Yesterday, you saw something in college basketball you probably never seen before. In the Minnesota-Alabama game at the Barclays Center, Alabama played several minutes of the second half with just three players as their entire bench got ejected for coming on to the court during an altercation. The crazy thing was, they nearly pulled off the comebacks of all-time comebacks with just three guys!
The reason why I bring that up is that today marks the twentieth anniversary of Medgar Evers-Long Island (as they were known back then before they became better known as LIU Brooklyn) game. Another crazy game in the annals of college basketball. That was the game in which the Blackbirds won by 117 points. Yes, you read correctly, 1-1-7. Twenty years later, it is still an NCAA record for largest margin of victory.
I wrote this piece for my old blog, Blackbirds Hoops Journal, five years ago on the fifteenth anniversary of that game which I was in attendance for. In my opinion, it was probably one of the best pieces I wrote during my five-year run writing for the site. I wanted to bring it back to share it for this twentieth anniversary of that game and I hope one day this record actually gets broken by some team some day. I don’t think it will ever happen though. I think this is one LIU is going to own for a long, long time. I hope you enjoy this recollection of one of the more crazier game I ever attended and will never forget.
(Originally Published November 26, 2012)
Basketball, to me, is a great sport. It can have as much beauty and grace and as any soccer game, you might see in Europe or a triple-crown horse race. It makes for plenty of memorable moments. It doesn’t matter what level you play, what size you are, how good you are, there will always come a point in time whether it is a game or just a brief instance, when you or your team does something that won’t be soon forgotten. It could be MJ’s double-nickel, Laettner’s shot over Kentucky, Bryce Drew shot to beat Ole Miss, UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, Jack Taylor’s 138-point performance from last week or whatever countless others. People will always have lasting memories of such events, of such games.
As I mentioned when I first started this blog over the summer, I have been going to LIU basketball games for quite a while now. This, in fact, is my seventeenth season of watching LIU men’s basketball. I’ve watched a lot of great basketball and have witnessed just some of the great moments in LIU basketball history. I’ve been present at the last three NEC championships LIU has won. I’ve watched some not so great basketball at times too. I’ve seen this program go from high to low and then back to high again. I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve been around for a little while now, taking in all the highs and all the lows. This leads me to a game played 15 years ago today when both the highs and lows were all sort of wrapped into one.
On November 26, 1997, a regular Wednesday night, a Division III school from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Medgar Evers College, played a Division I team from Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island University. Going into it no one would expect anything historic would come out of it.
The game took place at the old Brooklyn Paramount Theatre which LIU called the Arnold and Marie Schwartz Athletic Center. For those who never got to watch a game at the old LIU home, it was a unique place to watch a basketball game. It was a 1,500 seat gym which only had two bleacher seating areas, the main bleachers facing the court and a small set of bleachers behind the scorers’ table. I was a junior at LIU back during the 1997-98 season. I went to almost every LIU men’s basketball for three years while I was a student there from my sophomore year to my senior year. I always sat in pretty much the same place for every game, the very top row of the main bleachers in the right-hand side of the gym closest to the tunnel the players used to get to the locker rooms and fans and students entered to get into the gym. I was always surrounded by a bunch other student-athletes from the school and who mostly sat at that far end of the main bleachers. I usually went to the games by myself with few exceptions back then. I would usually come from a class or straight off a shift from work to the game. This is the age before cell phones and texting so getting together with others was more work back then. I liked being a lone wolf. I still do sometimes.
That night I went to the Schwartz Center on my own and sat in my “seat” to watch this game. This was the second home game of the season and the final non-conference home game before NEC play in January. Back then home games started at 7:30 pm, unlike the 7 pm start times LIU games are played now. The LIU men’s basketball team was coming off an NEC championship and NCAA tournament appearance the season before. The 1996-97 LIU team went 21-9 and 15-3 to finish first in the NEC. They played Villanova in the NCAA’s and in a high-scoring, relatively close game before losing 101-91.
The 1997-98 LIU team had most of that 1996-97 team returning including their top three players. Charles Jones, a scoring machine shooting guard who had the green-light to shoot from anywhere on the court. He was the returning NEC Player of the Year and NEC First-Team performer. He led the nation in scoring in 1996-97 with an average of 30.1 points per game. Mike Campbell, another NEC first-teamer who was a long and talented power forward who could score and rebound. Richie Parker, who had come off a successful freshman year winning the NEC Rookie of the Year award. Parker had come to LIU after spending a year away from basketball after his arrest for sexual assault in his senior year of high school and had his basketball scholarship to play at Seton Hall taken back by the school. Led by these three players, LIU would end the season leading the nation in scoring at 91.5 points per game. With these three players returning on top of an NEC championship and NCAA tournament appearance, there was excitement back surrounding the LIU men’s basketball team. Before the ’97-’98 season started, LIU’s third-year head coach Ray Haskins at a Midnight Madness-type event at the Schwartz Center proclaimed with the team he had returning, “We are going to the Final Four!”. Obviously, as a 20-year old student, that statement perked my ears up.
At the game that night 15 years ago, once I had arrived at the gym, there was a question that kept repeating itself from the crowd that was starting to gather, “Who are these guys?”. No one had any clue who Medgar Evers College was other than a City University of New York (CUNY) school that was also in Brooklyn if they even knew that much. The school is actually about 3 miles away from LIU. I actually knew Medgar Evers was a Division III school going into the game since I knew all CUNY schools played in Division III. It was something I had researched while I was looking at colleges my senior year at high school and being a sports junkie.
Watching warmups before the game, I could sense this game would be a mismatch. Medgar Evers had a bunch of small guys on their team, not one player that looked physically imposing. As a fan, you don’t like to put a win in the win column before the game is even played no matter who is the opponent because you just can’t predict what will happen in a game. Although I admit I like the team’s chances at a win that night, I just didn’t expect what would happen in the next two hours to happen.
The game tips-off and it seems like almost immediately LIU is up double-digits. LIU under Ray Haskins loved to played REALLY fast. I dare to say even fastest then the current group of Blackbirds play at. The Blackbirds then wanted to play up and down basketball at a quick pace and wear their opponents down. They would press full-court on defense to get quick turnovers for easy points on the offensive end. There were teams in Division I who couldn’t handle this type of defensive pressure constantly so you could imagine how a Division III team who went 4-21 the season would fare against it. Not good.
With a combination of easy layups, highlight dunks, three-pointers and continual pressure from LIU’s full-court press, LIU was up 33-9 halfway through the first. It would only get worst from there as by halftime the score would be 81-30. From my perspective, I was in sort of shock in what I was watching. A team had put up 81 points in twenty minutes on another team and was up 51 at halftime. It was pretty hard to believe watching it. At this point, no one knew what to expect of the second half. Not in terms of the result which was all but decided but how much would they win by? Would Haskins call off the press and keep the starters off the court for the second half? Well, the answer to that was no. The starters for LIU were out on the court for the second half and it was pretty much a continuation of the first.
The press would cause more turnovers which lead to breakaway dunks, layups, and non-contested threes. Medgar Evers committed 60 turnovers in this game. The lead would continue to go to 60, then 70, then 80, and then 90 points. At this point, a lot of the fans who were still at the game like myself just stayed to see what the end result would be. By how much would LIU win this game? Then the lead broke over 100 points somewhere late in the second half with pretty much the reserves getting into the act. You can see the Medgar Evers bench was demoralized. The look on their coaches’ faces saying they just wanted the clock not to stop. Finally and mercifully for Medgar Evers, the game ended. The final score, 179-62. LIU had won by 117 points, a new NCAA record for margin of victory. The 117-point win broke a four-year record to the exact day that was held by Southern University in a 154-57, 97-point win over Patten. In the game, Charles Jones, LIU’s leading scorer had 53 points on 21 for 27 shooting in 30 minutes of action. Seven LIU players scored in double-digits. Medgar Evers’ leading scorer had just 18. Medgar Evers didn’t make a single three-pointer in the game (0-6). The Blackbirds scored 98 points in the second half.
When you win by 117 points, you draw a LOT of attention. Debates regarding sportsmanship and fair-play popped up. Questions such as “How could the LIU staff schedule such a grotesque mismatch?” got asked. In the days following the 117-point win, head coach Ray Haskins showed regret over his team’s high-margin win over a vastly inferior opponent in an article that ran in the New York Times a week after the game. Haskins was getting a lot of heat from other coaches for running up the score on the helpless Cougars. Medgar Evers would finish the 1997-98 season 7-18, a three-game improvement from the season before.
The controversy over the 117-point win really didn’t affect the LIU’s performance after that and for the remainder of the season. LIU went on to have a twenty-one win season, their second straight twenty-plus win season. They finished once again first in the NEC and had home-court advantage in the NEC Tournament. LIU made it to the NEC final versus Fairleigh Dickinson at the Schwartz Center. LIU would take a 44-37 lead into the halftime break but a second-half explosion by FDU in which they scored 68 points gave them a 105-91 win and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Blackbirds were forced to settle for an NIT appearance. They would go to Dayton for the NIT game and lose 95-92 thus ending the LIU careers of Jones and Campbell.
A month after the season was over, Ray Haskins resigned as LIU’s head coach. The then-new LIU Athletic Director John Suarez who is still currently the AD at LIU, felt like a change was needed. The fallout from this game as well as other problems with the program caused for Haskins to resign and changes to the program to be made. This would be the last twenty-plus win season for the Blackbirds until two years ago when LIU won the NEC and return back to the NCAAs in their first of back-to-back NEC championships. After Haskins left, LIU didn’t have a winning season until the 2008-09 season when they finished 16-14.
Haskins would return to LIU to watch a game in a year or two after his departure but hasn’t been seen since at LIU in a very long time. Charles Jones left LIU as the team’s second all-time points scorer in just two seasons. He finished the 1997-98 season again as the leading scorer in the nation with a 29.0 points per game average. Jones went on to play two years in the NBA as an undrafted free agent, playing one season each for the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers. He played in 85 career games and averaged just 3.5 ppg in his NBA career. He is the last Blackbird player to play in the NBA. Mike Campbell finished his LIU career with 1,190 points which sits him twenty-first all-time at LIU. He went on to have a successful twelve-year pro career overseas. Richie Parker went on the play the next two seasons at LIU, finishing with 1,594 points which is currently seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list. He never got to live out his dream of playing in the NBA. From time to time, he can be found at the Wellness Center watching his alma mater play. He was back as recently as within the last couple of seasons to watch this current core group of Blackbirds.
Who knew a simple November non-conference game against an unknown opponent fifteen years ago today would be the start of the downfall of a program that took fourteen years before they would regain the success of those LIU teams of 1996 to 1998. Records, of course, are meant to be broken and who knows, one day this record could be broken. I would think LIU wouldn’t mind seeing this one be taken away by some other school but it looks like it is a record they have no choice but to keep for a very, very long time.
If you would like to read more about this game with accounts from several of the particulars who were involved in this game including quotes from Ray Haskins, Charles Jones, and LIU Brooklyn AD John Suarez, read Timothy Bella’s article in today’s New York Times.