nit : THE CRUMBLING AND HUMBLING OF THE NIT : Yet, It's the Tournament That Refuses to Go Away : By MARK HEISLER, Times Staff Writer

March 26, 1985

They can knock it down, spit in its face, slander its name all over the place, but they can't get rid of the National Invitation Tournament, 48 and, if not going strong, still going.

This makes it a year older than that other national tournament, the brash, imperialistic NCAA, which has Billy and Brent and the resources of the entire Columbia Broadcasting System behind it. But it wasn't always that way.

For its first dozen years, the NCAA tagged along after the NIT like a toddler peeking out from behind his big brother's pants leg. The NIT was New York and the Old Garden, with its row of cigar-smoking sharpies camped behind the baseline, watching the game change before their reddened eyes: Rhode Island and Ernie Calverley, who broke with the ball-control orthodoxy and introduced the fast break; young Ray Meyer of DePaul, showing off the first big man, George Mikan.

The NCAA played in the provinces, for peanuts. Its members routinely turned it down to play in the NIT.

Of course, that was another time. Airplanes flew cross-country, but it took them half a day and there were no mileage plans. The network news was hosted by John Cameron Swayze and lasted 15 minutes. Roone Arledge was working in someone's mail room. The networks hadn't yet grasped the concept of the big sports event as a loss leader.

So much for nostalgia. The NCAA has grown up, wealthy . . . and bent on the destruction of the NIT. Maybe it's like Broadway Danny Rose, the schlep theatrical agent played by Woody Allen, who says that his clients leave him because they want to forget where they came from.

The NCAA has staged second-place tournaments to keep the near-champions away from the NIT.

The NCAA has expanded. It seems to take every team five games over .500. And the NIT takes the rest.

The Nothing Invitation Tournament, say its detractors. An afterthought, an anachronism, N-I-T-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.

Average attendance for the last three years has been 10,000 in the 19,500-seat new Madison Square Garden. CBS, which once carried the semifinals and final, has bowed out. The only way to get this tournament on a major network would be to buy one.

And yet, the NIT survives. Executive director Peter Carlesimo says it's still making money, and that it has never lost any. The nation may not be crying for it, but 32 teams are pleased to participate annually, and two or three are disappointed at not being asked. Four get a trip to New York, Knicks tickets, theater tickets, dinner at MammaLeone's and a chance to salvage something from the season.

This year, the new 64-team NCAA format was supposed to finally finish the NIT for good, but it has four big names: UCLA and Walt Hazzard; Indiana and Bob Knight; Louisville and Denny Crum; Tennessee.

Look for the NCAA to go to 128 next season.

Ah, the way they were.

Ray Meyer was 28 years old in 1945, when he and Mikan got off the train from Chicago, equally famous.

"That was the big tournament at that particular time," Meyer says from his office in Chicago. "It was much like the NCAA is now. I can remember staying in New York. You'd be there about a week, 10 days then. They always had things for the players to do, go to the theater. I can remember one time when they were sold out, so they put chairs on the stage for us.

"I can remember going down Broadway with big George Mikan. They had one of those hot dog stands there and he wanted one. The guy behind the counter told us, 'Something is going to happen to you that's never happened on Broadway. The hot dog is on the house.'

"The media--every time you practiced there would be four-five-six writers. There was a great media hype. The players really looked forward to it. For years afterward, if you had an invitation to the NCAA and the NIT, the players all wanted to go to the NIT.

"When we came in there, they thought Mikan was a freak. I remember before we played Rhode Island. I was standing in the wings near their coach, (Frank) Keaney. He didn't know me from Adam. He was talking about Mikan. He said he was a freak, a Gargantuan, he couldn't run, he couldn't move.

"Rhode Island was always running, but that night, they ran without the ball. I was going to take Mikan out of the game, but the guys from the newspapers passed me a note. They said the invitational scoring record is 35 points. So I left him in and he passed 35 points.

"Then I got another note. They said the Madison Square Garden record is 45 points. So I left him in and he passed 45. He got 53 that night. Rhode Island got 53.

"We took New York by storm."

The writers had a vested interest. The NIT was their brainchild. It was started by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Assn. Its first selection committee was made up of writers from the New York Herald Tribune, Times, Journal-American and Sun.

From 1945-48, the NIT averaged 18,251 a session.

Mikan's NIT records still stand--53 points in one game, 120 for three.

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