DURHAM, N.C. Madison Square Garden is billed as “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
That might be debatable, although the four facilities that have been known as “Madison Square Garden” have been a Mecca for college basketball and a frequent showcase for Duke basketball.
The Blue Devils will return to the famous New York City facility Thursday night for a game against St. John’s University. Duke will be trying to improve on a 22-14 all-time record in the current Garden 17-6 under Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The game will also mark the 11th straight season that Duke and St. John’s have met most of the games coming late in the season. Actually, the Blue Devils made their first-ever appearance in New York City in 1938 against the Red Storm (which went by the politically incorrect nickname “The Redmen” in those days), losing 44-28 on the St. John’s campus in Brooklyn.
Duke made its Madison Square Garden debut on New Year’s Day, 1944 and it was a memorable occasion.
The first two facilities know as Madison Square Garden were actually located at Madison Square at the intersection of Madison and 26th Street. A new facility, seating 17,000 fans, opened at 50th and Eighth Avenue in 1925. Although 24 blocks north of Madison Square, the new facility kept the old name.
It was there that college basketball blossomed with a series of well-attended weekend and holiday double-headers, usually matching a New York area team with a national opponent. Duke, enjoying a basketball renaissance under Coach Gerry Gerard in 1944, was matched against Clair Bee’s powerful Long Island Blackbirds.
The game, which drew 16,108 fans, proved to be a thriller with two-sport star Gordon Carver pouring in 27 points to carry Duke into overtime against the heavily favored home team. Although the Blackbirds would prevail 59-57, Carver’s heroics made him the talk of New York City.
Interesting to note that exactly one year later, Carver had an even more memorable New Year’s Day. Playing in the backfield for Eddie Cameron’s Duke football team, Carver made the game-saving tackle on the game’s final play as the Blue Devils edged Alabama 29-26 in the 1945 Sugar Bowl.
Duke return to Madison Square Garden several times in the next few years, until the 1951 point shaving scandals a series of college basketball fixes engineered by New York City gamblers convinced many college administrators to avoid the famous arena. The Southern Conference voted to ban participation in the postseason NIT, a ban that the new ACC adopted and maintained until 1967.
NCAA In The Garden
Duke made just an occasional appearance in New York City over the next few years, but those rare visits included the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance and its first NCAA Tournament win.
The former occurred in 1955. Although Duke lost the ACC title game to N.C. State, the Wolfpack was on probation and Hal Bradley’s Blue Devils won the right to represent the ACC in NCAA play. Duke was matched against Villanova in Madison Square Garden.
“I believe we can beat Villanova,” Bradley told reporters. “We’d like to do it and prove we’re as good as N.C. State. They lost twice to Villanova during the regular season, you know. If we could whip Villanova, it would make us feel a lot better about those losses to State.”
But Duke got off to a terrible start against the Wildcats, falling behind by 20 points in the first half. The Devils were still down 12 with three minutes to play when star guard Joe Belmont and unheralded reserve Dan Tobin sparked a spectacular rally. Center Junior Morgan slammed in a missed free throw with seconds left to cut the margin to one point, but the buzzer sounded before Villanova could inbounds and Duke had to settle for a 74-73 loss.
Bradley attributed the defeat to nerves.
“I’m afraid our boys were too awestruck over appearing at Madison Square Garden,” Bradley told reporters. “We missed too many shots we ordinarily make in the first half and we fell too far behind to catch up.”
A more graphic explanation was offered by Duke’s Herky Lamley. Asked by Durham writer Jack Horner what happened to the Devils, the substitute forward put his hands to his throat and said, “Need I say more?”
Duke fared better in its second NCAA appearance, which was also in Madison Square Garden. The 1960 Blue Devils finished fourth in the ACC regular season standings, but under first-year coach Vic Bubas, Duke upset regular season co-champs North Carolina and Wake Forest on back-to-back nights to claim the school’s first ACC title.
That earned Bubas’ squad a trip to New York and an opening round matchup with Princeton in the Garden. The Blue Devils scored a surprisingly easy 80-64 victory over the favored Ivy League champs. Bubas’ big three of Doug Kistler, Carroll Younkin and Howard Hurt combined for 57 points in the victory.
“We’re not a real powerful team, but we believe now that we can beat anybody,” the young Duke coach said. “We’re coming along fast and we just hope we can maintain this momentum.”
The Blue Devils followed the school’s first NCAA victory by beating St. Joseph’s in the East Regional semifinals before losing to NYU in the finals. The last two games were played in the new Charlotte Coliseum maybe Duke would have had better luck against NYU in the Garden!
NIT In The Garden
Bubas’ Duke teams played a significant role in the changeover between the third Madison Square Garden and its replacement the modern Garden atop Penn Station.
It started in 1967 when the ACC finally dropped its ban on participation in the NIT. Bubas’ ACC runnerups featuring All-American Bob Verga and big man Mike Lewis accepted a bid to play in the last postseason event played in the old Garden.
“We’re going to a national tournament, but it’s the wrong one,” Bubas said. “Of course we wish Carolina well in the NCAA, but it’s no secret that’s the one we wanted.”
The ACC Tournament overlapped with the start of the NIT in 1967, but tournament officials were so anxious to get an ACC team in the field that Duke was awarded a first-pound bye. Even so, the weary Devils had to leave Greensboro after losing to North Carolina in the ACC title game and get to New York for a second-round NIT matchup with Southern Illinois on Monday night.
Fatigue clearly played a factor in the game. The Blue Devils were tied with the Salukis at the half, but couldn’t keep up with brilliant guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier in the second half and lost 72-61.
“We’re glad to have been the first ACC team to have played in the NIT,” Bubas said. “I can see bigger and better things for the NIT when it goes to the new Madison Square Garden next year.”
Duke would actually make one more appearance in the old Garden. On Feb. 8, 1968, the Blue Devils routed Southern Illinois without Frazier, who had moved on to the Knicks in the final college basketball doubleheader played in the third Madison Square Garden.
A month later, the Devils were back in New York to play in the first NIT held in the new Garden. Making a second straight NIT appearance, Bubas’ team made an auspicious debut in the new facility, routing Oklahoma City, 97-81. The game was so lopsided at the half that instead of taking his team to the locker room, Oklahoma City coach Abe Lemons scrimmaged his team shirts vs. skins during the break.
Unfortunately, Duke’s next game would prove a bit more disappointing. Early foul trouble sidelined big men Mike Lewis, Fred Lind and Steve Vandenberg, allowing St. Peter’s smaller and quicker Peacocks to race to a 100-71 victory.
Duke would return to the NIT twice more in the early 1970s, even reaching the semifinals under Coach Bucky Waters in 1971. But the rest of the decade would produce a number of disappointing visits to the new Madison Square Garden. Waters’ 1971-72 team lost back-to-back heartbreakers to St. Peter’s and Syracuse in the Holiday Festival. Exactly seven years later, Bill Foster’s No. 1 ranked Duke team suffered a nightmarish visit to Madison Square Garden, blowing big leads in back-to-back losses to Ohio State and St. John’s.
The Krzyzewski Era
Mike Krzyzewski had better luck when he first visited Madison Square Garden. In fact, Duke’s Hall of Fame coach used the famous arena to launch his first great team.
The 1985-86 Blue Devils opened the season in the inaugural Preseason NIT. Duke’s first two wins in the 16-team tournament came in Houston. Four powerful teams gathered for the semifinals in New York Duke, Louisville and Kansas, which would all reach the Final Four that season, and St. John’s, which would merely win the Big East and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Duke, getting a spectacular performance from senior David Henderson, edged St. John’s in the semifinals, then beat Kansas 92-86 in the title game. That success would launch the winningest season in Duke history 37 victories and a spot in the national title game.
Coincidentally, the 1999 Blue Devils, which also won 37 games and played in the NCAA title game, also played a memorable game in Madison Square Garden. It was the first game in Duke’s annual series with St. John’s and, so far, it’s been the best.
The Blue Devils entered the game 18-1 and ranked No. 1, while the Red Storm came in ranked No. 8 nationally. A crowd of more than 19,000 and a national TV audience watched as Duke did a good job of containing St. John’s stars Ron Artest and Erick Barkley. But little-known Marvis “Bootsie” Thornton poured in a career high 40 points to force the game into overtime. With All-America Elton Brand and point guard Will Avery sidelined with five fouls, the Devils appeared to be in big trouble. But versatile junior Chris Carrawell moved to the point and guided Duke to a memorable 92-88 victory.
None of the other nine games in the current series have quite matched that contest, although the two old rivals have had their moments. St. John’s won an 83-82 thriller in Durham on Feb. 26, 2000 which stands as Duke’s last non-conference loss in Cameron. The Blue Devils have pretty much dominated in recent years, winning seven of the last eight meetings, including the last five in a row.
Will the series continue after this season?
The late non-conference matchup is unusual in the ACC (it’s the only non-ACC game on the schedule after Feb. 3), but common for Duke, which has always used its late “bye” in the ACC schedule to play a non-conference foe.
“Overall, it’s been a great benefit to us during my time here to do that,” Coach K said earlier this week. “I think there’s [an advantage] to be able to play a game against somebody who doesn’t know you as well in preparation for the NCAA Tournament. But also just to get away from things no standings or anything like that. You’re playing a game.”
But Krzyzewski admitted that he was thinking of ending the practice of playing a late non-ACC game, due to the imbalance in the ACC schedule brought on by expansion.
“With the different type of conference schedules you have now where sometimes you can have a much tougher schedule than another team in your conference, we’ll have to look at whether this is a better philosophy ongoing or what,” he said.
Krzyzewski pointed out that because of TV demands, the two annual Duke-Carolina games will always be played in February and March. In recent years, the Devils have ended up facing a much stronger February challenge within the league than the January schedule. In those circumstances, it might help his team more to take a week off late in the season than to play a team such as St. John’s.
It’s possible the St. John’s series could continue in December. Krzyzewski likes playing a game in the New York City area for the school’s many alumni in the area and for prospective recruits in the New York metropolitan area. Although Duke has had few standouts from the city itself over the years, the Devils have plucked a number of stars from the suburbs from Rockville’s Art Heyman to Jersey City’s Bobby Hurley to Peekskill’s Elton Brand.
Duke is almost certain to continue to visit the New York City area every year, although the Izod Center/The Meadowlands remains a viable option. Still, it’s hard to turn down a chance to play in the World’s Most Famous Arena especially since Duke basketball has played such a significant part of that fame.