Edward Simmons Irish, once the prophet of big-time basketball and now president of the worst team in the National Basketball Association, is a man virtually without casual acquaintances. Irish has enemies who suggest, "Cut the son of a gun and he won't bleed." He has friends who insist, "He's the finest buddy a man can have." But what is missing from the wide circle about the calculating, headstrong, occasionally brilliant New Yorker are the neutralists. No one is neutral about Ned Irish. No one says simply, "He's all right, I guess."
This vivid reflection of a promoter who has been a dominant figure in sports for 27 years would seem to ally him with the strongest personalities of our time, from Cus D'Amato to Nikita Khrushchev. It is the strong and strident personalities who make neutralism an untenable policy. But Irish's personality, which mixes saber-rattling with intense shyness, does not fit into a familiar pattern. Like his success, it is something that is unique and puzzling, even to his friends.
Irish was farsighted enough to take basketball out of college gymnasiums and put it into Madison Square Garden. But he does not seem to know enough about the game to run a winning team. He was a diligent newspaperman who took delight in the craft of reporting. But his relations with reporters at large and with New York reporters in particular are a model of inept press relations. He was aware of the danger of fixed college games long before they were confirmed in court, but his reaction to the 1951 scandals was alternately naive and hysterical.
Last week his comment on the current scandal was more sober: "I would have thought the boys would have learned their lesson from 1951." But he still showed no awareness that the Garden atmosphere and the presence of gamblers there might contribute to the fixes.
Ned Irish is president of the Garden, a vast, aging arena on Manhattan's underdeveloped West Side which is famous nationally for big-time sports and infamous locally for sullen ushers and 50� beers. On a fight night, when most of the floor is covered with removable benches, the Garden can hold almost 19,000 people and, for all the New York building boom, it remains what it was when Tex Rickard, using borrowed money, built it in 1925. The Garden is the only major indoor sports arena in the New York metropolitan area.
This is a rich and eager market, and Irish milks it mechanically and thoroughly, starting with the two teams the Garden owns. Through the Knickerbockers, for whose disastrous record he must be held responsible, he makes money. (The nearest rival team is in Philadelphia.) Through the Rangers, who have reached the National Hockey League playoffs only five times since World War II, he makes more. (The nearest rival team is in Boston.) In between these house promotions, Irish books college basketball double-headers, an ice show, professional wrestling, a horse show, track meets, a rodeo, a dog show and, occasionally, a fight. The Garden is seldom dark and, however dull the attraction, seldom empty. It is the sort of natural monopoly to warm a poor man's dreams.
Irish was once a poor man and, unquestionably, he dreamed, but his success has been a chilling, isolating thing. With few exceptions, sportswriters complain that he is arrogant and aloof. His current woes with the Knickerbockers have produced soft cries of delight throughout the NBA. It is easy to ascribe such unpopularity to a history of success, a phenomenon evidenced by the anti-Yankee bias of many New Yorkers. But Irish's unpopularity transcends resentment. One business associate calls him "the perfect mortgage forecloser."
At 55, Irish is bald, sharp-featured and thin-lipped. His voice is flat and colored by the accents of New York City. His manner is brusque and humorless; except with old and trusted friends, he creates the impression of a man preoccupied with people and things more important than the person or question he is facing at the moment. He guards his income figures fiercely, but sound estimates put his yearly take from all sources at something over $200,000, or almost a hundred times what it was when he left the newspaper business in mid-Depression.
The authorized account of Irish's emergence is probably most famous in the Bill Stern version, or Vulgate. Stern, whose fables were imposed on innocent radio listeners some 20 years ago, used to tell his audience: "The newspaperman sent to cover the game at the Manhattan College gymnasium found the gym so crowded that he had to crawl in through a window and, as he did, he ripped his best pair of pants. It was this that first led that newspaperman to dream of taking basketball out of the gyms, that prompted him to bring basketball into Madison Square Garden, to invent, yes, to invent, big-time basketball. And that man's name was [flourish of hautboys] Ned Irish."
For all its impact, this narration is weakened by several considerations, including fact. Irish did put basketball into the Garden on a regular basis, but the original idea was not his. He insists that he ripped his trousers, but Lou Black, now head of the Associated Press Sports Bureau in New Haven, Conn., covered the overcrowded Manhattan game with him and is not sure that anyone's clothing was torn, or that Irish's subsequent thoughts advanced beyond the usual newspaperman's complaint: "Something ought to be done about this mess."