There are certain holidays that transcend nationality. St. Paddy’s Day is one. Although St. Paddy’s Day is largely about Irish pride, it is one of those days that belongs to all of us. The wearing of the green. A foamy glass of GUINNESS. They’re all part of the fun. But St. Paddy’s Day was special to me and it didn’t involve a mug of beer or even St. Patrick. It was about college basketball. New York City. Madison Square Garden. And growing up.
I don’t know exactly when St. Paddy’s Day got tied up with my love for college basketball. We didn’t call the big tournament at the end of the season MARCH MADNESS back then. For us it was just the NCAAs. Back then, the games weren’t even televised. I depended on my portable radio to hear San Francisco University defeat La Salle for the national championship in 1955. The year when Tom Gola seemed almost godlike until he met Bill Russell who turned him into a mere mortal. But there was another national college basketball tournament played on the same level as the NCAAs. The NIT, or National Invitation Tournament. One year La Salle won both in the same year. Never been done before or since.
The NIT was just as big as the other national tournament. And it was played in Madison Square Garden. It was the history of Madison Square Garden that made the NIT magical to me. NYC was the big time. And the Garden was the most big time of all. In those days, you could get a ticket without selling your first born. Maybe the most fun nights of my life were built on the magic of New York, the Garden, the NIT and the aura of St. Paddy’s Day.
One year, my Uncle Chibby and his friend Tommy “Butch” (short for his trade as a butcher) took my cousin Ange and me to New York to see an NIT tournament game. That year, New York was alive with the celebratory atmosphere of the Irish holiday. The new Madison Square Garden had just opened in 1968. Built over a train station.
I don’t remember which teams played in the game or anything about it, except the euphoria I felt being with people I loved so very much. It snowed that night. Big beautiful white flakes that just kept coming down covering the city streets like a Currier and Ives print. Somehow we missed the train home. My Uncle made my cousin and me call their wives to tell them there were no more trains to Philly that night. It just added to the special nature of that night. My Uncle bought all of us hot dogs from a Nathan’s at the train station. I’ve never had a better-tasting hot dog since that long-ago night.
The train ride home the next day took six hours. Clearing the snow from the tracks caused the delay. Ordinarily, it could have been a boring ride home, but my Uncle and Tommy kept us entertained. Sometimes it got silly like when Tommy knew we were thirsty and pretended to lick the rain drops off the train windows. He’s always held a special place in my heart because of that night, though I’ve only seen him maybe once or twice since then. I never got to travel with my Uncle again. He died before the age of 50.
There were other fun nights in other years with St. Paddy’s Day as the backdrop. One such night, in the late ‘50s, I was in New York with two college buddies to see a big game at the Garden again. The three of us didn’t have the cash to sustain us staying at the Sheraton Hotel, but we registered there anyway. We subsisted on corned beef sandwiches in our hotel room. When financial reality hit us, we left the Sheraton for the Jewish Y, as we called it then. Both of my friends were Jewish.
It was at the Y that I experienced the difference in the basketball part of our two cultures. In a pick-up half-court game, while my Jewish friends passed the ball around many times before they would attempt a shot, I shot the ball every time I got my hands on it. I was a South Philly gunner who inadvertently witnessed the first case of Ben Simmons disease.
Somehow, we scraped up enough money to see Count Basie and his Orchestra at legendary Birdland. It was a grand time to be in New York to get a whiff of the adult world about to engulf or embrace us. Of which we knew little or nothing.
Today – the pandemic has faded. New York City has slowly returned to a semblance of normalcy. The NIT is almost an afterthought in the sports world. Few of us go to New York to see NIT games anymore. But New York around St. Paddy’s Day is still special. Especially now. After a siege by a stubborn virus. And with a crazy-ass dictator bombing the hell out of Ukraine. The girls are still pretty. The Guinness still foamy like the waves of an ocean on a summer day.
And old St. Paddy is still watching over all of it. With a lilt in his voice and a twinkle in his eye.