Any extraordinary feat at Madison Square Garden lives forever, which is why Oscar Robertson's 56-point game in 1958 still was a pertinent topic there Wednesday. Great performers and performances stand on their own, unlike the backboards at the old Garden in Robertson's day.
Those boards were held in place by long guide wires that were attached to the upper deck, within reach of fans.
"If you were playing well and a guy didn't like it, they shook the guide wires,'' Robertson said Wednesday at a news conference celebrating the history of college basketball at the Garden.
The gathering heralded the return tomorrow of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 53 years. So some former stars reminisced about the thick cigarette and cigar smoke that used to collect near the ceiling, and about the floor that didn't offer the same bounce that gymnasium courts did. It was all part of the atmosphere of the previous Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street.
"It was a magic venue. There was nothing around like it,'' said Ron Nadell of Massapequa, who was there with former CCNY teammate Floyd Layne to recall their amazing 1950 sweep of the NIT and NCAA championships, both at the Garden. "College basketball at that time was it, it was the kingpin. The professionals were playing at the 69th Regiment Armory.''
A return of the East Regional, Nadell said, "Absolutely is deja vu -- even though it's 32nd Street instead of 49th Street. It's still Madison Square Garden.''
And it still is a great source and storehouse of memories, like that of the 19-year-old Robertson playing for Cincinnati and outscoring Seton Hall on his own (final score: 118-54). The Hall of Famer said Wednesday that he didn't realize he was having such a big night. He certainly didn't dream that his 56 points were setting a Garden college record that would be standing in 2014.
Robertson, a 6-5, 220-pound guard, was the master of the triple-double, dominating every phase of the game the way LeBron James does today. In the 1961-62 season, his second in the NBA with the Cincinnati Royals, Robertson averaged a triple-double. No one else has done that.
"When I'm inside, I play like a forward or a center, when I'm outside, I play like a guard,'' Robertson said, using the present tense. "I thought everybody was playing the same way.''
It is a tribute to the Garden that, in a stellar career, his game against Seton Hall stands out. That night changed him. He attributes it to a one-on-one conversation, after a mostly monosyllabic news conference, with New York Post reporter Milton Gross.
"He told me, 'If you're going to be a star, you've got to learn to express yourself,' '' said the man who went on to develop a beloved reputation as "The Big O.''
Robertson, 75, still likes college ball, but not the restrictive hand-check foul calls ("I don't understand the refereeing,'' he said). He finds the transformed Garden much nicer than the first one he saw. He knows the place still is magic, especially for a college kid.
"I will say this: You have to do well when you get here,'' he said. "If the city thinks you're a great player and you don't play well, you can never live it down. I think it's great for the kids who are going to come here and play. I hope they do well because if they do well, you'll read about them forever.''
NYU great Cal Ramsey can identify with that. Before he became a Knicks player and TV announcer, he faced Robertson in a special night of Garden college ball. "I got 16 points,'' Ramsey said, "and I held him to 48.''