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

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Madison Square Garden Marquee in 1961. Photo: New York Times

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 in this two-part flashback series. In the first part (here), he covered the first four DU appearances between 1947 and 1959, while in this second part (below) he covers the second four MSG appearances, which occurred between 1959 and 1966.

After a nine-year hiatus, The DU basketball team returned to Madison Square Garden on March 14th, 1959. The Pioneers had rung up some signature wins in that season over nationally-ranked teams, including a 13-point, 73-60 victory at seventh-ranked Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, which then seated 17,000 fans and is still known as one of the loudest arenas in the country. DU also bested #17th ranked Utah at home in Denver, and the Pioneers, even playing as an NCAA independent, were rewarded with an invite to what was then the 12-team National Invitation Tournament (NIT) that March, which was played entirely at Madison Square Garden. It was DU’s first of three NIT overall appearances, but the only DU NIT appearance at Madison Square Garden. The game was nationally televised.

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New York Times, March 14th, 1959

In the March 14th NIT opener, the Pioneers would face the New York University Violets, a strong Division I program at that time, but today plays in NCAA Division III. DU fell 90-81 before over 13,000 fans in that nationally-televised Saturday matinee first-round NIT game at MSG — on NYU’s home court. Jim Peay, a DU junior from nearby Rye, N.Y., led the Pioneers with 22 points and 21 rebounds, but it was just not enough to get by the Violets, who went on to finish third in the tournament.  That DU vs NYU game is probably best remembered for NYU’s Russ Cunningham, who shot the final basket of the game into the wrong basket, scoring for Denver, as he thought time had already run out (see the New York Times box score below for the wrong-basket notation). DU finished the season at 14-10, and would not appear in an NIT again until 2005, and would not win an NIT game until 2013 in Denver when the Pioneers beat Ohio University for its only Division I postseason victory in program history.

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Note the box score asterisk at bottom, denoting NYU scoring a basket for DU in the wrong basket. Photo: New York Times

Denver was invited back to Madison Square Garden the next season for a regular-season rematch against NYU on December 19, 1959, as part of a double-header along with Providence and St. John’s. Here are the before-and-after clips from the New York Times.

The Pioneers kept it close at halftime, down 40—32 to the Violets, but NYU exploded in the second half, coasting to an easy 91-68 win before a crowd of 13,237 spectators. Jim Peay, in his senior season this time, led the Pioneers with 21 points. 

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Jim Peay had 21 points for DU against NYU in 1959. Photo: Denver Post

After the loss, the Pioneers flew to Michigan and two nights later, took out their frustrations on the University of Michigan Wolverines, winning 71-65 at Yost Fieldhouse, which is today Yost Arena, Michigan’s hockey home. The Pioneers would finish 13-11 that season, with the most memorable home win coming over legendary Hall of Fame coach John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins, 71-68.

The Pioneers returned to Madison Square Garden on December 8, 1961, once again to face NYU again, and hoping that the third matchup with the Violets would be the winning charm.

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Alas, it wasn’t, as the Pioneers were thumped again, 83-69, in the nightcap of a doubleheader that had Navy beating Manhattan College in the first game. By this time, the crowd sizes at the Garden for many college basketball games were falling from the near-capacity crowds they once drew, and only 6,185 fans were in the house to see the Pioneers lose to NYU. Of course, it should be stated that DU would love to have 6,000 fans at its games today (or even 3,000). But back in 1961, DU shot 45% in the first half to keep the game close at 42-34 for NYU, but DU rushed many of its shots in the second half and could not close the gap, as NYU shot a blistering 61% from the field in the second half for the win. Tim Vezie had 20 points for the Pioneers in the losing effort.

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Veazie was DU’s leading scorer and rebounder for DU that season, was an all-Skyline Conference player and was a later voted as a member of DU’s all-Century team in 2004.  He would later become head coach at San Diego State in the 1970s, taking the Aztecs to two NCAA tournaments. The Pioneers would finish just 8-17 that year, with the highlight wins coming at home over BYU and Wyoming, and a two-game home-and-home sweep of New Mexico.

The final time DU hoops would appear in Madison Square Garden was on December 15th, 1966, when the Pioneers lost once again to New York University, 76-70 as the second half of a doubleheader, with the first game seeing Rutgers University, behind a young guard named Jim Valvano, beat the University of Missouri in overtime. 

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The Pioneers got off to a strong start, leading NYU at halftime, 46-42, with DU defender Rick Callahan shutting down NYU star all-American Mal Graham, who would later win two NBA titles with the Boston Celtics. But NYU’s Bruce Kaplan got hot in the second half, scoring 20 of his game-high 28 points in the second half to carry the Violets to victory once again, bringing NYU to a 4-0 lifetime record against DU. The game story in the New York Times mentioned that Kaplan had heard he had been accepted to two medical schools earlier that day, which may have contributed to his stellar performance against DU. 

Harry Hollines, a DU Hall-of-Famer, led the Pioneers with a 24-point performance of his own in the loss. Hollines, who is still DU’s all-time leading scorer to this day, more than 50 years after he last wore the Crimson and Gold, averaged 25 points per game in his career. Amazingly,  Hollines’ 1809 career DU points record was achieved playing only three seasons at DU, as freshmen were not allowed to play for the varsity in those days. Hollines (see photo below, at left) was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 1968 after DU but never played in the NBA.  

DU’s 1966 final game at MSG may be best remembered by team members by what happened after the loss. 

“We were in New York and played in Madison Square Garden,” Callahan recalled in a  2010 article in University of Denver Magazine. “[One of DU’s star players Byron] Beck (who later played in the ABA and NBA – see photo below at right (#40) missed curfew and gets in the elevator in the hotel about two hours after curfew only to find [DU Coach Troy] Bledsoe in the elevator. He was absolutely busted.”  According to Callahan, Bledsoe subsequently punished the whole DU team with wind sprints in practice the following day. “Harry [Hollines] and I say, ‘Hey, Coach, why should we have to run? Beck is the one who broke curfew.’ Coach Bledsoe told us to “ask Byron.”

“So we go up to Beck [who later had his number retired by the Denver Nuggets] and we said, ‘Byron, we don’t want to run sprints,’… [Beck] kind of looked at us with a smile and said, ‘Next time I break curfew, I will remember to peek in the elevator or take the stairs. How’s that?’”

Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a longtime DU fan and alumnus. He shares his stories and insights here at LetsGoDU periodically.

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

  1. Man…wins over Michigan and UCLA, we were legit in the distant past. Now we can’t beat northern south dakota

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