“It was recognized as the biggest stage in the game,” he added.
Even before then, it had been the effective home court of City College. It was also where, in successive weeks in March 1950, the Beavers twice beat Bradley to win the N.I.T. and the N.C.A.A. tournament — competitions that were then held in approximately equal esteem.
The hardcourt success of City College, which was founded to educate New Yorkers who could not otherwise have afforded college — and was duly called “the Harvard of the proletariat” — was, The Times wrote then, “a vindication of the democratic process.”
In the N.I.T. quarterfinals that year, Beavers Coach Nat Holman pointedly trotted out a starting five composed exclusively of blacks and Jews against the Kentucky team of Adolph Rupp, who resisted putting black players on his roster. City College won by 39 points.
“It’s been mentioned so many times here,” the current Beavers coach, Tom Green, said, referring to City College’s past success. “We ourselves mention it to the players.”
It is more difficult to talk about what came next, though. Less than a year after City College’s “Grand Slam,” the team declined to finish out its season after a gambling scandal implicating several players (and a few other teams) was revealed.
Several City College players, it turned out, had engaged in point-shaving — controlling their margin of victory so that those in on it could bet the correct side of the spread. (It was a fix, in other words, that depended precisely on the team’s dominance.) Holman was temporarily suspended. The basketball program was “de-emphasized”; it now competes in Division III. Its ethos lived on mainly through the N.B.A. championship Knicks teams of Coach Red Holzman, who had played for Holman decades earlier.
College basketball’s meccas became smaller towns around the country like Lawrence, Kan.; Bloomington, Ind.; and Lexington, Ky. (to say nothing of Los Angeles). And as a result, many of the New York area’s best players no longer played for City College, New York University, St. John’s or other local teams, but instead plied their talents elsewhere — most notably on the Tobacco Road of the A.C.C.
North Carolina won the 1957 N.C.A.A. title with a starting five from Brooklyn and the Bronx. When North Carolina’s Larry Brown and Duke’s Art Heyman got into a fistfight during a 1961 game, it was rooted, in part, in a personal rivalry that stretched back to their pre-college days on Long Island. Even Michael Jordan, a Tar Heel in the 1980s, was born in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Thirty-five years ago, the young Big East staged its championship tournament at the Garden for the first time.
“It was special,” St. John’s Coach Chris Mullin recalled recently. Mullin, of Queens, was a St. John’s sophomore for that first tournament in March 1983. “Because college basketball had basically been expelled from the Garden because of scandal,” he continued. “Now, it’s as strong as ever.”
Barclays Center, which opened in 2012, gave New York the capacity to host two major-conference tournaments, and this week that promise will be fulfilled. And in two weeks, the Garden will host N.C.A.A. tournament regional games for just the second time since 1961.
All told, a case could be made that New York is again assuming its place at the center of the sport that it incubated more than any other. The motivations behind this confluence are not purely sentimental. The Big East’s deal with the Garden, which runs through 2026, guarantees stellar exposure to the sole basketball power conference that does not sponsor football. It is, according to Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman, “one of the conference’s best assets.”
And the A.C.C. saw a need to plant its flag in New York — a need seen as urgent enough that Barclays Center ended its deal with the Atlantic 10 a year early — as part of the great game of conference realignment. The A.C.C. added Syracuse and is competing in the area not only with traditionally Northeastern leagues but also the Big Ten (which next year will end its season early in order to play its tournament at the Garden the week before the Big East does).
“It will only enhance our brand and help develop even more new ways to meet new basketball fans,” A.C.C. Commissioner John Swofford said. Brett Yormark, chief executive of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, predicted capacity crowds, particularly for the latter stages of the tournament.
The A.C.C., in an article in its tournament program, will highlight local playground legends who later played at U.N.C., North Carolina State and other conference teams. And the Big East is showcasing what it says is the longest relationship between a venue and a conference in college basketball.
“From the time you get in that freight elevator and come up, it’s special,” Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said. “The jitters and excitement you get doesn’t get old.”
Amid all the excitement, do not forget that college basketball in New York is not just limited to these most visible of leagues. Last month, 100 blocks uptown from the Garden at Nat Holman Gym, in the basement of the Marshak Science Building, City College came in second in the City University of New York Athletic Conference tournament, its best finish since 2003.