Pioneer Flashback: When DU Basketball Was a Regular at Madison Square Garden (Part I)

Photo: The old Madison Square Garden (1925-1968) in New York City, seen here in 1932 taking up most of a city block, hosted the DU Pioneers Basketball team eight times between 1947 and 1966.

Our own Puck Swami takes a look back through DU’s rich sports history to the eight times DU men’s basketball played at New York City’s Madison Square Garden between 1947 and 1966 in this first of a two-part flashback series, which covers DU’s first four appearances in New York City.

While DU basketball is known today mostly on the basketball courts of Denver, and around the Summit League, there was once a time when the DU Pioneers were a New York City attraction, playing eight times at the legendary old Madison Square Garden in New York City in the 19-year span between 1947 and 1966. 

The first three of DU’s games at Madison Square Garden were played at the zenith of college basketball’s popularity in New York between 1947 and 1951, when huge crowds of 15,000-18,000 fans would cheer on New York-area college teams such as New York University, Long Island University, St. John’s University and City College of New York, who were all in the top echelon of teams nationwide at that time. This popularity surge was due to great local New York area players from various ethnic backgrounds, who captured the city’s attention by helping to change college basketball from a largely WASP (and sometimes a segregated game in other parts of the country) to a far more diverse sport.

The old Madison Square Garden (1925-1969) was not the modern wagon-wheel ceilinged arena we know today, but a darker, more primitive smoke-filled predecessor arena that was built in 1925, standing on Eighth avenue and 50th Street in the “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood of Manhattan, not far from Times Square. It eventually fell to the wreckers’ ball in 1969 when today’s MSG was built about 20 blocks south. College basketball doubleheaders there were commonplace, starting in the 1930s, as MSG management wanted to fill those dates when the primary tenants, the New York Knicks (NBA) and New York Rangers (NHL) were not available to play. The NIT tournament (1938) and the NCAA tournament (1939) were both started at Madison Square Garden in this era to capitalize on the college game’s growing popularity.

For the Pioneers, who were basically a regional program before World War II and had never played east of West Virginia in their over 40 years of college basketball prior to 1947, playing in New York City must have been a bit of a culture shock. The Pioneers’ first game at Madison Square Garden was part of a college basketball doubleheader on December 4th, 1947, and it was also the season-opener for the Pioneers, as they tipped off with the St. John’s University Redmen (now known as the Red Storm) in the matinee of the doubleheader, with City College of New York playing BYU in the nightcap, with both games televised on CBS.  Here is New York Times headline of DU’s MSG debut:

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An NYC crowd of over 15,000 fans witnessed the Pioneers’ MSG debut, and they saw the Pioneers come away with their only MSG victory in history, a 54-52 nail-biting win over SJU.  In that contest, St. John’s (then located across the East River from Manhattan in Brooklyn) scampered out to an 11-point first-half lead, as the Pioneers came out with “severe jitters” according to the New York Times game story.  The Pioneers began clawing back though by working the ball inside and cut the St. Johns lead to 31-28 at halftime.  In the second half, the Pioneers came out strong and pushed past the Redmen to take a 12-point lead in the first ten minutes of the second half. But St. John’s refused to quit, and began chipping away at the DU lead, especially after two of DU’s better players, Jack Hauser and Ken Jastrow, had fouled-out. With three minutes left, SJU had cut the DU lead to 47-44, but DU was able to gut-out the win, 54-52. Hauser’s 16 points and Paul Hickey’s 15 points led the way for the Pioneers.  DU stayed on the East Coast after the game and visited the St. Joseph’s University Hawks at the Philadelphia Arena, and then played Georgetown in Washington, D.C., losing to both games, before heading back home to Denver.

Apparently, the Pioneers were enough of a hit in New York that they quickly became an early season fixture at MSG, appearing in a streak of three more continuous seasons, as well as returning to New York years later.

The second Pioneer appearance at MSG found DU on the short end of a 55-53 overtime loss in a rematch with the St. John’s Redmen in 1948, who got a measure of revenge for losing to DU a year earlier on the same floor. The game was part of a doubleheader with Colgate and NYU. Some 15,827 MSG fans saw DU’s greatest-ever basketball player, DU Hall-of-Famer and only all-American, Vince Boryla, put on what the New York Times called a “one-man show”, popping-off for a game-high 36 points, as he provided 68 percent of DU’s offense that night, pushing the game into overtime and very nearly to a second upset of the Johnnies.  

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DU’s most famous basketball player was Vince Boryla, who was a DU all-American, 1948 US Olympic Gold Medalist, and later an NBA all-star player, NBA coach, and Executive. Photo: DU Archives

Boryla, a 6-5 forward who was known for his deadly right-hand hook shot (as seen above), played just one memorable junior season at DU that year, finishing as the nation’s fourth-leading scorer and DU’s only men’s basketball all-American, before giving up his senior year to join the NBA as a pro. He had begun his college basketball career at Notre Dame before transferring to DU and had also won a Gold Medal at the 1948 Olympics for Team USA in London, one of only two athletes in DU history to win Olympic Gold as an athlete (the other was Jerome Biffle in the 1952 Olympic Long Jump). Boryla would later become even more familiar to Madison Square Garden fans as a New York Knicks All-Star NBA forward and captain in the early and mid-’50s.  When a wrist injury ended his playing career early, Boryla became the Knicks head coach (at just age 28) for a couple of years, and later became the team’s General Manager in the early ’60s – the only man to ever be a Knicks player, captain, head coach, and general manager. He finished his NBA career as GM of the Denver Nuggets in the mid-1980s. Boryla died in 2016 at age 89, but not before generously gifting the funding for a DU recruiting lounge in the North Concourse of Magness Arena that bears his name today.

After losing to St. John’s in that 1948 game, DU went on to an 18-15 season with pair of victories over a #12 and #13th-ranked Utah team and a victory over the #14th-ranked Wyoming Cowboys, as well as a win at Syracuse, and wins over Pittsburgh and BYU in Denver.

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Actual program cover from the 1949 DU game against #4 ranked LIU at Madison Square Garden, part of a college doubleheader. The cover image is likely depicting Holy Cross Crusader legend Bob Cousy, who played in the first game that day and who would go to the Boston Celtics and become a basketball Hall-of-Famer after college. Photo: Puck Swami

The two cliffhanger games that DU had played with St. John’s at the Garden in 1947 and 1948 begat a third DU appearance at MSG, coming the next season on December 17, 1949. DU would be playing in in nightcap game against the then #4-ranked Long Island University Blackbirds in a packed Madison Square Garden that was jammed to the rafters with 18,000 fans in the house.

The first game of that night featured the then-growing legend of Bob Cousy, who played for the College of the Holy Cross Crusaders before his long Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics of the NBA, facing the then-Division I Violets of New York University. DU would lose that Madison Square Garden game to LIU by 15 points, 58-43, as DU had sent out a very young, undersized team that was little trouble for the fourth-ranked Blackbirds.  That said, the New York Times complimented the Pioneers’ performance: “The Pioneers won the admiration of the 18,000 spectators when they rallied to draw within nine of the leaders” and “Denver, in too deeply last night, will develop into a stronger aggregation…Their obvious greenness hurt them against the Blackbirds, but time is certain to bring improvement.” 

Indeed, Denver would go on to post an 18-13 season, which eventually included wins over Utah, Utah State, BYU, and a signature win over #13th-ranked Louisville.

Here is the New York Times headline from that 1949 MSG game:

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Once again, the Pioneers were invited back to New York for the fourth consecutive year to kick off the 1950-51 season by returning to Madison Square Garden, with a rematch against the #10-ranked LIU Blackbirds on December 7, 1950. LIU was favored by 7.5 points in the game but only escaped the Pioneers by a single basket, 58-56, in double-overtime before over 7,000 fans at MSG.  

Denver’s Sid Ryen, a junior college transfer from the state of Washington who only played a season at DU, was according to the New York Times, was “the best individual on the floor” with 19 points in the game, outplaying LIU’s Sherman Smith, the nation’s leading scorer that season, who had only nine points. Ryen had tied the game 55-55 in regulation with an “electric overhead layup”. Denver then had two chances to tie the game in the final nine seconds of the second overtime, but both shots fell short, and the Blackbirds escaped with a “lucky” victory, according to the New York Times. DU would go on to a 14-16 season.

Ryen must have made an impression with his performance on the Garden floor to the New York Knicks’ brass, who later drafted him in the seventh round of the NBA Draft.  Dale Toft, who led the Pioneers in scoring for three consecutive years in the early ’50s and was an all-Skyline conference player, chipped-in with 13 points for the Pioneers in the loss.

However, that DU vs. LIU game is probably best remembered as part of a huge point-shaving scandal that shook college basketball to its very foundations. LIU was one of seven schools (including four from the New York area) that were later found to have shaved points. New York Mafia gamblers had offered players on players on those seven teams $1,000 each (about $10,000 in today’s money) to manipulate point spreads, which may have helped to account for the closer score between DU and LIU, as LIU was favored in the contest. While a number of New York gangsters were later sentenced to jail for the scandal, almost all of the 32 players from the seven different schools received suspended sentences. Remarkably, LIU’s Sherman Smith’s sentence was not suspended. Smith, who was the Sporting News College Player of the Year that season and a top pro prospect, was sent to jail on New York’s Riker’s Island for a year, in which he served nine months. Smith was also banned from the NBA for life. The scandal’s fallout for LIU was even more severe, as the University canceled its entire athletic program for six years from 1951-1958, and LIU basketball only returned to Division I in the 1980s. College basketball, especially in New York, receded in popularity as the integrity of the sport was threatened. 

Part II will run soon and will cover the last four DU appearances at Madison Square Garden between 1959 and 1966. Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a longtime DU fan and alumnus. He shares his stories and insights here at LetsGoDU periodically.

4 thoughts on “Pioneer Flashback: When DU Basketball Was a Regular at Madison Square Garden (Part I)”

  1. That was great Puck. Dunker can’t wait for part II. I grew up on the east coast and never knew DU had played more than 1 game in the Garden. LIU had a pretty famous coach in that era. I’ve read many books on the cheating scandal. It was over the top.

  2. Love the piece. College hoops is in an interesting place, especially for mid-majors. Falling attendance, G-League, competitive balance, compensation, pay for likeness, transfer flexibility. etc…looks like the days in the Garden are a thing of the past. One thing for certain, things are changing fast.

  3. Wow, this is great stuff. I thought I knew a decent amount about DU sports, but this is brand new to me! Thanks.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, and hope you saw part II today.

      There are many cool stories in DU’s long sports history that tend to be forgotten, and if we can bring these stories to people who haven’t heard them before, that’s exactly why we’re doing it.

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