From the 1930s through the early 2000s, the Hudson Valley served as a mecca for sports fans of New York’s professional teams. During the off-seasons in the 1940s and ’50s, the best basketball players in the world converged on the Catskills to showcase their skills. Other professional athletes also came to the resorts for business and pleasure. If you were a guest, it was entirely possible to socialize with Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali — everyone sat down for meals together in a communal setting.
The New York Knicks, New York Football Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers trained at Bear Mountain due to World War II travel restrictions. From the 1980s through 2001, hockey and basketball fans attended select open Rangers and Knicks practices in Westchester. And the Giants held open preseason camps in the Valley for a total of 28 years in Pleasantville and at the University at Albany.
While the Rangers, Knicks, and Liberty still train in the Hudson Valley — in a luxurious complex just off the Saw Mill River Parkway in Greenburgh — no fans are allowed.
Basketball in the Catskills began in 1946, when the New York Knickerbockers held their first camp at the Nevele Resort. But Catskills ball didn’t really take off until Kutsher’s Hotel hired coaching wizard Red Auerbach in 1950 to develop a league with teams consisting of pro and college players that represented the major resorts.
Due to NCAA rules, college players worked day jobs, but played ball and partied at night. Top talent converged on the region from all over the country, especially from East Coast powerhouses Long Island University, New York University, St. John’s, and City College of New York.
In 1954 and 1955, high school phenom Wilt Chamberlain worked as a Borscht Belt bellhop at Kutsher’s for $13/week, plus tips. In addition to setting up mahjong tables, he stood outdoors and hoisted bags over his head to a partner on the second floor.
“Back then, other than Patrick Ewing being 7 feet tall, the students didn’t really know or care.”
— Chris Bisignano, Purchase College
Chamberlain became so close to owners Milton and Helen Kutsher that he considered them his “second mom and dad,” wrote Robert Cherry in Wilt: Larger Than Life.
The games also appealed to a less savory element: gamblers, who gravitated to basketball due in part to the game’s offensive barrage and the invention of the point spread.
Instead of asking players to lose, the fixers paid them to shave points and win by no more than five, for example.
When the law fingered the vaunted 1951 CCNY squad for chicanery, a plan allegedly hatched at Grossinger’s, the case exposed widespread corruption in college ball nationwide, at the time far more popular than the nascent NBA.
The Knicks — who trained at Bear Mountain in 1950 — returned to the Hudson Valley in 1987, when they rented space at Purchase College and stayed until 2001, spending $1 million renovating the gym, adding offices and replacing one of the courts. Once a year, the Knicks opened practices to sign autographs and give out swag.
“Nowadays, students would mob them,” said Chris Bisignano, Purchase College’s director of athletics. “Back then, other than Patrick Ewing being 7 feet tall, the students didn’t really know or care.”
In 1981, the New York Rangers signed a lease to skate and maintain offices at Rye Playland through 1999.
“It’s a grand old facility,” team President and General Manager Neil Smith told The New York Times in 1993. “Mentally it takes us away from the rush and push of New York City.” The next year, they won the Stanley Cup.
From 1935 to 1938, the New York Football Giants held preseason practice at Blue Hill Country Club in Pearl River, and moved to Bear Mountain during World War II in 1943.
After hopscotching around the country, they camped at Pace University from 1975 to 1987.
The team eventually settled at Albany from 1996 to 2012 (except for the 2011 lockout), practicing outdoors, staying in the dorms, and requiring players to sign autographs. In their final season upstate, they attracted 37,684 fans.
The New York Jets also trained at Bear Mountain (1961) and the now-defunct Peekskill Military Academy (1963 to 1967).
During World War II, the Brooklyn Dodgers held “spring” training at Bear Mountain. Snow sometimes blanketed the field.
Inside the rustic Bear Mountain Inn, before it closed due to COVID-19, the 1915 Restaurant set a table in honor of Jackie Robinson. Visitors can view a replica of his jersey, a photo of Robinson on the premises in August 1949, and details of his visits to the location.