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On a wintry January evening early this year, a Princeton undergraduate named Artie Klein looped in a long field goal in the last second of play to beat Dartmouth 61-59 and was borne, amid unrestrained voicings of joy, off the floor on the shoulders of his classmates. At this moment, the game of basketball came full cycle. Not once since Jim Naismith hammered his first peach basket into place on the balcony of a Springfield, Mass. gymnasium that other winter evening back in 1891 had anyone carried a Princeton basketball player off the court. At Princeton they frequently do not even speak to basketball players.
If dedicated followers of the game elsewhere in the land observed this broaching of one of the last bastions with an air of almost complete indifference, it was easy to understand. It was, they felt, about time. In recent years the American-conceived game of basketball—the only game, as a matter of fact, to have been devised in the United States with no appreciable roots in the sports of other nations—has circled the globe and captured the fancy of both players and fans of virtually every country on earth. It has been received with exuberance not only in Australia and France and Russia but in British Guiana and Luxembourg and Mauritius as well. It was inevitable that the Ivy League, which counts among its members several of the schools that formed the first intercollegiate basketball conference as early as 1902, would eventually convince its followers, too, that this newfangled game was here to stay.
So this week, as the whistle toots for the 1957-58 college basketball season, Princeton will be in there cheering along with all the rest: North Carolina and Kansas and Kentucky and Utah, Hofstra and Wabash and Slippery Rock, Philadelphia Textile Institute and the College of Puget Sound. To say that college basketball this year will be bigger and better than ever is to glorify the obvious. It always is.
The college game, while neither so vast in scope as high school basketball (over 100 million persons attended high school games in the U.S. last year) nor so expert in its execution as the brand displayed by the professionals, remains the spear point of the sport. It is into the colleges that the high schools pour their great reservoir of youthful talent, and it is from the colleges that the pros draw the matured product upon which they depend for their very existence. As athletic directors and ticket managers of almost a thousand colleges and universities are happy to point out, in most sections of the country, basketball joined football long ago in the collegiate athletic big time.
This year, to project into the future a recent and exhaustive survey made by the Converse Rubber Company (which happens to be interested in this sort of thing since it manufactures the shoes that basketball players wear), more than 900 four-year colleges and universities will suit up teams and, before it is all over, play before almost 15 million fans. The basketball-happy Midwest, including the equally basketball-happy Missouri Valley area, will draw almost 5 million spectators. The South will attract crowds of nearly 3 million, the Middle Atlantic and Pacific Coast colleges more than a million apiece, and even the football-obsessed Southwest, which would have shuddered at the very thought of a basketball boom a few years back, now expects to play to an audience of almost a million with only 48 teams in action.
Whether it is cause or effect, one of the reasons college basketball is able to attract so many spectators during a relatively brief season is the attendant boom in gymnasiums and field houses (see page 30). The Southwest Conference is a good example: this year seven of the eight teams will be playing in arenas built since 1950. Since 1947, 24 colleges have constructed field houses with a seating capacity greater than 7,500; of the 10 largest college arenas in the country, six have been built since 1949. Last year the University of Kansas, runner-up to North Carolina for the NCAA championship and handicapped hardly at all by the presence of Wilt (The Stilt) Chamberlain, played before 152,500 fans in just 10 games at its new 17,000-capacity Allen Field House.
This is a long way, however, from being a stay-at-home sport. Kansas also played 17 games on the road (and another 161,000 turned out to swell the Jayhawks' total attendance to 313,500). Teams like Seattle, Brigham Young, Utah, Loyola of California and Texas traveled over 15,000 miles. This year there will be some 40 tournaments scheduled for the Christmas-New Year holiday period alone, when teams from the East will play in the Southwest and teams from the West Coast in the East and midwestern basketball players will abandon their own snow-spotted campuses to invade gymnasiums nestled among the orange orchards and magnolia groves of the Deep South. In March, three major national tournaments are scheduled to decide, after long conference seasons and additional preliminary playoffs, just who are the best teams in the land after all. The biggest of these, the NCAA's university division, is already approaching the sellout stage not only for the semifinals and finals at Louisville but also for the four regional playoffs at Lexington, Ky., Charlotte, N.C., Lawrence, Kans. and San Francisco as well.
The basketball fan who is unable to shake loose to watch a game now and then really has no problem. He will find basketballs bouncing across his television screen all season long. CBS will be on hand for the National Invitation Tournament from Madison Square Garden in March. NBC will televise a professional game nationally each Saturday afternoon and its West Coast division will handle Pacific Coast Conference games on a regional basis. Sports Network, Inc. televises Big Ten contests for the second year over a massive midwestern net of 40 stations which will blanket 10 states and this year will also sponsor a similar project with Atlantic Coast Conference teams on a smaller scale. And there are, additionally, scheduled local telecasts by numerous TV stations in cities all over the country wherever college basketball is played. If you don't like basketball, maybe you can sign up for one of those bargain trips to the moon—or perhaps just hide under the bed. Even man's last friend and sanctuary, the neighborhood bar, is now out of bounds.
Basketball's amazing popularity, despite the fact that it seldom leaves blood dripping on the floor, is due more than anything else to the fact that it still answers the original need which triggered its conception: a highly competitive team game that could be played indoors during the winter months, with the emphasis on speed and skill. Before 1891 there was a void which basketball came along to fill; in the 66 years since, nothing has appeared to replace it. For thousands of young men who never could get very excited about Indian club twirling, basketball was the answer to a prayer.
Basketball has never been an expensive sport. Courts are everywhere and every kid has a pair of sneakers. The main item of expense, especially on the playground or recreational league level, is the basketball itself, and a good basketball costs less than $10. While dozens of colleges have dropped intercollegiate football in the postwar period because of increasing overhead, none of them have stopped buying basketballs; the Athletic Goods Manufacturers Associations happily report that it sells 16,000 dozen more every year than it did the year before, and this season total sales are expected to reach 210,000 dozen.