Bill Raftery on Walsh; upcoming student-only game
The first time Bill Raftery called a college basketball game at Walsh Gym, in January 1982, there was an awkward moment. Dan Callandrillo, whom he coached for three years at Seton Hall before making the jump to ESPN, had a game-winning shot to beat Providence and headed for his mentor.
It doesn’t matter that “Coach Raf” is still on the air.
“Danny came over and kissed me,” Raftery recalled with a laugh. “Very unprofessional.”
Forty years later, as the Hall turns back the clock by hosting the Big East’s first men’s hoops contest at Walsh Gym since 1985 – St. John’s goes Monday for a tip at 9 p.m. – Raftery will come full circle as Fox Sports 1 analyst on the game.
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It’s perfectly fitting for the guy who coached more male tilts on “The Jewel of the East” than anyone else.
“What’s shocking is how beautiful the gymnasium is,” Raftery said by phone Friday. “People think I’m crazy, but it reminds me so much of Cameron.”
Walsh and Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke’s signature ground, both opened in 1940. Although Cameron (capacity: 9,300) is much larger and well established as the sport’s most revered ground, Walsh is also tasked with story. This is where the very first Big East game was played, in 1979. Legend has it that Naismith Hall of Famer Bob Davies, who popularized if not outright invented the behind-the-back dribble, perfected the move in Walsh by as a student at Seton Hall in the early 1940s. Some of the greatest players of all time, including Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington, played for the people in those seats.
“We always had the same people sitting behind our bench who were comfortable if you said something a little inappropriate,” said Raftery, who coached the Pirates from 1970 to 1981. “Some parents liked to sit there – they liked to hear their son get scolded for something. It was the time when fans knew if your shirt was wrinkled.
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Walsh had 3,300 seats at the time. After a major renovation completed last year, capacity is just under 1,400. In a nod to those rowdy old-school days, Monday’s crowd will be almost entirely Hall students.
“It’s a good idea,” Raftery said. “It’s clean.”
Walsh’s field advantage no longer stems from dead spots on the ground in which Raftery players would pressure opposing ballhandlers, causing turnovers. But the charm of a great match there will be felt in another way.
“Fans have had quite an influential impact on referees over these years,” Raftery said. “Let’s put it this way: everyone knew the referees by first name.”
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Raftery said the setup was so tight that opposing coaches frequently crossed into each other’s space during games at the time – unheard of now. He said Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim hated Walsh and led the push to move Big East games out of intimate gymnasiums and into large arenas.
During Raftery’s inaugural year with ESPN, 1982, Seton Hall played a match at the Meadowlands for the first time. This is where the sport was heading.
“We thought (Walsh) was a big moment,” Raftery said. “But now it’s another level.”
“It’s going to be absolutely deafening”
This match is at Walsh Gym as it was postponed from December 20, when Seton Hall took a break with COVID. The Prudential Center is booked with other events, so Walsh became the option. Venue administrators took notice when Texas hosted an all-student game in November at its former Gregory Gym.
Seton Hall has 1,400 student subscriptions, a program record. They had the first crack, and after that, tickets were offered to all students on a first-come, first-served basis. Students will occupy the entire balcony as well as ground level seating in front of the player benches.
The ground-level seats behind the benches are reserved for each team’s “assignments” – approximately 50 tickets for Seton Hall players and coaches and 50 for St. John’s players and coaches. A small number of seats are also reserved for donors and high-level dignitaries.
As they did in their Raftery days, Seton Hall’s prep band will perform from the Walsh stage, which will also host indirect media (the main media are seated at the edge of the court). In terms of COVID admission requirements, Seton Hall has an indoor mask policy.
“I think it’s going to be absolutely deafening,” said Ryan Salfino, a public relations specialist from Rutherford who attends all the games as part of the Bluebeard Army student chapter. “St. John won’t be able to think. I know how loud we make the Prudential center, and it’s a lot tighter.
As Hall coach Kevin Willard frequently points out, the student section this season is the best since the program moved to the Prudential Center in 2007.
Salfino said the explosion in interest is partly due to the pandemic.
“We had this big opportunity in 2020 to run really deep, and it was taken away from us,” Salfino said. “Having taken so much from us, being isolated for so long, I mean that’s why we had this turnout record. This game is going to be absolutely unforgettable, and I think that’s something we should continue to do in the future.
It probably won’t happen for a Big East game — it’s a six-figure loss in revenue to take one of those games off the subscription package — but it might become a non-conference staple.
“The level of excitement around campus for this is really, really high,” said senior Paul Oburu, who runs Bluebeard’s Army Instagram account. “We can definitely make a huge impact. I’m sure you can hear us at the entrance (of the Richie Regan Recreation & Athletic Center, home of Walsh).
Are you going to be so loud that people are going to hear you outside?
“I’m pretty sure we can do it,” Oburu said.
Seton Hall (12-5 overall, 3-4 Big East) is 425-142 in Walsh, a .750 winning percentage. The Pirates have won 26 consecutive regular season games there since 1989 (a loss to Fordham a few months after the appearance of the Final Four).
Hall’s last win over St. John’s at Walsh was in 1981, Raftery’s final season. The Johnnies took the next four there before the series moved to the Meadowlands.
Postgraduate center Ike Obiagu blocked 164 shots at Seton Hall, three shy of the program record set by Sam Dalembert from 1999-2001. Dalembert played 13 seasons in the NBA. Obiagu also ranks second in Division I in block percentage, crushing 18% of his opponents’ shots while on the ground.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and college basketball since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 Voters. Contact him at email@example.com.
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