NEW YORK – Art Hyland was holding the program with the reverence it deserved.
“I found this at home. Look at the quality of the paper. They don’t make them this way now,” he said, holding the black-and-white program from a basketball tripleheader that took place 53 years ago.
Hyland played for Princeton that day in 1961 when the first round of the NCAA tournament was held at Madison Square Garden. Nobody knew those three games would be the last in the NCAA tournament at the “Mecca” of college basketball until this weekend.
Thick, ad-filled, glossy color programs will be available Friday night when top-seeded Virginia meets fourth-seeded Michigan State and third-seeded Iowa State faces seventh-seeded Connecticut in the East Regional semifinals.
It won’t be the same building — the “new” Madison Square Garden opened in 1968 and recently underwent a $1 billion transformation — but it’s the same stage. The arena that is still the center of the basketball world gets to again host the tournament that draws the attention of non-sports fans as well.
“The first thing I remember is the smoke. Thick smoke,” Hyland said, recalling days when “no smoking” sections were still decades away. “Then there were the banks of phones right outside the seats. They were always being used just before the game.”
Not only were the change-grabbing pay phones the only source of communication then, they were also the lifeline of those who wanted to bet on the games, and they would wait until the last minute to call whoever was taking the action.
“We used to come to the Garden and watch the NIT and sit all day and watch games,” Hyland said. “Playing in the Garden was one of my fondest memories.”
Hyland had 16 points and nine rebounds that day, something he didn’t remember until he recently was shown a box score of the Tigers’ 84-67 victory over George Washington.
There were some other big names with big games that day.
Len Chappell had 31 points and 20 rebounds as Wake Forest, with a point guard named Billy Packer, beat St. John’s 97-74.
The third game saw St. Bonaventure beat Rhode Island 86-76. Fred Crawford led the Bonnies with 34 points and 16 rebounds.
Those were the last of 73 NCAA tournament games played in the Garden. Seven of those were national championship games. The NIT was invented at the Garden, and the building stayed loyal to it. The NIT has been played every year in the Garden since it started in 1938, one year ahead of the NCAA tournament.
The process of returning the NCAA tournament to the Garden started in August 2008 when the NCAA bought the NIT as part of a settlement of a legal fight between the two organizations, and plans started almost immediately for the Garden to be involved with both tournaments.
“We have a great relationship with the NCAA, especially since they bought the NIT,” Madison Square Garden executive vice president Joel Fisher said. “Once we said we’d be interested, they were very interested.”
Madison Square Garden held a luncheon Wednesday to celebrate the return of the NCAA tournament. Jim Calhoun, who led Connecticut to three national championships and who won seven Big East tournament titles at the Garden was there, and he summed up the day and the upcoming weekend.
“Madison Square Garden needs college basketball and college basketball needs Madison Square Garden,” Calhoun said. “There are just too many memories.”