Edward S. "Ned" Irish (May 6, 1905 – January 21, 1982) was a basketball promoter and one of the key figures in popularizing professional basketball. He was the president of the New York Knicks from 1946 to 1974. He was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1964.
A pioneer in the late 1930s in the big-time promotion of college basketball, Ned Irish took the sport from small venues to Madison Square Garden. He also founded the New York Knicks and assisted in the organization of the National Basketball Association. For his part in popularizing basketball, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1964.
Irish was born and raised near Lake George, New York. He had already launched his business career at age 10. Following in his late father's footsteps, he earned money by selling sodas and newspapers and by renting boats. His mother, a practical nurse, then moved the family to Brooklyn. As a student at Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School, Irish covered prep and amateur sports for three New York dailies, managed the school's swimming and tennis teams, was class president, was a member of the Omega Gamma Delta Fraternity and worked in the school cafeteria.
He then attended the University of Pennsylvania as a business major, where he worked for the school paper and edited the monthly literary magazine. To earn money he sold sheet music and organized the university's first student job-placement bureau. While he seemed destined to succeed in a career in business, Irish grew more interested in journalism, working as a reporter for the Philadelphia Record and as a stringer for several New York newspapers.
Journalism won out after he graduated in 1928. Irish went to work at $60 per week for the New York Telegram, one of several daily newspapers in New York City. Always industrious and ambitious, he also took part-time jobs with the National Football League's Information Bureau, and as the New York Giants’ public relations director.
Legend has it that an unfortunate occurrence during a basketball game at Manhattan College in 1933 led Irish to come up with the idea that college basketball was ready for the big time. When he arrived to cover the game, it was sold out and the doors were locked. But Irish had a job to do, so he found an open window in the office of the athletic department and wriggled through it, ripping the pants of his best suit. The predicament started him thinking about the moneymaking potential in using a larger venue for college basketball games.
"Anytime there was a big college game, you had to fight your way into the building," Irish recalled. "I realized that basketball had outgrown these gyms."
In the spring of 1934 Irish attempted to set up a game between New York University and the City College of New York at Madison Square Garden, but the Garden couldn’t find an opening on such short notice, and the deal fell through. Later that year, however, Irish succeeded in securing a date for a doubleheader. On December 29, 1934, 16,180 fans roared their approval as they watched NYU beat Notre Dame, 25-18, and Westminster defeat St. John's, 37-33. College basketball was changed forever.
"The time just seemed right," Irish said. "There was a lot of interest then in the colleges. It was very successful from the start." Irish's life was changed, too. In his first event at the Garden he earned the equivalent of six months’ pay at the newspaper. He promptly quit his reporting job to devote all his energies to promoting basketball. Irish didn’t have to put any money up front—hit hard by the Depression, the Garden was eager for new business, and all it asked of Irish was a fee of $4,000 per night, which he easily met.
During the 1935–36 season Irish arranged eight doubleheaders that attracted just under 100,000 fans and brought in a tidy profit for himself and the Garden, with enough left over for the colleges to make it worth their while.
The arrangement was profitable enough for Irish to invite top teams from across the country to compete. Schools with ambitious athletic programs clamored for the chance to show off their teams in front of larger audiences and to make a small profit. Some schools bristled at Irish's take-it-or-leave-it attitude, as he dictated the dates when games would be played and the amount of money schools would earn. But national interest in college basketball was soaring, and Madison Square Garden quickly turned into a mecca of the sport.
Irish's position as the arbiter of the Garden gave him tremendous power in the world of college basketball. Many college officials, sportswriters, and others considered him cold, gruff, and arrogant. It was said that he had few casual friends, although several people who knew him claimed he was a warm person once he dropped the tough facade. In 1974 Red Auerbach said, "What I liked about Ned was his directness, his honesty and integrity. If he had something to say to you, he said it. He didn’t talk behind your back."
Under Irish's command, intersectional basketball contests at the Garden soon evolved into a national tournament to determine the best college teams in the country. Irish had a hand in the development of the National Invitation Tournament, first held at the end of the 1937–38 season.
By 1946 college games at the Garden drew an average of 18,196 fans. Some of those fans were gamblers, however, which led to the infamous 1951 game-fixing scandal. The fiasco involved at least six colleges, four of them in New York City, and 33 players. Twenty-one players admitted in court to having "dumped" games—intentionally causing their teams to lose in exchange for money. Some were sentenced to prison, and the careers of several college coaches were destroyed. According to Sports Illustrated, New York District Attorney Frank Hogan reported that underlying the scandal "was the blatant commercialism which had permeated college basketball."
Of course, the main promoter of commercialized basketball was Irish, who distanced himself from the scandal in a manner that angered many observers. Irish said that he didn't believe that the open presence of gamblers at the Garden contributed to game fixing. He thought the blame should be directed only at players and coaches. Irish even accused the district attorney of timing his busts for maximum political leverage.
In 1946 Irish helped found the 11-team Basketball Association of America. Three years later the circuit merged with the National Basketball League to form the National Basketball Association. Irish was a hard-nosed negotiator in the proceedings, insisting that home teams retain all gate proceeds. This, of course, was perfect for large venues like the Garden, which took in big profits, but teams with smaller arenas were at a disadvantage. Since then, several attempts at a more democratic sharing of profits have been made, but none have ever been ratified.
Almost 30 years later, Irish was also instrumental in the ABA-NBA merger that brought the American Basketball Association into the NBA. Seven years before the actual merger took place, he argued that having rival leagues made no financial sense and that teams would begin to go bankrupt. His words turned out to be prophetic.
When the BAA was created in 1946, Irish strong-armed his way to ownership of the New York franchise, the New York Knicks. With the Garden backing him, Irish claimed he represented a corporation with $3.5 million in assets. According to Sports Illustrated, when his other competitor for the franchise, Max Kase, a New York newsman, was making his pitch to the other league representatives, Irish would interject from time to time, "Three and a half million."
Irish won out, but he also won acrimony from other team owners who resented his big-money approach. During the negotiations it was said that Irish threatened to pull out of the league if things didn’t go his way. "The way college basketball draws," he told Sports Illustrated in 1961, "the Knicks are nothing but a tax write-off anyway."
Irish became executive vice president of the Knicks, a position he held from 1946 to 1974. Once he had acquired the franchise, Irish went about making sure the Knicks were winners. His first move was to hire Joe Lapchick, the successful coach at St. John's, to run the team. In 1949 Irish convinced the other team owners to allow him to break league regulations by having two highly touted college players, Vince Boryla and Ernie Vandeweghe.
He also signed Harry Gallatin, a much-coveted forward from Northeast Missouri State Teachers College. The only trouble was that Gallatin had finished only two years of college and so was not eligible to play professional ball under the rules at the time. No matter — Irish wanted him, and Irish got him. He also acquired Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton from the Harlem Globetrotters in 1950.
For the first nine years that Irish ran the club, New York had winning seasons, including a 47-23 record in 1952–53, and the team made the playoffs every year until 1955. But from 1955 to 1966 the Knicks saw postseason action only once, losing in the first round in 1959 under Coach Andrew "Fuzzy" Levane. The team had a woeful record during most of the 1960s, bottoming out at 21-59 in 1962–63.
Things changed for the better when Irish brought in William "Red" Holzman midway through the 1967–68 season. Holzman made an immediate impact, leading the team to a winning season, its first in nine years, as he did for the next six campaigns. At 60-22, the Knicks had the best record in the NBA in 1969–70, the year they won their first NBA Championship. New York reached the NBA Finals twice in the next three years, winning another title in 1973. During that era the Knicks boasted one of the most storied starting fives in history in Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, and Dick Barnett (later replaced by Earl Monroe).
Irish stepped down from his position with the Knicks in 1974. During his 40-year association with Madison Square Garden he served as the acting president, basketball director, executive vice president, and president of the Knicks, and was a member of the corporation's board of directors. While in retirement he once remarked that he still followed basketball but that it was not the same game as the one he knew. Irish died of a heart attack on January 21, 1982, at the age of 76.
- "The Rumble: AN OFF-THE-BALL LOOK AT YOUR FAVORITE SPORTS CELEBRITIES", New York Post, December 31, 2006. Accessed December 13, 2007. "The five Erasmus Hall of Fame legends include Raiders owner Al Davis, Bears quarterback Sid Luckman, Yankee pitching great Waite Hoyt, Billy Cunningham and Knicks founder Ned Irish."