball capital of the country. The NIT was the tournament that mattered; the NCAA was something they played out where there were cows. CCNY, NYU, St. John's, LIU, Fordham and Manhattan all were national powers. For a Kentucky or a De Paul to have credibility, it had to come to the Garden and beat somebody. Garden doubleheaders were the ermine and pearls of the college game. If it didn't happen there, it didn't happen.
Obviously, times have changed. The NIT is nothing now, a hollow shell of a postseason tournament. Every podunk on an interstate has a basketball palace. Every two-bit team is on TV somewhere, sometime. There's no credibility in beating Manhattan or Fordham anymore, there's hardly any point. VCUs and UABs have displaced NYUs and LIUs. NYU dropped varsity basketball in the '70s and only recently brought it back on the Division III level, which is where CCNY has lived for years; it is, incidentally, a nice, sweet touch that NYU and CCNY will play in the preliminary game tonight.
Whatever stature New York still maintains in the overall college basketball picture, it owes to the continued good health and fortune of St. John's. For the past two decades, on those occasions when the Garden was sold out for a college game, St. John's usually was one of the participants. Fordham made a run during the Digger Phelps Era, which was a brief era, the 1970-71 season to be precise. In the wake of Digger's move there, Notre Dame drew well at the Garden for the next few years, as did Marquette, a team stocked with City players and perhaps the ultimate City coach, Al McGuire. Notice anything common to these schools? They are Catholic schools; the Garden's best shot at filling up in the '60s, '70s and '80s lay in bringing in Catholic schools. North Carolina and Indiana will draw when they're on top, but on balance, the Garden always is better off with a whole lot of Loyolas. I don't know why, and it's a little late in the game to call Father Hesburgh.
You've got two more Catholic schools tonight and another sellout. Puts you in a New York state of mind.
"It's great," Looie was exclaiming. "And it's right here, right here in New York City, the Big Apple, the very best city in the world, and one that has everything -- except grass." And tonight it has Georgetown-St. John's, the Ali-Frazier II of roundball, right out front, as Looie likes to say, in Macy's window.
This shouldn't be the last time these two teams meet this season. If their rankings are true, they should meet again next week in the Garden in the finals of the Big East's tournament, and one last time at the Final Four in Lexington, Ky., perhaps for the national championship. But those may never come. And this one's here. And this one's to see, for this week, anyway, who owns New York, and, consequently, who owns college basketball.