The NIT tournament created countless memories at Madison Square Garden

Perhaps the saddest part of it all was how the news broke: in a weird trickle. For weeks, PDFs have been available online containing specific bidding process instructions for the National Invitational Tournament beginning next year. You wouldn’t have known what you were looking at if you didn’t know what you were looking for.

Then the news began trickling onto ESPN’s television broadcasts of the NIT: This would be the last year the NIT would play the semifinals and finals at Madison Square Garden. For real? If you googled this, it was nowhere to be found. Then ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla casually mentioned it on Twitter as well. And finally, a few days later, ESPN put it all into words.

After 84 years, the NIT is leaving the city. Probably forever.

And look, on the list of sad sports stories, this probably won’t top the list. The NIT going to Vegas or Indianapolis or St. Louis isn’t the same as the Dodgers going to Los Angeles or the Giants going to San Francisco. For most people – even most sports fans – the NIT is one of those events that you see on the agate pages of the newspaper every year and go, “Oh, right! Then it! I wonder who’s in it this year?”

All fair. all true

That doesn’t make his departure any less wistful for those for whom college basketball was a complicated part of life, especially those of us who grew up in New York. The NIT was no longer popular for a long time. But it was still a prominent ticket and still a notable event.

The very first event I ever saw at Madison Square Garden was the 1980 NIT. Virginia, led by a freshman center named Ralph Sampson, beat Minnesota 58-55 with senior star Kevin McHale. Even then, 42 years ago, the NIT was firmly established as the JV tournament – a few days later the Doctors of Dunk would lead Louisville to the NCAA title and everyone was talking about it.

But this NIT game for me – March 19, 1980 – lit a fuse.

And for generations, the National Invitation Tournament has done the same for millions of basketball fans. Established a year before the NCAA in 1938, it quickly became the postseason tournament of choice for schools not tied to conference affiliation—and in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, most schools were.

All the games were played at the Garden, the old one on 50th Street. Most were sold out. Even after the 1951 gambling scandal, when Garden Doubleheaders became rarer, two events kept MSG as the Mecca of college basketball: the Holiday Festival in December and the NIT in March. Even after the NCAA began leaning on teams to accept bids for the other tournament when they were offered, even at the cost of a week in New York, the NIT still thrived.

The NIT at Madison Square Garden
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

His last real breath was probably in 1970, when Al McGuire — enraged by what he perceived as an annual snub from the NCAA’s Seeding Committee — turned down an NCAA bid in favor of the NIT, bringing Dean Meminger and his crew to town and a star won -studded event also attended by Pete Maravich and LSU. Soon after, the NCAA made it clear: You want to play in our sandbox, you play in our tournament. No exceptions.

So the NIT essentially became a consolation bracket.

So, yes, maybe that day was inevitable. The Holiday Festival is already just a memory; soon also the NIT. Maybe we should just be amazed and grateful that we’ve had the NIT for as long as we’ve had it. The Garden can certainly get better luck planning concerts in its place. And the folks at the NCAA who now run the NIT never thought much of the idea that New York was still as much of a team magnet as it’s been made out to be. However.

I know this: Forty-two years after attending my first Garden event as a wide-eyed 13-year-old boy, I’ll be back this week. Well, yes, St. Bonaventure happens to be in it, so as a 55-year-old I’ll be going there with significantly less wide-eyed eyes. But I’ll look around when I’m there. The NIT was a part of New York for 84 years. It’s all well and good to be able to wish an old friend well.

Vac’s Whacks

Can CBS just do everyone a favor and just assign Ian Eagle to… well, everything?

Ian Eagle (left) with his CBS broadcast partner Jim Spanarkel.
Ian Eagle (left) with his CBS broadcast partner Jim Spanarkel.
Getty Images

There’s good news for the defunct Purdue Boilermakers: Ex-Met Turk Wendell’s son Wyatt. Wyatt doesn’t brush his teeth between innings or munch licorice on the mound like his old man, but the 6-foot-6 junior right-hander is 3-0 and hopes to get drafted in June.

What was Friday night’s bigger surprise: Saint Peter’s over Purdue, or the Knicks coming back from 15 to beat the Miami Heat?

It’s remarkable how often these NCAA games end up in TV timeouts at the same time, no matter how much they delay starts.

Hit back on Vac

Mike Convey: As a graduate of St. John’s, I long for the Lou Carnesecca years. With the size and heritage of the Johnnies, why can’t we do what a school with fewer than 2,500 students has achieved? More worryingly, why can’t we even get down to the big dance?

Fans react at Hudson Hall as they watch the Saint Peter's Peacocks defeat the Purdue
Fans react at Hudson Hall as they watch the Saint Peter’s Peacocks defeat the Purdue.
James Keivom for the NY Post

Vacuum: This is the real flip side of Saint Peter’s wonderful story – many people in other schools will ask: Why not us?

John Roe: I can’t fight St. Peter’s Basilica. At my age I can meet him every day! Let’s go to St. Peter’s Basilica!

Vacuum: So THAT explains why Carolina and UCLA fans are rooting louder for the Peacocks on Friday night than they are for the Tar Heels and Bruins later. They hedged their bets.

@DSistaro: I love it! There’s nothing more exciting than March Madness! It seems like every year I say, “The best tournament ever!”

@ Mike Vacc: This year especially.

Alfred Angiola: Normally I would have no interest or patience for profanity in art. But when I watch Ted Lasso, I find Roy Kent’s verbal outbursts absolutely hysterical, especially—and here’s the scary part—when he curses in front of little kids. Is something wrong with me?

Vacuum: If so, I’m afraid I have the same condition. The NIT tournament created countless memories at Madison Square Garden


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