Watchdog

Neil Best leaves no stone unturned in the world of sports media.

Bill Raftery has been a Garden regular since 1955

Fox analyst Bill Raftery.

Fox analyst Bill Raftery. (Credit: Handout)

Bill Raftery is old enough to have played for LaSalle at the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue in the early 1960s, but his experience with college basketball in the building predates even that.

“The first time was Bill Russell [of San Francisco] playing against Tommy Heinsohn [of Holy Cross] in the [1955] Holiday Festival,’’ Raftery said Thursday as he prepared to work the NCAA East Regional as an analyst.

“I was just a [12-year-old] kid, watching Russell force Tommy to take hooks shots quite a distance away, because he couldn’t get the normal jump shot off. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’’’

San Francisco won, 67-51, en route to the NCAA Championship.

Raftery also recalls the 1964 Holiday Festival semifinal between Bill Bradley of Princeton and Cazzie Russel of Michigan, which Michigan won, 80-78, in one of the most memorable college games in Garden history.

Raftery later coached Seton Hall at the current Garden before embarking on his long broadcasting career, including dozens of more games in the building.

“The Garden used to give us three or four national opponents that I didn’t have to return the game [on the road],’’ he said. “We could compete here and never win at Duke, win at Carolina, win at Vegas. We all felt like this is the big time, this is what you really play the game for. I know our players did and I know coming into this thing these kids will.’’

Raftery, who worked the first Big East Tournament on Fox earlier this month, said there was speculation last week that he and Verne Lundquist would be assigned to the Garden this weekend, but he does not like to look ahead.

“I don’t really care where we go, but when it was decided, this is pretty special,’’ he said.

Raftery said he likes the new look of the Garden after a three-year renovation but like many he misses the “Willis Reed Tunnel,’’ which is hidden in the new configuration.

Raftery has a special place in his heart for the 1969-70 Knicks. The season before he took over at Seton Hall he said he attended every home game and 18 road games while sitting beside play-by-play man Bob Wolff writing helpful notes.

“It wasn’t a job,’’ he said. “I didn’t get paid anything.’’

Among the road games he attended was the one against the Royals that extended the Knicks’ winning streak to 18.

Raftery said he was friendly with Knicks coach Red Holzman and that Holzman and his wife, Selma, attended Raftery’s wedding to his wife, Joan.

Actually, Raftery said he missed one home game in that storied 1969-70 Knicks season. After Raftery accepted the Seton Hall job for 1970-71, outgoing coach Richie Regan insisted Raftery attend his retirement dinner.

Raftery complied. It was May 8, 1970, the night Reed walked through the tunnel and the Knicks won their first championship – the only one they have secured on their home floor at the Garden.

Tags: NCAA , CBS

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