April 13, 2017

Hoops At The Garden

The first NBA game I ever attended in person was in December of 1995 in Madison Square Garden in New York City: the New York Knicks hosting the then very young (as a franchise) Toronto Raptors. Over the next 28 months, my dad and I would attend four additional games in the Garden watching the hometown Knicks take on the Clippers, Kings, 76ers and Jazz and see the Knickerbockers go 4-1 over that stretch, with the only loss being an overtime affair with the Jazz.

The season after that Jazz game was the 1998-1999 lockout shortened season and in a show of disgust with millionaires and multi-multi-millionaires arguing over how to split billions, my dad and I decided we would not even attempt to attend a game that season. The next year, I moved to Washington, switched basketball teams and started one of my obsessions of a lifetime by scheduling my life around the Wizards and ultimately deciding to go all in and do something really crazy by starting this blog.

Until last week, it had been 19 years since I'd been to a home Knicks game. My cousin visiting from England and the Wizards happening to be in New York for a Thursday afternoon game provided the perfect opportunity to break that streak.

Now, last week's game in New York wasn't the first time I'd seen a hoops game in the Garden in all that time. I managed to get some tickets to the NBA All-Star Game two years ago when it was in the City and saw the West defeat the East in front of a star-studded crowd on a Sunday night. But other than John Wall and Carmelo Anthony being in attendance, that game bore little resemblance to a home Knicks game in the greatest arena in basketball. Seeing a Knick game in person is an experience all hoops fans need to go through. Even if they are the most dysfunctional franchise in the league right now.

I know what you are thinking. Did you read what I wrote right? The "greatest arena in basketball"? Yes. Look I love Verizon Center as much as the next person and I'm dying for that place to be a raucous home court advantage for the Wizards the way some buildings are for other teams, but there's no way VC is the Garden.

I spent about half a blog post a couple of years ago talking about how special it is to make your way from the New York City streets to the inside of the Mecca of Basketball so I won't repeat all that save to say there is nothing like the interior of the Garden. It's all about that wooden ceiling. There is no other place in the league where looking up means so much. So of course I had to include one shot of the court during the game. First one to 100 wins. Again.

When my dad and I took in those five games at the Garden 20 years or so ago, we never got good seats. We always sat in the upper deck in the end zone so the experience we got was pretty one dimensional. Our court view was pretty much always the same game after game after game after game after game. We even had to sit behind each other one game because we couldn't get two seats together. But with the advent of secure, convenient and reliable secondary market ticket sales outlets; the decline of the Knicks as any sort of serious playoff threat; and maybe me having a little more disposable income, it was time for me to experience a Knick game on a different level. And by that I mean the lowest level of the building.

In addition to my seat location, there are some other changes that have taken place over the last 20 or so years. One of the things I appreciated all those years ago about games in New York was the lack of theater surrounding the team introductions. Maybe I'm remembering this wrong but I believe in the early '90s Patrick Ewing's Knick teams were introduced with the lights on after the classic "Go New York! Go New York! Go!" introductory video. I didn't really expect that level of simplicity this time around but I did expect something less over the top than what I saw at a Lakers game a couple of weeks prior.
I was wrong. If I thought the curtain with the jumbo sized graphic projection in Los Angeles was out of place for a below .350 Lakers team, I really question the wisdom of the Knicks City Dancers' lengthy light and costume show (complete with lighted uniforms) for the below .400 Knicks. It was more deluxe than almost any halftime show the Wizards have put on this year. It was so long that I almost couldn't remember who was introduced in the Wizards' starting lineup. I know I sound like an old fogey here complaining about the show that the kids love these days but it just seemed grandiose for a team that has had no shot at the playoffs in years.

The Knicks City Dancers in the midst of their most elaborate team introduction ceremony.
Once we got through the opening act, it was on to the game. With the Wizards on a 50 win quest and (at that time) still hoping for a shot at the East's three seed, I hoped for a quick killing of the Knicks and some rest for our starters so we'd be extra prepared to face the Miami Heat at home just two days later. Of course, I've been watching the Wizards play week after week since the All-Star break so I don't know what I was thinking with that expectation. There was no quick killing, no extra rest and no win at home vs. the Heat.
The first half looked great. A 12 point lead in the first quarter and a 10 point lead in the second quarter had dwindled to eight by halftime but the Knicks were never really a threat to take the lead despite some play from Brandon Jennings that drove me crazy. That eight point bulge swelled to 15 in the third before the Wizards decided it was probably all they needed to do and eased off the gas pedal a little. Or a lot. The Knicks ended up winning the third by a point and with less than three minutes to go in the fourth behind some poor free throw shooting from the visitors, the game was knotted up.
I gotta say there's no other city like New York and no other people like New Yorkers. There I was sitting in the lower level of MSG watching the Wizards struggle to beat a team that has won just one playoff series in the last 15 years (behind a grand total of four appearances) and the place starts going nuts. I guess there are enough people in New York that the building is pretty much always full but everyone seemed to be behind this team all of a sudden. I can't say I've heard Verizon Center get much louder at any point this season during the best season the Wizards (not Bullets) have ever posted. I find it astonishing how continually embarrassed about our crowd noise I am on the road. And it wasn't even caused in New York by a t-shirt toss (of which there were very very many) or something like that. No free chicken required; just love of a team. Imagine that.

While I was watching the Wizards struggle to contain the Knicks (with no Kristaps Porzingis by the way) I have to say that I was impressed with how helpful the scoreboard at the arena was. There's all sorts of cool information on this thing and it displays each team's stats in team colors, which I think is awesome. Check out the scoreboard at Verizon Center and you'll be well informed about how many points each team has; the points and fouls for each player whether or not their name fits on the scoreboard in full; and how many time outs remain for each team in full and 20 second versions. Yep there's also a big screen on each of the four sides showing replays and live action but as far as stats, that's all you get.
Now check out the Garden's display. Game score? Check. Points and fouls by player with full names on the board? Check. Timeouts in full and 20 second versions? Check. How about assists and rebounds in addition to points and fouls? Kind of cool; Verizon Center has corner of the arena displays for these stats on a rotating basis by team but they are not visible when looking at the scoreboard. Even cooler than that? The shooting percentages from the field, the free throw line and three point range. It's pretty easy to start to correlate why the Wizards have a 10 point lead in the picture above when they are outshooting the Knicks from the field and beyond the arc by 19 and 17 percent respectively.
At the end of the night last Thursday, my teams were 5-1 in games I've attended at Madison Square Garden. 4-1 as a Knicks fan; 1-0 as a Wizards fan. I'm not jealous of the Knicks team but I have a serious crush on their building. When I was here 20 years ago it was before the team embarked on a multi-year renovation and modernization of the place. Today it's even better than I remember all those years ago. There really is no better place to watch pro hoops. I got other places to go to watch the Wizards play in this country, but I'd go back to the Garden every year if I could make the time. It's that good there.

Name me one other NBA arena where you can get a knish. I don't think you can do it.

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