From March 1939: Before The Madness, Chapter 5: "Basketeers"
in New York, the first national invitation tournament was played
on March 9, 14, and 16, 1938, so it sandwiched the PCC title
series. It definitely was an outgrowth of the regular-season doubleheaders
and involved the type of conflict of interest for writers that wouldn’t
have been tolerated later. Although Ned Irish’s fingerprints
were on the tournament, too, the Metropolitan Basketball Writers
Association, made up of New York scribes, founded, sponsored,
and promoted it—and promoted it to the point where they
sometimes came off as carnival barkers imploring passersby to enter
the tent. The writers’ group was founded in 1934, and Irvin T.
Marsh and Everett B. Morris, both from the Herald Tribune, were its ringleaders.
Morris also was the paper’s boating writer.
The plan was to
follow Irish’s doubleheader formula in putting together
tournament fields, mixing New York–area teams with intriguing
squads from other parts of the country. One of the goals was
to confirm New York’s primacy in the college basketball world,
and the tournament did that, but there was some confusion because
nobody seemed to know what to call it. Most often, it was “the national
invitation tournament,” with the informality of lowercase letters,
but it also was labeled the Metropolitan Basketball Writers’
tournament, the New York writers’ invitation tournament, and
several other combinations. Capital letters and/or the NIT acronym
didn’t come into play right away.
The participants in
that six-team 1938 inaugural invitation tournament were Colorado,
Oklahoma A&M, and Bradley Tech, joining eastern entrants
Temple, New York University, and LIU. As those with the farthest
to travel, Colorado and Oklahoma A&M had byes, and the writers
probably were second-guessing the bracketing that matched two
New York teams, NYU and LIU, in the March 9 quarterfinals, which
guaranteed the early elimination of one local draw. In a shocker,
NYU knocked off Clair Bee’s Blackbirds 39-37. The Blackbirds
finished the season with a 23-5 record, disappointing given the
expectations and a soft schedule, with the other losses coming
to Marshall, Minnesota, Stanford, and La Salle. In the other
quarterfinal, Temple beat Bradley Tech 43-40.
Colorado had won the Rocky Mountain region’s
Big 7 league, but the Buffaloes were sought
because they had the biggest star in the tournament—an
event its home-state Denver Post, by the way, called “the first national Invitation Intercollegiate tournament.”
Dick Harvey, Jim Schwartz, Byron White, Jim
Willcoxen, Don Hendricks.
That star was a scholarly fellow from Wellington, Colorado. Byron “Whizzer” White was an All-American halfback for the Buffaloes and a solid starter for Colorado in basketball. The New York scribes couldn’t get enough of him, just as they had enjoyed building up Luisetti when he came through with Stanford during the regular season. The Colorado hero was the toast of Manhattan from the time he arrived with the Buffaloes’ traveling party. He had eight points in the March 14 semifinals as the Buffaloes edged NYU 48-47 on Don Hendricks’s late basket. In the other semifinal, the Oklahoma Aggies, coached by 33-year-old Henry “Hank” Iba, lost a 56-55 heartbreaker to Temple. The New York scribes puffed out their chests as they typed, knowing the nip-and-tuck semifinals had been exciting, and hoped for a reprise in the March 16 championship game.
Instead, they and the fans got
a stinker. Temple routed Colorado 60-36 to win the tournament
title, and Whizzer White bowed out of his college basketball
career with a 10-point night. Minutes after the championship
game, he again was being asked which he would choose—the
outlandish $15,000 contract from franchise owner Art Rooney to
play for the Pittsburgh (football) Pirates or a Rhodes scholarship
to study in Oxford. “There are about 500 people trying to
make up my mind,” he said in the Madison Square Garden dressing
room. One way to tell that White already was an extraordinary celebrity
was that at least one scribe actually talked to him after the
game instead of following the usual procedure of typing eyewitness
accounts of the game and not seeking comment from anyone involved.
Temple, the tournament
champions, finished the 1937–38 season with a 23-2 record.
Many in the east advanced the Philadelphia squad as the nation’s
best, and it wasn’t unreasonable. Their head-to-head victory
over Stanford, the west’s top team, bolstered the claim. There were scattered references to the Owls as “national champions,” but for the most part, the national attitude—at least among those who noticed in other areas of the country—seemed to be that the Owls had won a new tournament for New York teams and invited guests, no more suited to select the best team in the land than, say, a holiday tournament. It was a tournament for select (and selected) teams, but not a national championship, and Stanford wasn’t there. After beating the Webfoots for the 1937–38 PCC title, the Indians didn’t go anywhere, except perhaps to their homes during spring break. They already had made two cross-country trips to New York and beyond in the previous sixteen months. That was enough.
an experimental venture that first year, the invitation tournament
was pronounced a success. The catch, though, was that organizers
couldn’t count on having a Whizzer White–type drawing
card every year from among the teams brought in from outside
the New York area or the East Coast.
Stanford coach John Bunn was one
of many in his profession who began to wonder if there might
be a way to both combat the national invitation tournament and determine a national
champion, perhaps as soon as the upcoming 1938–39 season.