Preseason NIT: A Tradition Ends

Twas the night before Thanksgiving, when all through the gym
Not a player was dribbling, no shots at the rim;
The nets were hung on the hoops with care,
But no basketball would be played there

There will be no basketball at Madison Square Garden tonight. The Preseason NIT semifinal doubleheader had been played there, the night before Thanksgiving, since its inception in 1985. I’d attended with family and friends almost every year since 1993.

The semis and finals of the “NIT Season Tip-Off,” as it’s now officially called, will be played in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center tomorrow and Friday, with no scheduled return to its original venue. There are no good answers as to why the event moved.

As the postseason National Invitational Tournament was swallowed by the NCAA Tournament’s shadow, a preseason version was born the year before I was. Three of the teams to reach the semis in the inaugural event made the Final Four in that season’s NCAA Tournament: Kansas, Duke, and Louisville. By that metric, no field since compares, but the participating teams have generally been excellent.

I went for the first time in ’93 and, in one of my first sports memories, saw freshman Marcus Camby lead UMass to a huge upset over No. 1 North Carolina. Camby hurt his knee in overtime—I had to look that up—so when I returned two nights later UMass lost to Kansas without him.

The ’95 event is one of my favorites because I watched Stephon Marbury, then a freshman at Georgia Tech, go head to head with Georgetown sophomore Allen Iverson. The point guards wowed the crowd with slick passing and sharp shooting in their semifinal matchup and would be taken first (Iverson) and fourth (Marbury) in the following NBA Draft (with Camby going second).

I can’t be sure that I went in ’94 or ’98 but I know I attended at least the semifinal games from ’99 on. As is the case with many of the sporting events I’ve written about here, I owe the opportunities to my dad. Along with my two brothers and usually a friend or two for each of us, we packed a skybox and cheered for (mostly) the underdogs. I remember my friend Eric and I rooting alternately for Evansville and Indiana when they played each other in 1996, not wanting to be on the wrong side. The Hoosiers won on a buzzer beater but I more vividly recall Bobby Knight’s sideline tantrums.

Sifting through my tickets from these games—with some assists from the internet—refreshed my memory of some of the better tournaments. Duke won it all in 2000 and then did the same in March. That started a six-year run when a total of five Preseason NIT semifinalists made it to the NCAA Tournament title game (Duke and, in 2004, UConn, won). VCU had to settle for a consolation game victory in the 2010 event but made an incredible run to the Final Four the following March. I saw Blake Griffin score 32 for Oklahoma in 2008 and watched top freshmen Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon battle in 2013. Their respective teams, Duke and Arizona, were Preseason NIT regulars: They reached the Garden a combined 12 times. Big-time programs Kansas and UNC (five MSG appearances) and Syracuse and Indiana (four) were frequent contenders as well.

We never cared about the results too much, except when our alma maters were involved (I didn’t know I was watching my future school when I saw Michigan in ’95; I bled maize and blue by the time I saw them in ’04 and ’12). In the ’90s, another popular school in the group, Notre Dame, made it to MSG twice, and Wake Forest did the same the following decade.

The event was more about the tradition. Family and friends gathered every year on the same night and did the same thing. As the youngest members grew up, a pre-game bar was added to the mix, where we’d eventually hold a fantasy draft to assemble four-player teams. Nabbing Griffin with the first pick propelled me to victory in the inaugural competition. The first game always seemed to go late, potentially pushing the second game past midnight. There were threats to leave early and, if the second game was a blowout, we sometimes did. I fell asleep in the car in the early years and wish I had continued that practice—so as to miss my dad leading a never-ending “Alice’s Restaurant” sing-along.

I’d gladly suffer the singing for an untouched NIT. But in March, it was quietly announced that the tournament would no longer be at the Garden, as the World’s Most Famous Arena could not fit the event into its schedule. Suspicious and disappointed, in September I contacted spokespeople at MSG, Barclays, and ESPN, the network that operates and airs the event.

A Garden rep told me the arena was simply “pinched for dates.” The NHL’s Rangers have a game there tonight and the NBA’s Knicks are home Friday. But those teams had no problem accommodating the event with road games or off-nights for 30 years. It’s unclear what changed.

“We got condensed by some TV scheduling this year and ultimately it didn’t work at MSG as far as dates,” said ESPN senior director Clint Overby. He said even with the move to Barclays, all parties involved would have preferred to maintain the Wednesday/Friday format and will try to do that going forward. This year, the semis start at 2:30 tomorrow and the consolation and championship games at noon the next day. Reports indicate a four-year agreement, with the 2016 and 2018 events at Barclays, and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island hosting in 2017.

It’s hard to make sense of it all. ESPN is showing a 30 for 30 rerun at 7:00 tonight, the slot that held the first semifinal game in years past. It’s followed by a boxing match and a Maui Invitational game. ESPN2 is airing a Maui game (as it typically has), followed by Creighton vs. UMass.

There could be more to this. Maybe the ratings were down and it made more sense to switch the dates and times (the first game is on ESPNU tomorrow, the second on ESPN2). Last year’s attendance was poor, though the weak field—Gonzaga was the only stellar squad—contributed to that. The listed crowd was just over 5,000 compared to nearly 9,000 the year before. I had to go back to 2008 to find lower attendance than last year.

For me, the crowd in the skybox was enough. The rankings of the teams were inconsequential. It was a great tradition, one that will officially end tonight. I never realized how much I’d miss the most annoying song I’ve ever heard.

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