Billy Joel first sang about it in 1976:
“I’m takin’ a Greyhound on the Hudson River line,
“I’m in a New York state of mind.”
It became one of the signature songs of his career, but really long before that – going back to the early 1950s – the Dayton Flyers were singing the same tune.
New York City has been the site of some of the greatest victories in UD basketball history, especially the NIT titles in 1962, 1968 and 2010.
It’s been the place where Flyers teams have played in front of many of their biggest crowds – 26 of UD’s 50 largest crowds have been at Madison Square Garden.
And the city and surrounding environs have produced some of the greatest Flyers players ever, including two of the top three all-time scorers – Roosevelt Chapman and Henry Finkel – as well as the star-crossed Roger Brown, arguably the greatest player ever to wear a UD uniform and Scoochie Smith, the point guard leader of the winningest class in UD history.
Overall the New York metro area has sent a couple of dozen basketball players and thousands of students to UD over the years and today the local alumni association here has over 3,400 members.
And this weekend – in yet another embrace between the team and this town – the Flyers have found themselves in a full-fledged New York state of mind again.
Late Friday night the Flyers opened Atlantic 10 Tournament play with a quarterfinal game against Saint Louis at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The teams’ most celebrated player – 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman Obi Toppin, the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year – grew up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and was as excited to “get back home” as were the throng of family and friends here who bought tickets so they cheer him and his Flyers teammates in their quest to the NCAA Tournament.
Besides Toppin, the Flyers have injured guard Jhery Matos, who played here last season at Monroe College, and UD assistant coach Ricardo Greer, who grew up in a tough Washington Heights section of Upper Manhattan, later starred at Pitt, played 14 years as a pro and was the point man on the recruitment of Toppin.
And just before Greer, the NYC rep on the staff of then head coach Archie Miller was Allen Griffin. He grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, starred at Syracuse and laid the ground work to land Scoochie Smith.
Griffin once talked to me about what he thought set NYC plyers like Scoochie and Roosevelt Chapman apart from others:
“Part of that confidence comes from the bright lights you play in when you come up in a place like New York City. Whether you’re playing at some of the schools that have big reputations or even in the parks, you have to live up to the standard night in and night out or they’ll let you know big time.”
Madison Square Garden and the NIT
UD coach Tom Blackburn – who built the initial foundation for Flyers success – had a special affinity for Madison Square Garden and the NIT. Six of his teams played in the championship game and the 1962 team won the tournament.
Blackburn also brought teams to the Garden for the ECAC Holiday Festival, the premier Christmas tournament in college basketball.
Flyers players loved those trips and no one has any more vivid memories than Don Donoher, who played on three of Blackburn’s NIT teams and then coached the Flyers in seven more NITs.
Donoher was a wide-eyed kid from Toledo who had never before flown on a plane when he came to his first NIT in 1952.
Once he landed, his head stayed in the clouds for the 10 days the Flyers were here.
“We got in on Friday evening and were guests of Madison Square Garden at the Friday Night Fights which were big on TV then,” he said. “The next night we played a first round game and then Sunday night it was back to Garden to see the New York Rangers.
“Monday and Tuesday we watched one quarterfinal and played in the other. Then Wednesday we went to a Broadway show. We play a semifinal on Thursday, went back to the fights Friday and then played in the championship game Saturday.
“Sunday we got on the plane to come home and you’re like, ‘was I just dreaming all this?’ But then we’d get back in Dayton and we were treated like local heroes.”
Experiences like that helped in recruiting and certainly aided the Flyers in landing Roger Brown, a playground sensation from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
He starred on the 1960-61 freshman team, then was over-zealously targeted by the NCAA for his high school friendship with Jack Molinas, who soon after was involved in a major game-fixing scandal.
Let go by Dayton, Brown — even though he was never linked to any of Molinas’ fixing schemes — he later starred in the American Basketball Association and was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Soon after Brown’s departure, the Flyers got 7-foot Henry Finkel out of Union City, N.J.
Finkel had quit college after a season at Saint Peter’s so he could work at a shipyard as his dad batted cancer. He was spotted by Harry Brooks, a former star at Seton Hall and a friend of Blackburn’s.
It was the summer of 1962. UD had just won the NIT and Brooks told Finkel that UD might be interested.
“I had to check with my mother first,” Finkel once told me. “She told me to go. She knew the value of an education.”
Finkel redshirted a season and the following year, with three games left, the ailing Blackburn handed the reigns of the program to Donoher.
Soon after, Blackburn died.
Donoher feared Finkel would leave school, especially when the Los Angeles Lakers drafted him. He turned them down, just as he did the Philadelphia 76ers the next year. He had promised is mom he’d get an education.
He led the Flyers to two straight NCAA Tournament Sweet 16s, got his education and then went off to nine years in the pros.
“He deserves a monument,” Donoher said. “I don’t know of another player who impacted the Dayton program like he did.
“The year after he left we go to the national championship game. That success led to the building of UD Arena and all that’s followed. None of this would have happened without Finkel.
“That’s why around our house we genuflect at the mention of Henry Finkel.”
Flyer Faithful invade the Big Apple
Flyers fans have always enjoyed the New York experience, as well.
That was the case Friday when the alumni gathered at a local Irish tavern just down the street from the Barclays Center.
At the 2010 NIT championship – when coach Brian Gregory and a team led by Chris Wright and Chris Johnson knocked off North Carolina with its eight McDonald’s All Americans in the final – the Dayton crowd flooded onto the court in much the way they did in 1968,
As the New Yorker put it: “Hundreds of Dayton fans, ignoring the warning of the public address announcer, swarmed out of the stands onto the court.
“Coach Donoher stood, dazed in the center of the crush, his eyes filled with tears. Sonia Donoher, his wife, and Bobby Joe Hooper’s mother wept in each other’s arms. Donnie May, Hooper and Dan Obrovac were lifted high in the air on a mass of shoulders and carried around the arena…”
The most memorable shot of New York celebration came after the 1962 title game when Tournament MVP Bill Chmielewski turned his loving cup award upside down and wore it like a crown as he cavorted with fans.
And then there was the novel embrace of the Flyers and New York by fans back in Dayton before one of the NITs in the 1950s
Before she died, Mary Lou Heckman told me a story about her late husband Paul, who was Flyers Club president and diehard UD fan. (Full disclosure here, Mary Lou and Paul were my aunt and uncle).
“Paul and some of his buddies came up with the idea to send the team the longest good luck telegram in the world,” she said. “There were sign-up sheets in all the bars around town, at NCR, and in all the stores.”
She said the telegram, when rolled up, was as thick as a log. Paul took it to New York and went to the Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Parr.
Near the end of his show, Mary Lou said Parr announced:
“We have something a little unusual tonight. We’ve got a man named Paul Heckman from Dayton, Ohio in the audience and his alma mater is playing in the NIT.”
She said he had Paul stand up and unroll the telegram.
“The place went nuts,” she said.