I have not attended a Northwestern basketball game at what I still call McGaw Memorial Hall in more than forty years. It’s a cozy venue with fond memories, so I should make it back sometime.
The 8,117-seat gymnasium and field house was built in 1952, replacing Patten Gymnasium as Northwestern’s home court. It even hosted an NCAA Final Four in 1956, when a record 10,656 saw the undefeated University of San Francisco, led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, defeat the University of Iowa, 83-71. After the 1982-1983 renovations, the basketball court section was named Welsh-Ryan Arena, as part of Aon Chairman Pat Ryan’s quest to slap his family name on as many venues at the university as possible. The raised, creaking portable floor, complete with dead spots and easy on the shins and knees, was scrapped, and theater-type seats replaced some of the uncomfortable bleachers, which still remain in abundance. The Wildcats rarely sell out, except against the University of Illinois, where the fans are evenly divided.
Welsh-Ryan Arean (fka McGaw Memorial Hall)
My father, an Illinois alum, took my brother and me to our first game on February 7, 1959. I don’t remember anything about the game (Harlem Globetrotters owner Mannie Jackson played for the Illini) but did get an autograph from NU football coach Ara Parseghian (“Mr. Parseghian, may I please have your autograph?” I politely asked him). Northwestern, which won 88-79, had one of its better seasons, finishing 15-7, tied for second place in the Big Ten. The next season, the opponent was Notre Dame and another autograph from Ed “Moose” Krause, who was the Irish’s athletic director from 1949 to 1981. Notre Dame was victorious that evening, 93-88.
Illinois vs. Northwestern, 1959
For our next game, one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time, Ohio State, took on Northwestern on January 6, 1962. The #1-ranked Buckeyes, led by Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, had won the NCAA championship in 1960 and lost its only game of the year in overtime to Cincinnati in 1961 final game. They would lose only to Wisconsin before falling again to Cincinnati in the final game again that season. Northwestern was no match for Ohio State, losing 85-62 despite efforts by Nick Mantis, Ralph Wells and Rich Falk. NU would finish 9-15.
Ohio State vs. Northwestern, 1962
We witnessed a most spectacular ending the next season. I remember arriving early on January 14, 1963, for the Illinois game and being introduced to Jack Mabley, a well-known newspaper columnist. Mabley and my father were editors of The Daily Illini and The Illio yearbook, respectively, for the Class of 1938. We were high up in row 31 as the #3 Illini, with Dave Downey and Bill Burwell, battled the 3-8 Wildcats. The game was tied, 76-76, with Illinois’ ball under its own basket and 13 seconds on the clock. Captain Bob Starnes eventually took a pass from Tal Brody (who would later star and coach in Israel) and hit a 55-foot shot at the buzzer, as 7,200 fans couldn’t believe their eyes. The Illini would eventually lose to Loyola in the NCAA tournament; the Ramblers provided their own excitement with a last-second put-back by Vic Rouse to take the NCAA title from Cincinnati.
Illinois vs. Northwestern, 1963
High school and driver’s licenses brought independence and the best seats in the house. Freshmen were not eligible for varsity basketball until the 1970s, and Big Ten freshman teams did not play each other. The Northwestern recruits thus played various intramural all-star teams before the varsity main event. We paid $2 to see the freshman play and found seats in the student section close to the floor at mid-court for the varsity game. At 6 feet tall and over, we looked like NU students and nobody ever checked our tickets. On January 15, 1966, Cazzie Russell, a Carver High School grad who almost single-handedly revived the University of Michigan basketball program, poured in 39 points on the way to leading the Big Ten in scoring with a 30.8 points/game average and a 93-86 victory. Our seats were so low that several friends spotted us on television. The wildest game of all came the following season, when the University of Kentucky, led by Pat Riley (33 points) and Louie Dampier (32 points), defeated Northwestern, 118-116. Kentucky had been NCAA runner-up to Texas Western (now Texas El Paso) the previous season.
Kentucky vs. Northwestern, 1966
My last game was during college break in December 1969, when a number of us attended the Michigan game. Rudy Tomjanovich and a cast of teammates no taller than 6’3” defeated Northwestern with Don Adams (who would play seven seasons in the NBA) and Dale Kelley, 96-92. The closest I’ve come to McGaw was the Michigan-Northwestern football game in 2003. Maybe next year . . . but not in the student section.