In February of 1965, my father and I went to the Bronx.
Given the time of year and later custom, I suspect the sibling-free excursion was a birthday treat. We probably stopped for a hot dog in that pre-fast food world, but I couldn’t say for sure. Nor can I recall a single thing we talked about on our drive. But I certainly remember what we did that day; my father took his six-year-old son to his first basketball game.
We went to see the Manhattan Jaspers play at Fordham University. The oldtimers referred to the rivalry as “The Battle of the Bronx”. The gym was a smoky bandbox; both sides packed with Irish and Italian New Yorkers who went home to the same neighborhoods when the game ended.
The intraboro matchup warranted a couple of lines in Sports Illustrated’s weekly college basketball wrapup though it was hardly a big game outside of New York. An on-campus college game in a small gym was a far cry from the Madison Square Garden experience; even in 1965 with the old Garden in its waning days.
In the few weeks before and after that day, the evening news was filled with truly important events. LBJ was inaugurated for his only full term. The marches from Selma to Montgomery ignited the civil rights movement. Winston Churchill’s death signified the end of an era and the first U.S. combat troops in Vietnam marked the beginning of another.
I still have black and white recollections of each of those stories on the news, but none nearly as sharp as that full color Bronx afternoon.
It was also a unique time in the evolution of the “city game”. Most of the local colleges – once dominant on the national basketball landscape – had a period of de-emphasis following the gambling scandals of the 1950s. In 1965, however, both Manhattan and Fordham fielded highly competitive teams. Within days of this game, they would each be selected to play in the NIT. The Rams would lose their postseason opener, but the Jaspers would beat Texas Western – a team that would travel Glory Road to a historic NCAA title just 12 months later.
I knew nothing of the teams or players that day. They were just a bunch of ruddy-faced guys in tight satin shorts. But I did notice that, 14 years after completing an education that included a BA from Manhattan and a JD from Fordham, my father seemed right at home in that crowd.
And a lot of people seemed happy to see him.
Many years later, when I took my own preschool daughter to the circus for the first time, she stepped in to Madison Square Garden having no idea what she was about to see. She instantly soaked in the bright lights, heard the music, smelled the cotton candy, and sensed what lay ahead. She looked up at me seconds after entering and said, “Ooooh! I like this place.”
I knew exactly how she felt.
Whatever that old Rose Hill gym lacked in aesthetics, I immediately knew that “I liked this place”. For one thing, Fordham’s mascot was a ram. Not a kid in a ram suit like they have today; a four-legged beast in all his feisty, noisy and malodorous glory.
If that weren’t enough to win over a six-year-old, I was completely fascinated by the mood inside the building. The fans were boisterous and they straddled the edge of anger and euphoria with each change of possession. I’d never seen this before, but I definitely wanted to be part of it and I dove in headfirst.
I seemed to pass muster with the Manhattan alumni in our section. Along with in-game tutorials, I was treated to stories told by and to my father about days gone by. One particularly memorable tale involved the postwar evening he led a posse of Manhattan students on a mission to kidnap the ram. The adventure wended across both campuses via the Bronx IRT before culminating in the animal’s safe return after it had been dyed kelly green. Another storyteller recalled a lost and liquored busload of students arriving late to a game at Villanova just in time to spur the team to a big second-half comeback. Others told of a stolen beer keg rolled through the snow following a game at Dartmouth and a party that culminated on top of a New Hampshire hotel marquee.
Who knew how much of it was true? Who knew if any of it was true? Who cared?
The student sections were at least as entertaining to a curious boy. The drinking age was still 18 and the young men embraced their privilege with fervor. My father referred to them as “the rabble” and their inebriated enthusiasm resulted in several stoppages in play as spectators-turned-combatants spilled on to the court. Their cheers and chants were a bit risqué for my G-rated ears with one centering on the ram’s unusual choice of cuisine. It occurs to me now that Rudy Giuliani was a Manhattan senior that year and Donald Trump an underclassman at Fordham. I can’t say if either were in attendance, but, if they were, it was not likely their finest moment.
A little research also reveals the unique makeup of that year’s Manhattan team. In a time before specialization, 3 of the 5 starters went on to be drafted by both the NBA and MLB. Larry Lembo was the 28th player selected in the NBA draft and a late round MLB pick before becoming a top NCAA referee; George Bruns abandoned the diamond after a single season of “A” ball for a brief stint with the Nets; and Bob Chlupsa – a 6’8” San Diego Rockets draft pick – would eventually settle in to the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen.
Our team lost as Fordham held on for a 67-65 win, but it hardly mattered. I was hooked by the game, the action, the stories and the unique energy of a sporting arena. I was hooked by this thing I shared with my father.
Within a year, I’d accompany him to my first baseball game – the Mets and Milwaukee Braves at Shea – and my first football game – the Giants and Eagles at Franklin Field. Those days were thrilling; but not as much as that first time in the Bronx. Among the hundreds and hundreds of games I attended with and without my dad, I don’t think I missed a single “Battle of the Bronx” over the next several decades.
In 2002, the rivalry played out in the early part of the schedule reserved for non-conference games. That December, I was back in the barely updated Rose Hill Gym to see a 30-point Manhattan victory. My father did not come with me.
By February, the season was winding down and he lay in my sister’s home having been released from the V.A. Hospital to die among his family. For Manhattan fans, it was a very good year; 21 wins against 6 losses. My father was too ill to attend any games, but he kept tabs via a transistor radio better suited to 1965 than 2003. A TV was wheeled in to his improvised bedroom to watch a few late season games the best he could.
He lived long enough to see his team clinch a regular season conference championship, but he did not survive in to the postseason.
A week after his funeral, I returned to work by attending an industry conference in Chicago. While there, I went to a local Dave & Buster’s to watch a narrow Manhattan escape in the semifinals of the conference tournament. The next night I turned down multiple dinner invitations and begged off the normal Chicago diversions. I paced nervously, alone in my room, and watched my late father’s team cruise to an easy conference championship and an NCAA tournament bid.
I had not cried upon learning of his terminal diagnosis or when hearing he had died. His wake and funeral also passed without me shedding a tear. But, when a marvelous Manhattan player named Luis Flores threw the basketball into the Sovereign Arena rafters as the horn sounded, I cried like a baby. I sat alone in a hotel room and cried for a long time. I called my mother, but was barely able to speak and had to hang up.
A week later, my sister and I took several of our offspring to Boston for the NCAA tournament. We watched Manhattan go down valiantly to a Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse team; the eventual national champion. In a twist of fate, the other game on the card that day featured Oklahoma State; a college my dad had attended while stationed in Stillwater during the war.
It was a nice pilgrimage. Not without emotional moments, but nothing like the Chicago hotel room.
I owe my father a debt of gratitude for introducing me to the edge of anger and euphoria. For coaching me in baseball and basketball. For the stories he shared when a little boy visited a man’s world.
I still attend the Battle of the Bronx more often than not. I always think to call him afterward until reality catches me. Since his ashes were scattered across the campus of his alma mater, every other season I can stroll outside the gym and talk to him following the game.
I owe him thanks for too many games, too many teams, too many sports, and too many arenas to remember. On this Father’s Day, however, I want to thank my father for a day in February of 1965 when he took me to the Bronx. That was one hell of an afternoon.