March Moment: The Garden in ’71Posted by jstevrtc on March 24th, 2010
Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.
In this edition, RTC correspondent Ray Floriani remembers a New York City night in 1971 that altered his perception of winning and losing, how he was affected by both, and how it all cemented his love for our game:
NEW YORK CITY – The intensity, excitement and general myraid of emotions packed into that March evening will probably never be duplicated. It was the ultimate heartbreaker. At the same time, this was the one. The game and experience that certifiably had yours truly hooked on basketball, notably college basketball, as the favorite sport. One that transformed a casual observer into a devout follower.
Mention “the Georgia Tech game in the NIT” and any St. Bonaventure fan who can remember gas being under a buck a gallon will recall the year (1971) , the date (March 25), the circumstance and how it played out. A little background…
The 1970-71 season was my freshman year at St. Bonaventure. The previous March the Bonnies made it to the Final Four and if Bob Lanier hadn’t been injured late in the East Regional final against Villanova, who knows? UCLA’s national championship run might have been interrupted.
The team lost Lanier and a top notch lead guard in Billy Kalbaugh. There was optimism though as the returnees had experienced winning and approached the season with a positive mindset. Among the veterans returning for coach Larry Weise were Greg Gary, Matt Gantt, Dale Tepas, and Paul Hoffman. Gantt, at 6-5, was the big man. An incredible leaper, Gantt was the prototype “frequent flyer” who could make life miserable for opponents five (or more) inches taller. Sophomore Carl Jackson was up from the freshman team (they had them back then). Overall, there was talent.
I had the good fortune to get into the program as one of the team managers. It was a job I did four years in high school and would do four years at Bonaventure. The season went extremely well with the Bonnies, ranked high as 11th at one point, finishing 18-5. Back then 25 teams made the NCAA tournament and with the East basically a group of independents, as Bonaventure was, you needed a great record to get in. The Bonnies accepted an NIT bid. Again, in that day it was a 16 team field with all games contested at Madison Square Garden.
We defeated Purdue in round one. The second round saw a tough game and a come from behind win over Hawaii. After that Tuesday quarterfinal, classes were cancelled at school for the students to venture the 360 or so miles to New York.
The semifinal matchup was with Georgia Tech. We had defeated Tech in the finals of the Gator Bowl tournament in Florida late December. There was of course no certainty the feat could be duplicated.
The afternoon of the game there was a buzz in the lobby of the Hotel New Yorker, the team headquarters, across from MSG. Students congregated, touched base, chatted, decided who in their group was getting the room. The feeling among everyone was excitement not apprehension. Our nine o’clock game couldn’t get here soon enough.
The pleasant spring day gave way to evening and Duke faced North Carolina in the first semi. I remember how exciting it was to see these two ACC rivals go at it up close on the Garden floor. During the game head manager Jim ‘Lefty” Halloran asked a favor. I had to go back to the team hotel and into one of the player’s rooms for his correct jersey. The whole task took about fifteen minutes, went smoothly and I felt maybe it was a favorable omen.
Carolina edged Duke. The Bonnies took the floor as their pre-game tune, Ramsey Lewis’ “Wade in the Water,” blared on the Garden speakers. Collecting warmups I noticed there were a lot more fans on the baseline watching the Bonnies shoot layups followed by jump shots, than Tech had on their end.
Georgia Tech, naturally, was very good. Their main weapon was a 6’9 all-American center in Rich Yunkus. He had the ability to post up and hit the fifteen footer (no threes back then). The latter skill created problems as you were forced to guard Yunkus outside which pulled out your big man and opened the lane for guard penetration.
The game itself was an intense affair doing justice for the 9 o’clock featured start. Neither team could really get significant separation. To little surprise, the game went into overtime. Then with the score tied and the clock winding down, Hoffman took it hard to the basket. He missed but was fouled. Not a ticky-tack foul, but a significant foul the defender did not even protest. Tech players gathered by their bench helplessly watching and hoping. Hoffman, our best free throw shooter, took a deep breath and walked to the line. MSG was virtually full yet the 6’2 Hoffman seemed a figure removed and in isolation as he bounced the ball. He shot..no good. A groan from the Bonnie faithful. I am thinking Hoffman can go one of two and recalled how many days I had rebounded free throws for him after practice and he canned them in rapid succession. The next one…bend the knees, release…rim. Matt Gannt was first to console Hoffman. Coaches immediately organized the team to discuss the five extra minutes, and the Bonnies tried — but the momentum was long gone. On the first possession Gantt goal-tended and for all intents and purposes Tech was in the driver’s seat. Tech sealed it 76-71 from the foul line, in the cruelest irony, and punched their ticket to the final.
In the locker room coach Weise went over a few things and reminded everyone to bounce back as we had Duke , a little over a day from now, 11 AM on Saturday in the consolation. The players sat for quite a while before moving or getting ready for the trip to the hotel. After about a half hour the door was open to the press. They instantly descended on Hoffman. At the time I thought they were vultures attacking the prey. Ironically, not too long in the future I would be in a similar situation , all in journalistic quest of a story. To his credit, Hoffman interviewed for about 30 minutes answering every question calmly, politely, and thoroughly.
Around midnight it’s time to exit. Hoffman is the last to leave the locker room. We head to the elevator. Waiting, I remember I had Hoffman’s wallet, as he asked me to hold onto it before the game. “Hoff, I almost forgot,” I said. “You should have waved it while I was on the line,” he replied in a somewhat lighter tone that hinted, as tough as this night was, there will be other games to play. We got on the elevator, joined by two Georgia Tech cheerleaders. They recognized him by his distinctive glasses he always wore both on and off the floor. It’s obvious they were happy to advance, but felt bad for Hoffman. It’s also obvious they want to say something, can’t find the words, so we all descended to the ground floor in deafening silence.
Post- and sometimes pre-game Bonnie get-togethers were at McAnn’s just up the block from the Garden. The mood tonight was somber, though some felt an infusion of cheap draughts might ease the pain. Yours truly barely made it past one seven-ounce glass of amber refreshment, not even enough to fail a road stop breath test should the situation present itself. Then it was off to drive home to New Jersey.
Even the night couldn’t bring rest as thoughts of key plays were interrupted by images of Hoffman on the line. Two chances on a shot he seemed to own. The New York skyline only a short distance from home served as a constant reminder of one incredible game. No need to even look at the papers the next day.
On Saturday the Bonnies defeated Duke in overtime for third place and a 23-6 final ledger. North Carolina opened a close game in the second half and resoundingly defeated Georgia Tech behind MVP Bill Chamberlain.
Paul Hoffman finished an outstanding Bonaventure career a year later. He was drafted by the New York Nets of the ABA but didn’t last. He later coached high school ball in a small town not far from Bonaventure. Fans unfortunately still remember, and bring up those two shots from that March evening. Hoffman, though, was a talented, hustling take-charge player who still wanted the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Building a team, you would want — and be fortunate to have — a Paul Hoffman.
The Bonnies won the 1977 NIT title under coach Jim Satalin. It was an NIT breakthrough for a program with past success in the tournament that came up short on a few occasions. It was an event I had the good fortune to cover in my first season of basketball journalism.
About a year ago, speaking with Satalin — now the Atlantic 10 Coordinator of Officials — we discussed that ’71 tournament. I mentioned that, given the momentum, we probably would have knocked off Carolina in that final. Satalin, the freshman coach and an assistant to Weise on that team, replied, “Probably? No…definitely. We would have won that title.” There was no title in ‘71, but that March evening and all its emotion had made an impression even greater than actually winning it in ‘77. There is no sport that can captivate and consume you as much as college basketball, and that makes it undeniably the greatest.