Old-timers from around the Tri-State might remember a scenario that would be virtually unthinkable today.
Then in the College Division, Southern Illinois University's men's basketball team finished 20-2 in the 1967 regular season. The Salukis could accept a bid to the College Division tournament, in which they had finished second behind the University of Evansville on its home court, Roberts Stadium, in 1965, and Kentucky Wesleyan at Roberts in '66.
Or they could play in the NCAA Division I National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City.As the story goes, SIU was sick and tired of losing to UE on its home court, so it accepted the NIT bid. The Salukis set the college basketball world on its proverbial ear, defeating Al McGuire-led Marquette 71-56 in the NIT championship game as the greatness of Walt Frazier was unveiled for the entire country to see.
Frazier and championships were synonymous. He sparked the New York Knicks to the 1970 and '73 NBA titles, was a seven-time NBA All-Star and named one of the "Fifty Greatest Players in NBA History" during the league's 50th anniversary celebration in 1996.
Frazier and other members of SIU's 1967 NIT champions returned to the SIU Arena for their own 50th anniversary celebration last weekend as the Salukis hosted UE on Saturday. Frazier, nicknamed "Clyde" during his NBA days for his propensity to make steals, said winning the NIT was near the top of his list.
"That was the beginning," Frazier said in a statement. "I honed my skills here in Southern Illinois. Going to the NIT catapulted me to the national spotlight, being the MVP and being drafted by the Knicks. It was a culmination of those things that I will never forget."In 1967, the NIT was considered much more prestigious than it is today and the Garden was considered the mecca of basketball. After defeating defending NCAA Division I champion Texas Western and splitting a pair of games with No. 2-ranked Louisville during the regular season, the Salukis wanted no part of the College Division (now Division II tournament).
Perhaps one of the best things that happened to Frazier was being academically ineligible during the 1966 season. It made him grow up in a hurry.
"I had to do everything," Frazier said. "I developed discipline. I always look back on that one year of adversity in my life as a really positive experience. Also, it helped me in basketball because every day in practice coach (Jack) Hartman made me play defense (exclusively). I fell in love with defense. I mastered the stance, the technique, everything. That year really turned my life around."
Like Frazier, Saluki teammate Dick Garrett went on to play in the NBA, for five seasons. In fact, they guarded each other during the 1970 NBA Finals; Frazier was on the Knicks and Garrett the Los Angeles Lakers.
Garrett said winning the 1967 NIT championship was the highlight of his career.
"Being the first team from the College Division to ever be invited to the NIT was a big thing," he said. "We thought we could play with anyone in the country, so we looked forward to playing in the NIT. The rest is history."
This article is written by Gordon Engelhardt from Evansville Courier & Press, Ind. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.