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The Oral History of the 2003-04 Rutgers Men's Basketball Team: Part III

by Danny Breslauer and Dave White

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

This is the last of a three-part series.  Here is Part I and Part II.

The National Invitation Tournament isn’t the goal for most college basketball teams. And that was no different for this Scarlet Knights’ squad. But, after finishing the season on a three-game losing streak, the NIT was where they ended up. With the memory of a disappointing one-and-done appearance in 2002 lingering over the fanbase, one tended to wonder how this squad would handle the tournament.

That question wasn’t answered quickly. Instead, momentum grew as the NIT went on and it was clear Rutgers was on to something. The games were exciting, and a school that hadn’t seen much excitement in either of their top two sports in so long jumped on board. The memory of scarlet clad fans taking over Madison Square Garden isn’t something that was soon forgotten, as you’ll see below. And, just maybe, all Rutgers fans will learn something new about those final two games in New York City.

Get comfortable because this is the final part of the Oral History of the 2003-04 Rutgers Men’s Basketball team. Our panel continues with Rutgers forward Justin Piasecki, uber fan and former RVision announcer Danny Breslauer, SID John Beisser, radio play-by-play man Bruce Johnson, Court Club president Brian Kelley, assistant coach Larry DeSimpelare and superstar guard Quincy Douby.

ORAL HISTORY OF 2003-2004 Rutgers MBB Season: Part 3 of 3 – A Magical NIT Run and Beyond

There was a perception of a letdown following the collapse at Virginia Tech, the Senior Day home loss to SHU and the BIG EAST Tournament. How was the reaction to the NIT selection?

John Beisser: Just one thing on VT. Yeah, we had a big, late lead but you could feel it getting away as the Hokies slowly chipped away at it. I remember Juel missing a late free throw (maybe two?). That was a devastating loss and one of my tougher nights as an SID. Trying to, and eventually, convincing a distraught Juel to speak with the media (Jim Carty maybe?).

Gary tells me: "The boy is hurting By-za!, can’t you see?"…I saw, but this was just one of the many moments when I was caught in-between the media and our players/coaches. Tough spot there. Overall, GW was great with the media, so affable, easy to imitate (in a good way). Just a warm, good man, and overall I thought the media treated him well, even with the tough ending to his reign. Luicci, I know, really had some affection for Gary, and Tom didn’t show much affection for many. Ha, kidding!

Larry DeSimpelare: For sure a letdown.  Loved how hard Gary worked to get them back to playing again.  Had them all sign a contract for the NIT.  AS WE SAW FROM THE BEGINNING....this team had some resiliency.

Brian Kelley: There absolutely was a palpable let down, at least within the fanbase.  Still, sensible people understood what the NIT could mean for a program starved for any level of sustained success.  Certainly the people who ran the NIT at the time clearly understood the value of Rutgers playing in its tournament.  The selection was well received, even if it was the red-headed stepchild of sorts.

Bruce Johnson: Three straight losses…and four out of five to end the season…and it was hard for anyone to get excited about the NIT when the NCAA seemed a possibility two weeks before.

Quincy Douby: I wanted to keep playing. I was excited. I watched the NIT and NCAA in high school. I didn’t look at it as playing in a whack tournament, so we worked hard to perform at a high level.

Were the players at all aware of the politics behind the scene from Mulcahy and Waters that led to Rutgers hosting all the way to MSG? Either way, how were the practices leading up to the NIT?

Beisser: NIT, I think it was received well by the players who were obviously disappointed to fall short of the NCAA’s. Practices were crisp, sharp as I recall. I would generally show up late in the practice on days when we had media out so I wasn’t there for a lot of them.

As for politics, nah, I don’t think the players knew any of that. They just knew the RAC was a tough place to play and we drew pretty well. I do remember this – the NIT counts ONLY tickets sold. So, a "real" crowd of say 6,000 or so would be publicized as like 7,100 since we just went with the number KMac (deputy AD Kevin MacConnell) made up... ha! kidding!...I mean, we went by tickets distributed!"

So, a home NIT vs. a Villanova, WVU or Yale would look like the 6,585 or 7,142 we’d usually announce, for example, but the actual attendance figure we’d go with was like 4,918, or 5,112. John Wooding and I used to have fun trying to guess the attendance figures for our regular home games and the ‘downsized’ NIT crowds. John Wooding was, and remains, the best!

Kelley: While I wasn’t as close to the team back then, it’s my general opinion that the kids don’t much care for all of the reasons for things like this. They go where they are told, as long as basketballs are bouncing and they are keeping score. Game on, you know?

Johnson: No, players normally are oblivious to off-court activity regarding the higher-ups.

DeSimpelare: Nah, players just play.  And I was very proud of the effort and commitment to play.  We certainly got on a roll!

Can you put into perspective what the 15 days were like… from Temple, WVU and Nova at the RAC… to ISU and Michigan at MSG? Just speaking generally on this question…

Beisser: It was a fun time. There was a pretty good deal of buzz on campus and among our fans. Not the NCAA, of course, but getting to NYC was pretty cool.

Kelley: I remember it being a slow burn, almost surreal in that sense. The opening game NIT crowd against Temple was sort of ho-hum. After all, we had already beaten this team at the RAC in December, and our season sort of ended with a dull thud in the BET a week prior. WVU came and went, with a few more thousand in the seats and suddenly we are looking at being 1 win away from the Garden! When Villanova rolled in to the RAC and out with an L, it was almost like they were being served up on a platter by the basketball turned the Garden appearance into destiny, and the entire RU athletics community rallied behind the team. Man, did they get their collective money’s worth against Iowa State. So much so I think that the Michigan game ended up being impossibly anticlimactic. By that point, our guys were emotionally and physically gassed from the tournament and especially the way we beat Iowa State…running on fumes in so many respects.

Johnson: I remember it as a tournament run that kind of snuck up on you.  Not a whole lot of excitement going in…Scarlet Knight NYC mania at the end.

DeSimpelare: Ricky Shields against NOVA was special.  After the win over Temple, we felt like we could win this! And every practice got better and better.  I really think this team may have won a game or two in the NCAA Tourney.

What will you never forget about that NIT run that most people wouldn’t think about? Give us a Rutgers hoops inside look here.

Beisser: I remember the big home-type crowd for the semis and even bigger for the championship game. I remember my wife Aileen telling me on the phone how News12 and all the papers (which I’d see but obviously couldn’t get News12 NJ in NYC) were showing images and interviewing many in the Scarlet throng as they made their way into the packed train cars. Pretty cool stuff.

After one of the two games, the Semis I guess, after I directed GW to midcourt for the ESPN interview with Bill Raftery (and my making sure our photographer, Larry Levanti, was in position to take shots of this), I remember when the interview was done that I directed GW to acknowledge the huge crowd of RU supporters high up behind one of the baskets. I can still see GW with his crooked fingers (one or both of his pinkies pointed in the wrong direction since his playing days) waving to the crowd and the crowd yelling back. I can still see GW’s distinctive smile. A great memory.

Kelley: My most endearing memory of that tournament actually has nothing to do with the games themselves. After the game against ISU at the Garden, members of the team were out in the stands watching Oregon/Michigan play. I had purchased a game program, as I always do when on the road, and decided to see if I could get Herve to sign it for me, as he was sitting just a few rows over from me in Section 91. For whatever reason, he was the only guy I wanted to sign it (perhaps it was because he was a senior and had NBA potential) but I was aware he didn’t exactly have a warm and fuzzy reputation. I approached the young man, congratulated him and asked for his autograph. He reached out, grabbed for my program and pen, scribbled his name and wholeheartedly thanked me for being a fan while shaking my hand. It was at that moment that all doubts lingering about what I wanted to do for Rutgers basketball went away. Herve Lamizana had just put me all in, and I can never thank him enough for doing so.

Johnson: -This is a personal observation---at MSG, radio set up on top of the "vomitoriums" (named after the Coliseum in Rome where gladiators went to throw up before battle.)  But during this NIT, radio was set next to the team's respective pep bands.  So, I spent two nights at the Garden trying to speak over the din of the band.  I felt like I was inside one of the tubas.

DeSimpelare: Wow!  Lots of stuff.  Talking to Quincy before the Michigan game.  He was concerned as to how he was feeling and me trying to figure out if he was scared or truly sick.  The amount of red in the building.  The train to and from the game.  The electricity in the building and around the city.

I have a picture of my son and daughter that hangs on my wall of when they were very young.  It is one of my favorite shots!  Abby in her Rutgers cheer outfit and Tyler in his Rutgers t-shirt.  Both in the middle of an RU cheer.

Did the team sense that the 20-win season would propel the program forward… or was the loss of Lamizana and Axani too much to replace at that juncture of the Waters era?

Beisser: Not sure what the team thought exactly. I think all athletes are confident, most have won big in high school, and so they probably assumed the good times and 20-win seasons would continue.

Johnson: There was much excitement over the return of Shields, Douby and Webb and a possible step forward in 04-05.

DeSimpelare: We still had good players and a really good recruiting class.  Minus Bynum!  Lol.  Keep in mind that we only planned on losing Ax.  Herve just couldn't get together academically

Byron Joynes was a great kid.  And a nice player.  Just maybe not ready.  We lost our versatility. With Ax and Herve we had versatile scorers.  Not the strength of BJ and Adrian.  And keep in mind, AD got hurt that year.

12 years later, describe the ’03-’04 season in one sentence…

DeSimpelare: It was one of the most difficult, disappointing and magical seasons I have ever been a part of!

Beisser: That season was very positive, the deafening RAC, Douby’s unconscious deep-shooting, MSG, NYC, ESPN, the fans on the trains – just a very cool overall experience.

Kelley: Simply put, the 2003/04 Rutgers basketball season changed my life in ways that I could never have imagined possible.

Johnson: An exciting roller-coaster year that placed Rutgers on a national platform.

Douby: Overachievers. We overachieved making it to the championship. We had a lot of ups and downs at the beginning of the season, but we continued to work hard and believe and got better and better. We didn’t make the NCAAs but making the championship of the NIT, a lot of people don’t get that ever. That was the best season and best team I played for in my basketball career.

The NIT bracket was unveiled on late Sunday night, March 14. The Scarlet Knights drew a home game with Temple, which the Scarlet Knights had defeated at the RAC in December. The contest would be played on Wednesday night. In that time, the NIT bracket did not have structured seeding, so home games were given based on a variety of revenue-maximizing factors. RU would strike gold and get three home games against the Owls, West Virginia and Villanova – all opponents they had already defeated in 2003-2004.

Rutgers 76 Temple 71, March 17, 2004 – Piscataway, NJ (NIT 1st Round)

Danny Breslauer: See, I was right that they’d play Temple again. I just wish it wasn’t in a massive letdown, first round NIT game. I remember the Douby transfer rumors were buzzing and Jack Ringel was being quoted all over the place. So 38 minutes, a start, 6 threes and 28 points later and Douby is on his way to one of the greatest 3-year careers in Rutgers history. This game stands out because a fan gets ejected late for throwing a hot dog wrapper on the court. Tense moments, because I think David Hawkins was given 5 or 6 free throws and it made it a close one.

Beisser: Don’t recall fan, or wrapper… [Rumors of] Douby transferring? There was always something going on, particularly when the message board era began, later twitter, other social media, etc. Personally, I was probably a bit hardened after the end of the Wenzel and Bannon eras, particularly the latter. Comparatively (until the very end when it had a familiar Wenzel, Bannon ending feel to it), the GW years were calm and positive.

Johnson: Besides winning to advance, I don't think anyone was ecstatic about the NIT opening win over Temple other than Douby's 28-point performance in a starting role.  Playing a familiar opponent like Temple…especially after beating them earlier in the season…took some of the thrill out of the equation.

Rutgers 67 West Virginia 64, March 22, 2004 – Piscataway, NJ (NIT 2nd Round)

Breslauer: Beilein just couldn’t beat Waters with those decent to good WVU teams. It was crazy. D’Or Fischer pulled his best Herve with 6 blocks, but 26 points from Ricky and huge Adrian Hill free throws late sealed it. It was a weird final sequence, and I remember thinking that Bob Mulcahy was going to need to do a serious politics job to get a quarterfinal home game. Even a teenager knew how the NIT worked back then.

Johnson: Kind of the same thing with West Virginia…particularly since we blew them out at the RAC a couple of weeks prior.  Besides 26 from Shields, most everyone, including me, most remembered the potential game-tying miss by the coach's son, Patrick Beilein in the final second.

Beisser: Yeah, always felt AD (Adrian Hill’s nickname for some reason) was never quite the same after the knee injury (injuries I guess). Man, he was explosive when he got here and, after that, we’d see that at times but not the same.

Rutgers 72 Villanova 60, March 24, 2004 – Piscataway, NJ (NIT Quarterfinals)

Breslauer: I was a sicko and woke up early the Saturday morning before to watch Virginia-Villanova in the 2nd Round. I really, really wanted Rutgers to get to end Todd Billet’s career with a loss at the RAC. No such luck, haha. Nova advances. Place was electric at the RAC – 6500+ and Randy Foye was totally locked down. Shields hits some miraculous patented fadeaway threes early and that’s all she wrote. Nova never had a shot. I’ve never seen Gary smile so much. The alma mater was playing and he’s hugging Ricky for like 5 full minutes. Onto MSG!

Beisser: That was one of many amazing games and atmospheres at the RAC, almost like the crowd could will the ball into the hole from deep. Had a similar feeling in 88-89 A-10 title game vs. Penn St., which I was lucky enough to get a ticket to since wasn’t working at RU yet. That night remains the single loudest, and most special, night I’ve ever experienced at the RAC. Even above all of the insane, magical games in the Bannon, GW eras. Remember, the RAC sat 9,000 then (or whatever KMAC would again make up – kidding again), but it was off the charts. Lee Perry and Tom Savage sitting on the baskets afterwards. Just crazy. Me and my friend Marc even appear among the cheering crowd on the court on the back cover of the 89-90 media guide. Lower right corner, I’ve got a white T shirt around my neck… check it out. Way, way off tangent again, sorry.

Johnson: Things began to get very interesting with the home win over Villanova, in one of the best team effort's of the season…a win that propelled the Knights to the NIT semis at the Garden!  That's when the RU student body fully jumped on the bandwagon…or the NJ Transit trains…and invaded MSG two nights in three days in late March and early April.

Douby: That was a great feeling. I actually watched that game like three months ago. Everyone was clicking, Adrian Hill caught those amazing dunks. We wanted to make it to the Garden and we were on a mission, to try to win a championship for Rutgers that season. Gary Waters prepared us very well for that.

Justin Piasecki: I’ll always remember the Nova game. We were up big, and a year later they were in the [Sweet Sixteen].

A media frenzy was underway as Rutgers had five full days without games. UConn was ripping through the NCAA Tournament on its way to winning the national title. However, the New Jersey and New York City media were focused on one college sports story – Rutgers men’s basketball. The Final Four of the NIT would be played at Madison Square Garden on a Tuesday and Thursday. The early semifinal put Rutgers against Iowa State out of the Big 12. Michigan would play Oregon in the nightcap.

Rutgers 84 Iowa State 81 (OT), March 30, 2004 – New York, NY (NIT Semifinals)

The ticket from night 1 of the NIT Finals. From Brian Kelley, Section 118 Brian Kelley, Section 118, Court Club President

Breslauer: This was the coolest NJ Transit ride I have ever taken in my life. My whole family went as we did to most RU games back then. My father has worked at Rutgers for four decades, so I understood how large the alumni base was. But I never appreciated it until that night. Watching 10,000+ people in scarlet roll into MSG was one of the coolest sights. The Douby vs. Curtis Stinson show was just incredible. 35 points in 41 minutes for QD. ISU hits that unreal shot to send it to OT… without Jackson Vroman cramping up in overtime and that poor kid John Neal bricking the two free throws, we could still be there. People forget how good Axani was… 17 rebounds. SEVENTEEN. And he dropped 8 points, I don’t remember exactly how, but I’m just going to assume all on put-backs or right elbow, lefty jumpers. What an unreal night. I’m in the bathroom before heading down to Penn Station and I hear a student yell, "Rutgers just won 20 games." I remember shaking my head and thinking, wow, he’s right.

Kelley: This was the biggest stage I’ve ever witnessed Rutgers Basketball play on. There is nothing I could ever say about it that watching the game won’t say for itself. If you haven’t watched it since 2004, why the hell not? In the years that have passed, guys like Douby, Axani, Webb, Hill, Keating, Mimmo, Wiggan, Joynes, Piasecki and others on that team and I have spoken about this night at the Garden many times, in many different contexts, but always with joy and respect. Rutgers could win every game they play from now until whenever, but I doubt many will be as special as this one was and still remains. And for that, I owe Coach Gary Waters, his staff, and all the young men on that team an impossible debt of gratitude.

Beisser: Douby’s magic. They also had a good freshman from NYC who had gotten some hype but he was no match for Quincy. Just one of many dazzling performances QD had at RU.

Johnson: A great nail-biting overtime win over Iowa State of the Big Twelve, headlined by Douby's national coming-out party---a career-high 35 points.  The Garden setting made this a very memorable game.

Piasecki: When we made it to MSG, and the amount of students that were waiting for tickets and doing chants: it was amazing. I said to Ax, "Is this really happening?"

Ax said, "I can’t believe it."

It was such a great feeling.

Douby: A lot of people don’t know this and I don’t make excuses. I remember having a deep thigh contusion from the Villanova game. When I was guarding Mike Nardi, Jason Fraser would throw his knee into my thigh setting screens at least three times. That was the worst after the game. I was cramping all night and could barely walk the next morning. It was never spoken about, but I did not practice after that. I honestly didn’t think I could play until the day of the semifinals. We were able to loosen and stretch it out. They gave me IVs to keep me hydrated. So we get to MSG, the game is going on and I started off a little slow, but every time I played defense, any contact I was getting was hurting so bad. I looked at the bench and didn’t know if I could do it. It started loosening up, but what helped me is they played zone and I could just spot up and not run much. Adrenaline got me going. Once they got out of the zone, I was already in a rhythm. It was an out of body experience. I didn’t feel the pain anymore. I dropped 35 and we’re in the final. After overtime and that big game, the leg felt so bad.

Michigan 62, Rutgers 55, April 1, 2004 – New York, NY (NIT Final)

Breslauer: I try to pretend that Michigan never came back. That Ricky’s layup in the 2nd half to give Rutgers the lead was the end of the game. But hey, Daniel Horton was too good that night. Credit to Michigan, they outplayed RU. Douby was 1-of-13 and the story was that he was sick or something apparently… but Lamizana was incredible and single-handedly kept RU around. Very similar to his Northwestern performance and he ends up with a near triple-double in his final Rutgers game. I was upset of course, but you couldn’t help but be proud of that team. Hopefully, I get to see a RU NCAA team someday (I wasn’t even 3 in March 1991), but I’ll never forget that ’03-’04 team because that March was just so much fun.

Beisser: Yes, I alluded to the Scarlet in the building earlier. Michigan was good, had much more size inside I recall. We hung tough but they seemed to have us at arm’s length throughout. Here’s one. At halftime, someone tells me Bill Murray is in the crowd sitting near the tunnel. Sure enough, I spot him, go and grab an RU media guide and hand him.

I remember this exchange went something like this:

Me: Hey, Bill Murray, I’m the PR guy from Rutgers, here’s our media guide.

Murray: Thanks…and as I walked away. "Hey Rutgers, come on, get your act together!" Also funny that years later I worked with his son Luke Murray, who was an asst. at Wagner under Dan Hurley (yet another RU connection). Luke’s doing alright for himself, now on staff at Xavier.

Our photographer at Wagner snapped a couple photos of Bill Murray, arms folded, baseball cap on, flannel shirt, standing in the last row of bleachers, taking in some Seahawk games. I never saw him here though. Despite the small gym, he blended in very well.

Back to Rutgers though, after ’03-’04, like everyone around the program then, I was optimistic, felt we had turned a corner, and things would just continue to get better for us in the Big East.

Johnson: Again, the Rutgers crowd decorated the Garden in scarlet.  But it definitely turned out to be an anti-climatic affair following the ISU game two nights before.  Even though Lamizana had a near triple-double, there was disappointment in Douby's 1-13 shooting and just a two-point performance.  I went there that night thinking that Douby would cement himself as a national presence for the following season but left thinking he….and RU…had missed a golden opportunity.  It turned out to be a precursor for a very difficult 04-05 campaign.

Douby: (Rutgers trainer) Eric Bridenbaugh did a great job loosening me up with electrolytes and IV and stretching it out a lot. The leg felt loose, but Michigan put a 6’7", 6’8" guy on me man-to-man and I didn’t get in a rhythm. I was stiff and the adrenaline never got going, and that’s why I got shut down. I kept it all in for years to not use an excuse after getting 35 two nights before. I should have come through, but this is the first time I’m telling someone this. I really wanted to get freed up for shots, and I kept telling the coaches to let me stay in. A lot of people gave me issues about my game in that NIT Final.

So, there you have it. 12 years ago, Rutgers basketball created a wealth of memories that Scarlet Knight fans have cherished. From losing our voices in the RAC to packing a subway, 2003-04 was all about basketball for Rutgers. A big thank you to all our participants: Justin Piasecki, Danny Breslauer, Bruce Johnson, Larry DeSimpelare, Brian Kelley, and Quincy Douby

Now, as the program moves begins a new era, one can only hope that years from now, we’ll be talking about Steve Pikiell’s teams the same way we remember this one.