Every year, right after St. Patrick’s Day, I think about the luck of Ned Irish. It’s a great time of year for basketball fans college and pro, with the NIT and NCAA tournaments beginning and the NBA season in full swing. We would have had basketball without Ned Irish, but I wonder what it would look like.
Edward S. “Ned” Irish was born in 1905 and died in 1982, by which time he had already been in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for nearly 16 years. If I had to pick someone to play him in a movie, it would have been James Cagney, who was just six years his elder. Ned was a man of many parts — part-time basketball writer and part-time basketball promoter.
The late great Vic Ziegel, who wrote so well for so many years for the Daily News, told me that Irish had a hard time getting into local high school and college basketball games because two entities didn’t understand the value of basketball coverage — the newspapers and the schools. Almost singlehandedly Irish created coverage by sneaking into arenas to watch the games and practically flying back to the newspaper office to write about them.
On one occasion — Ziegel said Ned would tell the story to anyone would listen — the promoters had become hip to Irish’s methods and actually posted guards to keep him out of the arena. Irish like to brag that one time he broke a window at the athletic department and slipped through it, ripping his best suit pants in the process. The late Bert Sugar, who also knew him well, said Ned would brag, “I still got the pants with the rip in ’em. Come on over to my place and I’ll show ya.”
Through a combination of brains, guts, bravado, and sheer Emerald Isle blarney, he had helped organize the very first postseason college basketball competition, the National Invitation Tournament. The first one was held in 1930. By that time, the New York sports pages had gotten the message: If college basketball wasn’t on the level with baseball and college football for fan interest, it was still big time and getting bigger.
The NCAA, following in the NIT’s wake, began their own tournament, but for more than two decades it played second fiddle to Ned’s baby. There were two reasons: The first was that the NIT offered teams a trip to New York, and, second, the power of New York newspapers and radio to cover the games. By 1946, NIT games were drawing an eye-popping average of over 18,000 fans a game. At that time, that was a higher per-game average then the New York Yankees, New York Giants, or Brooklyn Dodgers.
What finally spelled the downfall of the NIT– or at least its fall behind the NCAA — was the famous game-fixing scandal that rocked college basketball in 1951. Six colleges, four of them New York schools, and more than thirty players were implicated — some of them by fixing games, some by shaving points. New York DA Frank Hogan told reporters that the scandal was caused by “the blatant commercialism which had permeated college basketball.” One can only wonder what Hogan would have thought of the commercialism of college round ball had he seen the NCAA in the 21st century.
Irish started a press war with Hogan, and for the first time his pals in the papers didn’t report things the way he wanted them to. In truth — at least the truth as it was passed down to me by Vic Ziegel, Bert Sugar and Leonard Koppett — Ned was pals with many of the gamblers who were involved in the scandal, and he should have made a clean break with them.
Vertically over the NIT, the National Collegiate Athletic Association vowed to clean up the sport and for the next five decades the NIT lost more ground to the NCAA in power, prestige and money; by 2005 the NCAA finally purchased the rights to the NIT for $56.5 million.
Ned, however, survived very well. In 1946 he helped found the National Basketball Association of America, and in 1939 that organization joined forces with the National Basketball League to become the NBA as we now know it. Almost 30 years later, Irish helped make peace between the NBA and the upstart American Basketball Association, laying the foundation for the enormous pro basketball boom of the 1980s. By that time Ned had already worked his way into one of the NBA’s glamour jobs: executive VP of the New York Knicks. He held it until the year he died, attending just about every home tilt and most of the road games.
As far as I know, there’s never been a biography or even an ESPN documentary on Irish’s life. Any ambitious sportswriter out there with Hollywood connections would find a great subject in Ned. Good luck finding the Jimmy Cagney of our time to play him.