— Vin Yokabaskas has been ailing recently and confined to bed, but he couldn't pass up the chance to relive that special day one more time.
"Well, it was the most exciting day of my life," said Yokabaskas, 84, as tears began to run down his cheeks. "You have no idea the excitement, the feeling that goes through you when you step out on that floor with 18,600 people in the stands."
It was UConn's first foray into the NCAA Tournament, March 20, 1951.
And it was at Madison Square Garden.
Yokabaskas, a junior, scored 22 points, but St. John's won, 63-52.
UConn, The Courant's Bill Newell wrote, had "stubbed its toe on the doorstep to big time basketball recognition," and it would take 35 years or so before UConn made it through that door, but it was a start. More than 3,000 students bought tickets, and a special train from Willimantic to New York was arranged to take them to the game.
"We laid a foundation for what followed," said Yokabaskas, who lives in Simsbury and still attends UConn games when feeling up to it.
The UConn basketball history that has followed has made frequent stops at Madison Square Garden, the storied arena so accessible for fans in Connecticut, so much a part of the dreams of every basketball player. The NCAA played 71 tournament games there between 1943 and 1961, and the Huskies were involved in six of them. As they chased college basketball's highest peak, eventually winning national championships in 1999, 2004 and 2011, they also reached plateaus at the Garden, winning the National Invitation Tournament in 1988 and seven Big East tournaments there between 1990 and 2011, coming at times to regard it as their home away from home. UConn's all-time record there is 59-52.
On Friday the NCAA Tournament returns to "the Mecca of basketball," or, if you prefer, "The World's Most Famous Arena," after 53 years. UConn will be playing in the first game against Iowa State at 7:27 p.m. (TBS) in the East Regional semifinals.
Cliff Robinson, who played on UConn's NIT championship team, called one of his teammates, Phil Gamble, this week.
"Cliff called and said, 'You've got to go — that's your gym,'" Gamble said.
"There's magic in this place ... magic," said Jim Calhoun, who coached all of UConn's great triumphs at the Garden between 1986 and 2012. "There's romance between Madison Square Garden and college basketball."
Gamble was MVP of the NIT championship.
"The first time we were going to play there, I was a freshman and I read up on the whole history of Madison Square Garden," Gamble said. "I was so excited. I read up on all the great players who played there; I even read up on the entertainers who performed there."
Madison Square Garden's history dates to the 1870s, when P.T. Barnum converted an old railroad depot on Madison Avenue and 26th Street into an open-air "Roman Hippodrome." In 1879, Commodore Vanderbilt renamed it Madison Square Garden. In 1890, Barnum got the richest men in New York — J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, W.W. Astor — to pool half a million dollars to build a sturdier structure. The new Garden was home to early boxing and light opera, but its most popular use was for bike races on an oval track, the rage of the 1890s. New York Life owned the mortgage and tore down the unprofitable building in 1925.
Boxing promoter Tex Rickard then put together "600 millionaires" to fund a new $4.75 million Garden on Eighth Avenue, between 49th and 50th streets, known for its huge, bright marquee. This building hosted boxing, hockey, basketball, concerts.
It was in this building that college basketball began to soar in popularity, beginning with regular season games in 1924 and, in 1938, with the NIT. When the NCAA began playing semifinals and finals there — Wyoming beating Georgetown in the first NCAA final — it allowed schools to play in both tournaments. In 1950, City College of New York became the only team to win both in the same year. St. John's tried to duplicate the feat in 1951 but lost to Dayton in the NIT — with UConn coach Hugh Greer in the stands, taking notes for his upcoming game.
"You had to sit down low," Calhoun recalled of the old Garden, "so you could see through the smoke."
The arena was smoky and the rafters would soon become hazy.
"The backboards and baskets were suspended by wires from the rafters, and fans would be able to shake them when an opposing player was at the foul line," said former UConn assistant coach George Blaney, who played for the Knicks in 1961.
UConn returned to the Garden to play St. Louis in the NIT in 1955. The next season, the 16-9 Huskies got another chance at the NCAA Tournament and played Manhattan College. Greer was confident.
"The attitude of the squad is real good," he told The Courant, "and I'll be amazed if they don't play a good ballgame against Manhattan. We know they can do it and I feel they will give it a battle."
Players from the six college teams playing that day, many from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, mingled in the lobby area where the Huskies' pesky little guard, Ron Bushwell, reacquainted with friends. He had scored 26 points against St. Louis in the 1955 NIT, a 110-103 loss. He scored 24 points in UConn's first NCAA Tournament victory over Manhattan on March 13, 1956.
"I was fast, I was quick, and I took a two-handed set shot. The excitement and the enthusiasm on campus was just the same as it is today," Bushwell said from his home in New Jersey.
In those days, every player participating in the NCAA Tournament got a medal, Bushwell, 81, recalled. But every player invited to the NIT got a Bulova watch.
"I still wear mine, I'm wearing it right now," he said. "I've had it repaired maybe twice. I wrote the Bulova watch company, I thought they'd like to know about their watch's performance."
In the mid-1960s, Pennsylvania Station, the elegant Beaux-Arts masterpiece, was torn down to make room for the new $127 million Madison Square Garden on 33rd and Eighth. Among other events, the Ali-Frazier fight of 1971 helped stamp the building as "The World's Most Famous Arena" and the Knicks championship teams of 1969 and '73 helped make it a basketball player's dream destination.
UConn played occasional midseason games there, and played there annually after joining the Big East, which made the Garden the permanent home to its tournament. Calhoun had never played or coached at the Garden until he came to Storrs, but it never felt more like home than on March 29 and 30, 1988, when the Huskies beat Boston College and Ohio State to win the NIT.
UConn fans stormed the floor and pushed Gamble, Jeff King and Robert Ursery up the pole, to where they could sit on top of the backboard and look down in what has become an iconic photo in UConn basketball history.
"It was an incredible feeling," said Gamble, who works in Sen. Chris Murphy's office in Hartford. "All our fans bum-rushed the floor. It was like we were in our Field House. Looking down and seeing all our fans there, it's something you just can't forget."
Two years later, the Huskies beat Georgetown and Syracuse to win the Big East tournament, nearing the climax of the Dream Season. It was the first of seven Big East tournaments that UConn won. And once the Huskies had made it there, as the song promises, they soon began to make it anywhere.
"It gave people tangible evidence that we could get this thing done," Calhoun said.
In 1996, Ray Allen hit an off-balance, game-winning shot to beat Georgetown for the championship, holding on as Allen Iverson missed at the other end.
"That Ray Allen-Allen Iverson game was one of the greatest games I was ever involved with," Calhoun said. By then, UConn was dominating the league and Dave Gavitt, the league's first commissioner and driving force, approached Calhoun.
"At one point at the end of the '90s," Calhoun said, "Dave Gavitt, who was my mentor, came up to me and said, 'Thanks, you kept us going.'"
In 2009, UConn and Syracuse played through six overtimes in a Big East quarterfinal before the Orange prevailed, 127-117.
"It was great, it was historic, it was wonderful," Calhoun said. "But I wasn't using the word 'wonderful' an hour after that game."
In 2011, native New Yorker Kemba Walker took center stage as the Huskies, who finished 9-9 in Big East play, won five games in five days to win the Big East tournament and went on to win their third national championship. Current UConn seniors Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander were part of that team as freshmen.
"You can't forget the joy that team played with," Calhoun said.
The Garden was undergoing a $1 billion renovation as the Big East was breaking up. UConn, now in the American Athletic Conference, has to find ways to get back to the Mecca. The Huskies played in the 2K Classic this past November, beating Boston College and Indiana to take home the trophy Nov. 22. When they beat Villanova last Saturday to advance in the NCAA Tournament, several players called the Garden their second home.
"Because when we go to the Garden," junior Ryan Boatright said, "we take care of business."
New York, it is often said, is an event town, and the first NCAA games at the Garden in five decades, with fate landing UConn on the fight card, has proved to be a tougher ticket to get than the Final Four. Special trains are scheduled, as in 1951. It has "Main Event" written all over it.
"You wanted to get to the Garden," Calhoun said. "It wasn't just a destination; it was a destination for basketball. Not just a building with rims and seats. There was a feeling, a buzz. It became so special for us."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun