Tonight in New York City, in The World’s Most Famous Arena, the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament will be played in Madison Square Garden. In the lid-lifter (hey, I grew up reading the New York Daily News and later worked there), Ole Miss meets Dayton. In the nightcap (another NY tabloidese term), North Carolina plays Rhode Island. Somewhere, once again, Al McGuire’s smiling.

Two Al-NIT memories:

In 1967, behind his first star, George Thompson, Al took Marquette to the NIT finals. In the Garden, the Warriors lost 71-56 to the Southern Illinois Salukis and their sensational point guard — an Atlanta kid named Walt Frazier, who didn’t do badly playing in the Garden for the two-time NBA champion New York Knicks. Ahh, Clyde.

In 1970, livid that 22-3 Marquette was placed outside the Mideast Regional in the NCAA Tournament, Al turned down the NCAA bid and opted for the NIT. That greatly upset a priest in the Marquette president’s office, and the Reverend told Al so.

Al’s not-so-reverent reply: “Father, I don’t hear confession and you don’t coach this team.”

About twenty minutes later, Al recalled, the good Father called back and said, “You’re right.”

Marquette went on to win the NIT, beating St. John’s in the final to finish 26-3.

More Al, from Tom Kertscher’s wonderful book “Cracked Sidewalks and French Pastry — The Wit and Wisdom of Al McGuire”:

After Marquette wouldn’t release Al from his contract to take a $100,000 offer to coach the NBA Milwaukee Bucks: “The priests at Marquette take a vow of poverty  and they expect you to abide by it.”

On Dean “The Dream” Meminger, one of Al’s earliest top recruits at Marquette, who later helped the Knicks win the world championship: “Dean Meminger was quicker than 11:15 Mass at a seaside resort.”

On the monks and other folks Al encountered as the head coach at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, and who made lasting impressions on the young McGuire: “They really opened a stained-glass window inside of me.”

PHOTO: Long before he coached in the NIT, Al McGuire played in it. (Photo from St. John’s University.)

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Jack Wilkinson

Jack Wilkinson

Jack Wilkinson has written about sports professionally for 37 years, but his career began in his hometown of Lynbrook, N.Y., on Long Island. His elementary school paper, the Marion Street Chatterbox, is the coolest-named paper he's ever worked for. Thank you, Mrs. Roseanne Waldstein, the school librarian and Chatterbox advisor. Jack worked at Newsday while a senior at Hofstra University, and later for the Miami News, Chicago Daily News, New York Daily News and, after moving to Atlanta in 1983, the local rag. A three-time Georgia Sportswriter of the Year, he gleefully took a buyout in June, 2007. Jack's written six books. The latest, "Of Mikes and Men -- A Lifetime of Braves Baseball," is the recently-released autobiography of co-author Pete Van Wieren. Published by Triumph Books of Chicago, "Of Mikes and Men" is now available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, Manuel's Tavern and other fine book outlets everywhere.