They were drawn by the local boys made good, the thrill of Madison Square Garden and the mystique of college basketball, the city game, come alive again in New York.
In all, 19,500 fans and change made their way through Gotham to the corner of 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue, where No. 1-ranked St. John's met No. 2 Georgetown tonight in the widely proclaimed game for the ages. Hats saying "Hoya Destroyas" floated above the crowds, and the phrase "rockets red glare" during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner started a near riot among the Redmen.
St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca had started a fashion rage with his lucky sweater, a brown, red and turquoise creation that had been dubbed "Looie's Look." Georgetown Coach John Thompson started another thunderous roar when he opened his sports coat and displayed the same sweater as he shook hands with Carnesecca.
Outside, scalpers were kept at bay by police barriers, mounties and foot patrolmen, but they had a field day, anyway. The precious cardboard went for as much as $250, and some courtside seats were rumored at $400. "Need" and "selling" were the whispered passwords, and transactions took place despite an NYPD loudspeaker that occasionally made the announcement, "We're watching you."
Bob Manning, a St. John's sophomore, looked at the Garden entrance forlornly. He stood in line for five hours for his ticket earlier in the fall, but sold it.
"I just sold mine for $150," he said. "I needed the money for rent, food, phone bills. I would love to see this game. I'll go to a bar and have a good time instead."
Tom Shanahan, a St. John's junior, managed to get tickets three weeks ago through the City College of New York, whose team played in the first half of the doubleheader.
"This is it," he said. "It's No. 1 against No. 2, and it's the Garden. They haven't seen this since the Knicks were in the championship game. The parties started the night after we beat Georgetown the first time and haven't stopped since. Everyone wants something from St. John's. They'll buy your hat for $5."
Katha Quinn, sports information director for St. John's, estimated the media was 300 strong. Camera crews had descended on the Long Island campus all week, interviewing anyone in a school T-shirt.
"I've never seen anything like it," Quinn said. "They'll talk to anybody with a red pom-pon. It's like the Super Bowl. I've got 300 sets of game notes and all the Tylenol I can carry."
St. John's Athletic Director John Kaiser fielded pleading calls as late as this afternoon. He had to turn down numerous family friends and supporters.
"I'm hiding," Kaiser said. "We've been sold out for three months. I have one ticket, and that's for me. I called (Georgetown Athletic Director) Frank Rienzo and asked him, 'Hey, Frank, got any tickets? He laughed.' "
Kaiser did manage to squirrel away two tickets early this fall, for his daughter and a friend.
"I showed a little foresight," he said. "Otherwise, I'd be dead. She would have killed me."
Carnesecca was trying to find two for actor Ken Howard, who played a high school basketball coach in the TV series "The White Shadow." Carnesseca wandered around practice, bleating, "I've got to have two for the White Hope."
Carnesecca also took calls from associates overseas who wanted to fly in for the game. One assistant coach for a Spanish team actually made the trip, and joking speculation was that Carnesecca would try to sneak him onto the bench as a staffer.
The famous were there, as well, including Dan Rather, Howard Cosell and former New York Gov. Hugh Carey, an alumnus. Current Gov. Mario Cuomo, another St. John's alumnus, was a no-show, however, because of a prior engagement. He had been a cause of consternation to Carnesecca, who was afraid the governor might show up and not be able to get a ticket. Carnesecca spent the week saying, "We've got to take care of the guy upstate."
Finally, Frank McGuire, director of college basketball at the Garden, quieted him. "Lou," he said, "If we have to put a chair at midcourt and play around him, we'll take care of him."
NBC broadcaster Len Berman had the story of the week when he came by a pair of tickets for free. An NBC assistant who attends St. John's simply handed him two and told him he didn't have any use for them. "I have to go bowling," he said. "It's league night."
At least someone was keeping his head.