NEW YORK — The smallest details remain crisp in Oscar Robertson’s memory, even half a century later.
The breakneck cab ride he took from the airport. The guide wires rising from the Madison Square Garden baskets. And the give in its hallowed floor.
The basketball legend’s first trip to the revered arena Jan. 9, 1958, meant that much to him — even before the then-Cincinnati sophomore scored a record 56 points against Seton Hall in his Garden debut.
Jim Calhoun remembered the heavy cloud of cigarette smoke that hovered just below the rafters in the third Garden building (out of four). And Pearl Washington fondly recalled punching Patrick Ewing during the height of the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry in the old Big East.
The Garden memories came flooding back Wednesday before the NCAA tournament returned this weekend for the first time in 53 years. The East Regional’s Sweet 16 games are set to tip off Friday night. The Garden also hosts the regional final Sunday.
But before Virginia, Iowa State, Michigan State and Connecticut make their mark this year in the arena’s history, a panel of legendary players and coaches gathered there to discuss their favorite moments.
“There’s magic in this building. There’s magic,” said Calhoun, the Connecticut coach who led the Huskies to three national titles. “Even though I don’t seem it, I’m a romantic. I’m a romantic about the game.
“Madison Square Garden and basketball is a great romance. There’s stories being told all the time. This is a place that needs college basketball. College basketball needs the Garden.”
Although it is hosting an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1961, it has hosted plenty of college hoops since then.
The Big East tournament. The NIT. St. John’s home games.
But this will be the first time the present Garden — which opened in 1968 — is hosting the NCAAs.
The anticipation surrounding the return — and nearby UConn’s participation — has sent ticket prices for a full strip of Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games rising to a minimum price of $1,163.15 on StubHub.com as of Wednesday evening.
“When they use the words, ‘The mecca of college basketball,’ this was it,” Calhoun said.
In the Garden, Calhoun watched Connecticut lose in six overtimes to Syracuse in an epic 2009 Big East quarterfinal. He watched Ray Allen’s shot with 13.6 seconds remaining beat Allen Iverson and Georgetown in the 1996 conference championship.
And he watched Kemba Walker lead the Huskies to five wins in five days to capture the 2011 Big East title.
Harlem native and former Knick Cal Ramsey recalled choosing New York University so he could play there.
And former St. John’s phenom Felipe Lopez knew only two American landmarks when he arrived at age 14 from Dominican Republic: The Forum in Los Angeles and the Garden.
“Knowing that St. John’s played at the Garden, I wanted to make sure that I was part of that history,” the former All-Big East first-teamer said.
The return of the NCAA tournament also marks the end of maybe the darkest chapter in the Garden’s history.
Floyd Layne was one of seven CCNY players implicated in 1951 in a point-shaving scandal. It besmirched the team’s dual championship wins in the 1950 NIT and NCAA tournaments — both played at MSG.
“I think that the unfortunate incident that happened after at City College put a little damper on it,” said Layne, who was otherwise tight-lipped about the scandal.
It may have been a contributing factor why the Garden — where many of the point-shaving games occurred — would not host an NCAA tournament game for decades.
But the rest of the memories that arose Wednesday put smiles on the panel’s faces. Robertson, named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players — even fondly remembered a home-court advantage that went against him.
“If you were playing well and the guy didn’t like it, he shook the guide wires,” he said.
For Washington, a Syracuse star and three-time, first-team All-Big East player, the Garden is a home away from home.
“I always came to Madison Square Garden to put on a show,” the Brooklyn native said. “That’s really what it was about.”