The first time Bill Raftery called a college basketball game at Walsh Gym, in January of 1982, there was an awkward moment. Dan Callandrillo, whom he coached for three years at Seton Hall before making the leap to ESPN, sank a game-winning shot to beat Providence and made a beeline for his mentor.
Never mind that “Coach Raf” was still on the air.
“Danny came over and gave me a kiss,” Raftery recalled with a chuckle. “Very unprofessional.”
Forty years later, as the Hall turns back the clock by holding the first Big East men’s hoops contest in Walsh Gym since 1985 — St. John’s visits Monday for a 9 p.m. tip — Raftery will come full circle as Fox Sports 1's analyst on the game.
It’s perfectly fitting for the guy who coached more men's tilts in “The Jewel of the East” than anyone alive.
“The shocking part is how beautiful the gym looks,” Raftery said via phone Friday. “People think I’m nuts, but it reminds me of Cameron so much.”
Walsh and Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke’s iconic home court, both opened in 1940. Though Cameron (capacity: 9,300) is much bigger and well-established as the most revered home court in the sport, Walsh is dripping with history, too. It’s where the first-ever Big East game was played, in 1979. Legend has it Naismith Hall of Famer Bob Davies, who popularized if not outright invented the behind-the-back dribble, honed the move at Walsh as a Seton Hall student in the early 1940s. Some of the greatest players ever, including Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington, performed for folks in those seats.
“We always had the same people sitting behind our bench who were comfortable if you said something a little unbecoming,” said Raftery, who coached the Pirates from 1970-81. “Some parents loved sitting there — they loved to hear their son get chastised for something. Those were the days when fans knew if your shirt was wrinkled.”
Walsh seated 3,300 back then. After a major renovation was completed last year, capacity is a bit under 1,400. In a nod to those raucous old-school days, Monday's crowd will be almost entirely composed of Hall students.
“That’s a nice idea,” Raftery said. “It’s healthy.”
Walsh’s home-court edge no longer derives from the dead spots on the floor that Raftery’s players would pressure opposing ball-handlers into, causing turnovers. But the charm of a big game there will be felt in other ways.
“Fans had a pretty influential impact on the referees in those years,” Raftery said. “Let’s put it this way: Everybody knew the refs by their first names.”
Raftery said the setup was so tight, opposing coaches frequently crossed into each other’s space during games back then — unheard of now. He said Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim hated Walsh and led the push to move Big East matchups out of intimate gyms and into big arenas.
During Raftery’s inaugural year with ESPN, 1982, Seton Hall played a game at the Meadowlands for the first time. That’s where the sport was headed.
“We thought (Walsh) was big-time,” Raftery said. “But now it’s another level.”
'Going to be absolutely deafening'
This game is in Walsh Gym because it was postponed from Dec. 20, when Seton Hall paused with COVID. The Prudential Center is booked with other events, so Walsh became the option. Hall administrators took note when Texas hosted an all-students game in November in its old Gregory Gymnasium.
Seton Hall has 1,400 student season-ticket holders, a program record. They had first crack, and after that tickets were offered to all students on a first-come, first-served basis. Students will take up the entire balcony as well as the floor-level seats opposite the players’ benches.
The floor-level seats behind the benches are reserved for the “allotments” for each team — about 50 tickets for Seton Hall’s players and coaches and 50 for St. John’s players and coaches. A small number of seats also are reserved for high-level donors and dignitaries.
As it did in Raftery’s day, Seton Hall’s prep band will perform from Walsh’s stage, which also will hold spillover media (primary media sits courtside). In terms of COVID admissions requirements, Seton Hall has an indoor mask policy.
“I think it’s going to be absolutely deafening,” said senior Ryan Salfino, a public relations major from Rutherford who attends all the games as part of the “Bluebeard Army” student section. “St. John’s won’t be able to think. I know how loud we make the Prudential center, and this is a lot tighter.”
As Hall coach Kevin Willard frequently points out, the student section this season is the best since the program moved into 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 make a really deep run, and that got taken from us,” Salfino said. “Having so much taken from us, being isolated for so long, I want to say that’s why we’ve had this record turnout. This game is going to be absolutely unforgettable, and I think it’s something we should continue to do in the future.”
That probably won’t happen for a Big East game — it’s a six-figure revenue loss to pull one of those games out of the season-ticket package — but perhaps it’ll become a non-conference staple.
“The excitement level around campus for this is definitely very high,” said senior Paul Oburu, who runs the Bluebeard Army’s Instagram account. “We can definitely make a huge impact. I’m confident you’ll be able to hear us at the entrance (to the Richie Regan Recreation & Athletic Center, which houses Walsh).
You’re going to be so loud, people will hear you outside?
“I’m pretty sure we can do that,” Oburu said.
Numbers of note
Seton Hall (12-5 overall, 3-4 Big East) is 425-142 all-time in Walsh, a .750 winning percentage. The Pirates have won 26 straight regular-season games there dating back to 1989 (a loss to Fordham a few months after the Final Four appearance).
The Hall's last win over St. John’s in Walsh came in 1981, Raftery’s final season. The Johnnies took the next four there before the series moved to the Meadowlands.
Postgrad center Ike Obiagu has blocked 164 shots at Seton Hall, three shy of the program record set by Sam Dalembert from 1999-2001. Dalembert went on to play 13 seasons in the NBA. Obiagu also ranks second in Division I in block percentage, swatting 18 percent of opponents’ shots taken while he’s on the floor.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Seton Hall basketball: Bill Raftery on Walsh; students-only game next