In all likelihood, they will play the last game in the history of The National Invitation Tournament tonight in Madison Square Garden. That makes me quite sad. I understand that the NIT has become an almost forgotten tournament because the NCAA Tournament has become such a national phenomenon but there was a time when it meant a great deal to college basketball and—as a kid growing up in New York—a great deal to me.
My first live college basketball game was the 1965 NIT championship game between St. John’s and Villanova, which was Joe Lapchick’s last game at St. John’s. The Redmen won 55-51 and I was thrilled because the New York team won. The winner of the consolation game that day—11 a.m. tipoff—was Army. That was Tates Locke’s last game as Army coach. He left for Miami of Ohio and was replaced by his assistant, a young coach named Bob Knight.
The NIT became the one time all year my dad actually took me to games. He was never a sports fan but had a warm spot for college basketball having gone to CCNY during the glory years when Nat Holman was the coach. Dad and I had a deal: I would use my GO student card to buy $2 tickets upstairs for the first round games and the quarterfinals and he would get tickets for the semis and finals and take me. Because dad did business with the Garden, he could get REALLY good seats—usually in the third row or so right behind press row. I remember thinking how cool it must be to sit on press row and have stats brought to you at halftime.
In 1968, dad couldn’t make the final on Saturday afternoon. So, he took me to the second night of quarterfinals and the semis and set me up to go with a buddy to the championship afternoon doubleheader. (I was always one of about 27 people in the building when the consolation game started).
There were two local teams in the Tuesday night quarterfinals that year: Fordham was playing Dayton and St. Peter’s was playing Notre Dame. I had always been a big Fordham fan—I went to games in Rose Hill Gym and listened on WFUV-FM when I couldn’t go—and I knew Coach John Bach was leaving for Penn State. Back then there were only 25 teams in the NCAA’s so there were very good teams in the NIT.
One was Dayton, which had been the NCAA runner-up under Coach Don Donoher a year earlier. As the game progressed, I noticed that the ladies seated next to use were rooting VERY hard for Dayton. “I’ll bet those are the coaches wives,” my dad said. At halftime, the lady sitting next to me turned to me and said, “you’re quite a fan aren’t you?”
I commented that SHE was quite the fan and she laughed and said, “Well, I have a reason to, I’m Sonia Donoher.”
My dad had been right. She introduced the other wives and the rest of the game we engaged in a friendly back-and-forth as the game ebbed and flowed. Dayton won when Frank McLaughlin, now Fordham’s AD, missed a jumper from the left elbow at the buzzer. I think it was 61-60. We congratulated Mrs. Donoher and the other wives and promised to pull for the Flyers in the semifinals, which we did—a win in overtime over Notre Dame. Then my friend and I were completely in the Dayton camp during the final against Kansas.
By then I was practically part of the Dayton entourage. Mrs. Donoher took me into the locker room outside the hallway after the championship game so I could meet her husband and get introduced to Don May. Given that I had heard the Knicks might draft him (which they did in the second round) it was like meeting a God. A couple weeks later I got a note from Mrs. Donoher with an autographed photo of Don May and a photo of the team with the trophy—again autographed. I wish I could say I knew where they were.
In a sense, Dayton became my team after that and Coach Donoher became my coach. I wasn’t in touch with the Donoher’s but certainly followed what they were doing. Unbeknownst to me, they were following me—sort of. In 1981 I was at the Final Four in Philadelphia when I spotted Coach Donoher in the stands before the first semifinal getting ready to watch his friend Bob Knight coach Indiana against LSU.
I walked over and said, “Coach, I know you don’t remember this but back in 1968 your wife introduced me to you after you won the NIT and…”
“John Feinstein!” he said. “Sonia and I wondered if that was you when we read your byline in The Post. She said, ‘it must be him because I always knew he’d be involved with basketball someday.’”
I was thrilled—and stunned. Coach Donoher asked if I wouldn’t mind giving Sonia a call. There were no cell phones back then but The Post had a phone on press row and I went right to it and called her. When I started to say hello and re-introduce myself she said, “I knew it, I knew it—I told Mick (which is what everyone has always called Coach Donoher) it had to be you. We are SO proud of you.”
As it turned out they had a relative living in Annapolis—I believe it was one of their sons—and saw The Post fairly regularly.
Honestly, it was thrilling for me that they actually remembered the little kid who had become a Dayton fan in 1968. We re-connected and I visited them several times in 1986 when I was doing ‘Season on the Brink,’ since Dayton isn’t far from Bloomington. Coach Donoher retired in 1989 but he and Sonia are still the first family of Dayton. They are, without question, two of the great people I’ve had a chance to meet along the way.
And, as luck would have it, Dayton will play in the last game in NIT history—against North Carolina in the championship game tonight. I really wish I could be there because of all the memories and because Dayton is playing but I have to be here in Indianapolis. And, of course, I had no idea Dayton would make it this far.
Still, maybe it is better that I’m not there. I know seeing the last game in a tournament that started in 1938 and is now being put out to pasture so the NCAA can make more money on a 96 team field would make me very sad. And watching Dayton without my dad on my left and Mrs. Donoher on my right wouldn’t be the same.
Time marches on. But you hang on to the memories.