THE MOOD OF big cities is often tied to the vicissitudes of their sports teams. Bostonians are fabled for their allegiance to the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins. During the winter, the heartstrings of most local fans are attached to the hockey scene. In New York City, on the other hand, the dominant sport is basketball. With the Big Town's college teams almost uniformly back on the winning track, it has become clear once again that success on the gridiron, diamond, or court can be the magical elixir for boosting an ebbing urban morale.
Basketball is the street-wise, spunky, prodigal child of the inner city. After a long absence the wayward waif has finally returned to sweep away some of the disillusionment occasioned by The City's troubles. Certainly, basketball cannot solve any of New York's deep-rooted problems, but it can sound one of the clearest clarions of hope for the future.
After fifteen years of relative mediocrity, college basketball is once again in the limelight. For the first time since 1970, the Columbia basketball team spent last week in sole possession of first place in the Ivy League, an exhilarating achievement that has galvanized Morningside Heights. The new-found success of the once lowly Lions has struck an upbeat note in that microcosm of a community surrounded by the basketball-crazed West Side, but it is only one facet of the resurgence of college basketball in New York City. New York has long been recognized as the cradle for collegiate basketball, but until this year New Yorkers seldom saw the products of their playgrounds as more than overnight visitors at Madison Square Garden.
St. John's Rutgers, and Princeton all went to the post-season NCAA tournament last season and remain formidable quintets. Manhattan advanced to the finals of this year's Holiday Festival. Seton Hall was edged by Holy Cross in the Madison Square Garden Classic last week, but boasts the nation's fifth leading scorer in Glenn Mosley. Even St. Francis, a small school without a winning team in ten years, won a Christmas tournament at Bentley.
On the professional scene, the revamped New York Knickerbockers have made a series of trades that include the acquisition of native New Yorkers Jim McMillian and Dean "the Dream" Meminger. Lately, the Knicks have been packing the Garden the way they did in the late '60s and early '70s, as the beautiful people have returned to mingle with scalpers on the sidewalks of 33rd Street.
The biggest transition in New York roundball, however, is taking place at 119th Street and Broadway. Columbia's head basketball coach Tom Penders, the dean of the new breed of young, dynamic coaches, is building a team around a sophomore backcourt of Ricky Free and Alton Byrd that should make New York fans forget the heyday of Jim McMillian and Heyward Dotson, the Kramer-Hairston era at NYU, and the glory days of Fordham under brilliant coach Digger Phelps.
City boys seem to sense the change too. In the past few years, aggressively recruiting coaches have skimmed away the best talent from New York's playgrounds. If one wanted to see the pro prospects turned out by high school powerhouses like DeWitt Clinton, Taft, Boys High, Power Memorial, and Canarsie in action, the best bet was to watch Nevada-Las Vegas or Tennessee on television.
All that has changed suddenly. City kids are sticking close to their neighborhood playgrounds and community programs where they learned the fundamentals, and it shows in the current caliber of metropolitan teams. Brooklynite Ricky Free is Columbia's leading scorer while unsung Steve Grant and high-scoring Ricky Marsh led Manhattan over Penn in the Holiday Festival. Glenn Vickers is playing for Iona; Reggie Carter and Bernard Rencher have transferred to St. John's, while Bernard Tomlin and John Irving have switched over to Hofstra.
The men who sat down together two years ago to form a league known as the New Jersey-New York "7" must also have sensed a basketball boom in the offing; and the instant rivalries springing up on both sides of the Hudson only accelerated the trend. The N.J.-N.Y. "7" includes not only Columbia but all the best Metropolitan area teams--Seton Hall, Manhattan, LIU, Fordham, a Rutgers squad that went 31-0 last year, Lou Carneseca's St. John's five, and a Princeton team that already has upset Notre Dame.
By far the most auspicious note for the future is the rejuvenation of the Columbia University community brought about by the upswing in a sagging basketball program. Columbia's vitality as New York's leading academic institution is closely tied to the image projected by the city. As New York's prestige and attractiveness steadily waned, Columbia suffered a concurrent loss of stature. The citywide resurgence of basketball and of the Lions in particular has had the combined effect of helping to redress New York's decline and bolstering Columbia's sense of prestige and intellectual leadership.
THE UPPER WEST SIDE is a locus for New York basketball from the playgrounds of Riverside Park to the community games sponsored by Riverside Church. It is to this area that the future of the academic enclave of Morningside Heights is tied. Yet before this season, Columbia's basketball squad was struggling along near the Ivy League basement. The Lions are winning again and as a result have injected an immeasurable sense of optimism into the ambience of the community.
The turnabout in Columbia basketball was by no means fortuitous. It began some three years ago when dour, reserved head coach Jack Rohan stepped down in favor of Penders, who had developed a reputation as a "rebuilding expert" while coaching in Connecticut. After winning only four games against twenty losses during Penders' rookie season, the Lions are 14-4 this year. With no seniors on the team, Columbia is 6-0 in Ivy League competition and is also ensconced in first place in the N.J.-N.Y. "7" after dispatching Rutgers, Manhattan, and Fordham. In addition, the Lions won their first tournament since 1967 by taking the Poinsettia Classic.
The second decisive factor in revitalizing the basketball program was Columbia's commitment to build a new athletic complex, as the Marcellus Hartley Dodge Physical Fitness Center was unveiled three years ago. The spacious new Francis S. Levien Gymnasium, which has almost twice as much seating capacity as the old colonnaded gym, has been filled to the rafters in recent games, as the Lions are averaging over 2,500 fans at home.
The success of the Columbia wunderkind and New York's other collegiate squads is once again proving the old bromide that exciting winners on the hardwood can be just what the doctor ordered for a city seeking a new lease on life.