NEW YORK CITY -- Who is the poet laureate of Long Island? I pondered this question as I walked along the Hempstead-Bethpage Turnpike from the train station towards Hofstra University, past Mexican laundromats and dimly lit gyro joints. In a flourescent storefront, ladies with tall hair were getting their nails done by patient and stone-faced Koreans. There are millions of narrative threads here, immigrant tales, stories of struggles and gains and failing steps. But who will tell them?
The boroughs of New York City each ahve their chroniclers and champions; Manhattan has far too many. New Jersey has its Springsteen, its Kevin Smith, but who speaks for Nassau and Suffolk Counties? Who represents the 5-1-6? Who stands for the quiet businessmen in gridlock on the LIE, or the gum-snapping girls in heels who transfer at Jamaica? Who reminds the world that the continent doesn't end at the outskirts of Manhattan or Brooklyn? Has anybody written "O Commack, My Commack," or a poetic ode to the Splish Splash?
The creative minds all tend to leave. (Walt Whitman was claimed off waivers by Camden, New Jersey.) I wonder how so many modern comedians were able to build their chops and their licks here, and why they downplayed their roots later on. Rodney Dangerfield went Hollywood. Kevin James became "The King of Queens," not "The Grand Monarch of Great Neck." And Seinfeld's show made the Upper West Side the center of the universe, perpetuating the view captured in Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover, impressing it on the outside world again. But what's going on behind 9th Avenue, to the far left and right?
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There's that scene in Woody Allen's Manhattan, it's still overwhelmingly powerful three decades later. Woody's character runs through the city, tries to convince Mariel Hemingway's not to leave for London, and the mismatched pair tries to figure out each other's motivations and their own little confused and lost lives as well.
And the Gershwin swells, then three quick shots: midtown, Manhattan, and the city as a whole. It's clear visual language, stating that the problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. You could keep going back, back, until the entire metropolitan area and all 10 million people are in the frame. But Woody had made his point; besides, the big crescendo of "Rhapsody in Blue" isn't long enough.
Manhattan, the place itself, is the self-proclaimed center and capital of the universe, and it contains the World's Most Famous Arena. But where in that famous skyline can you find a Division I college basketball team? Columbia is the only school that's technically in Manhattan, but their Levien Gym is hidden so far beneath its three-digit-street campus that it might as well be in Queens, or China.
Most of native New York basketball takes place below the Red Line, and there's quite a bit of creative misdirection involved to keep the outsiders confused. Long Island University is actually in Brooklyn. MAAC member Manhattan College is located in the Bronx, and you ahve to take the No. 1 subway line all the way to its northernmost point to get there. (Don't even think about taking a car into the area, you'll never find parking.) The Jaspers battle it out for borough bragging rights with perennial Atlantic 14 bantamweight Fordham, which plays on the No. 4 line and in Hoops Nation's second-oldest arena, Rose Hill Gym, one of college basketball's secret churches.
The NEC's Wagner is a ferry ride away on Staten Island. Just outside the boroughs is Iona, a Metro North kind of team. There's Hofstra to the east, bringing teams from the CAA's southern center to Long Island. Stony Brook sits on a sprawling campus just to Hofstra's north, just a few eight-dollar bridges from wherever you are.
But to get to Long Island, don't take the LIRR; go to Borough Hall, and I recommend that you take the A train. (Hurry, get on, now, it's coming.) The Blackbirds used to play at the Brooklyn Paramount, on a court on a stage, but they're in the 21st Century now. They're still fighting over Brooklyn with NEC rival St. Francis (NY), and they're still within safe walking distance.
A long time ago, every college basketball fan in the country knew where LIU was. They were regularly found playing at Madison Square Garden, under a thick cloud of cigar smoke, surrounded by gentlemen in their coats and hats. With the legendary Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee on the sidelines, the Blackbirds won the National Invitation Tournament in 1939 and 1941.
This season marks the 75th anniversary of college basketball at Madison Square Garden, but for the past 60 or so, the various buildings that have operated under that name have had to import most of their hoops from elsewhere. Each March, most of the last teams standing in the Big East tourney had to take a bridge or a tunnel to get there, and the local member, Saint John's, fell on scandalous times a decade ago. The Johnnies can't draw real crowds to their adopted home anymore -- except, of course, when Duke comes around. At the Jimmy V Classic, there are virtually no NYC-area teams to be found. Likewise at the NIT Season Tip-Off, the Dreyfus Classic, or what's left of the original NIT, the one played in March.
In an alternate reality, the National Invitation Tournament is still Our Game's gold standard, the championship that each team strives to win. The First Tournament was born at a time not unlike these days, with sportswriters, coaches and administrators all arguing over the best interests of the sport. Starting in 1938, inspired by James Naismith's inaugural NAIA bracket a year earlier for tiny schools, the NIT's invites were sent by scribes. The coaches wanted to get in on the action too, and the NABC started its own event in 1939. But coaches aren't businessmen, and they lost money on the exercise. When the NABC turned over control of the new tournament to the suits, Oregon was named the first NCAA champion, retroactively.
Teams would play in both events back in the Forties, and little City College won both in 1950. The next year, CCNY was hit by a Mob-fueled point-shaving scandal -- even back then, players were paid under the table -- and the bad money bled through the entire city's basketball culture. An LIU player was sentenced to a year in jail for his involvement, and the Blackbirds didn't play for six years. The NCAA imposed a postseason ban on the city; no scheduled championship has been staged there since. (In 1986, the Final Four was held across the Hudson at the Meadowlands, but as any New Yorker will tell you, that ain't New York.)
The governing body claimed it was protecting the game from the Mafia, but it sure seemed like it was acting out a vendetta against the city itself. The NCAA went on to crush the NIT, giving automatic invites to conference titlists and forbidding them from playing in the other event. The NCAA Tournament expanded to 48, then 64 and 65, and finally, the weakened NIT was so inconsequential and marginalized that it became a cheap commodity. In 2005, the NCAA bought the NIT out.
Our Game's grand history is made up of repeating tales of good intentions, followed by spite and greed. And it does certainly appear that we are on the cusp of yet another new era, one in which a 65-team bracket is as much a part of distant history as the 8, 16, 32, 48 and 64-team ones. It's progress, they tell us. I'll leave the business altogether, I tell you. There's no drama or romance in a 96-team bracket, at least not enough to write rhapsodically about.
The most likely and logical scenario is that the NCAA collapses its assets together, 64 plus 32. A new television partner, one not tied to an outdated city-affiliate network, one with more national channels at its disposal than actual sports to cover, can show all the games to everybody. What this means to the long-term health of college basketball is for history to decide. What I want to know right now is this: what would it mean for New York?
Without any remaining national championship to hand out, Madison Square Garden becomes just another NBA arena with a cool roof. Cut off from its legacy and history, tied to an ancient blacklist, Manhattan will lose the remainder of its dying college basketball soul. The NCAA will have won after 70 long years, the triumphant victor in a cold war that's lasted four generations.
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No New York metro team has made the NCAA Tournament since 2006. Among teams from the boroughs, you have to go back to 2004, when Manhattan went a round in.
And, as symbolized by Hofstra's weak performance on semi-national television on Tuesday against VCU, there may never be another team from the New York metro area that makes the NCAA Tournament ever again in the event's 65-team era. Until a few weeks ago, Wagner was the worst-ranked team in Division I, primarily due to its being swept by historically bad NJIT. Should St. John's keep its seven-year NCAA shutout streak intact, the city's only hope could very well be Long Island. The Blackbirds started out their NEC season at a very promising 4-0.
Now, more than ever, the story of New York-area college basketball mirrors the true New York experience, not the simplified version in popular culture, found on television and in movies. There are stories of struggles and gains and failing steps. But who will tell them?