Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 28, 2010

Daring To Hope At Madison Square Garden

Madison Square Garden advertises itself as “the most famous arena on Earth.” While owners of some other venues would no doubt argue that point, as a home to professional sports teams MSG is certainly among the most venerable. Opened in 1968, with extensive renovations in 1991 and another set of improvements just getting underway, the Garden is now the oldest home ice in the NHL and the second oldest home court in the NBA.

It’s that latter purpose that brings me to the Garden on this late November Saturday. The New York Knicks are at home for an afternoon contest against the Atlanta Hawks. As the traffic lights change at 32nd Street, temporarily halting the unending stampede of yellow cabs drag-racing madly down 7th Avenue; I join a throng of Knicks fans as we cross the wide boulevard and make our way around the entrance to Penn Station and into the Garden.

As one of the founding members of the NBA the Knickerbockers have been playing basketball for more than six decades. The best of those years came in the early ‘70s, when the Knicks went to the NBA finals three times in four years, winning championships in 1970 and 1973. Hanging from the impressive Madison Square Garden ceiling, with its concentric ring pattern so unlike the steel rafters of most arenas, are the retired numbers of all five starters from that first championship squad. The moment when a badly injured Willis Reed limped onto the court to start the decisive game 7 against the Lakers alongside teammates Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, and Dick Barnett is still considered the greatest moment in Garden history.

Two generations of Knicks fans have gone from birth to maturity since that moment, and most of the basketball that they have witnessed has been bad. There was a brief return to glory with the Patrick Ewing-led teams of the ‘90s. The Knicks didn’t win a championship, but they were serious contenders for several years. Overall though the team has lost more games than it’s won since that now distant second championship; and the recent history has been embarrassing. In the last six years the Knicks have won barely more than one-third of their games. The faithful whom I am accompanying today have become inured to bitter disappointment, and I am half-expecting them to be scornful of their own home team.

I spot a telling sign of the team’s history as I make my way to my seat. Ahead of me walks a young Knicks fan, accompanied by his parents. The ten or twelve year old boy is of course wearing a team jersey. But on the back of the shirt where I would expect to see the name and number of his current hero are instead the retired #10 and “Frazier.” While Walt will be in the house this afternoon, in his role of color commentator for the Knicks’ television broadcast, it has been thirty years since he retired from the game; long, long before the fan in front of me came into the world.

But fans everywhere find their heroes where they can; and at least at Madison Square Garden, they still come out by the thousands. Empty seats are few and far between and the cheers are loud as the Knicks are introduced, most of all for Amer’e Stoudemire, the star of this Knicks squad. Signed away from the Phoenix Suns during the off-season to a 5-year, $100 million contract, Stoudemire has been reunited in New York with former Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni, now in his third year with New York.

The problem for the Knicks is that their original off-season plan was to sign Stoudemire as support for, and an enticement to, LeBron James. The team was one of several willing participants in what in retrospect was James’s media-driven charade of supposedly considering all offers at the expiration of his contract with Cleveland. When James ended the nonsense with his inevitable leap to Miami, the Knicks’ would-be supporting player was thrust into a starring role.

Atlanta comes out firing on this Saturday afternoon, and at times in the first half the home five looks simply overmatched. The Hawks have frequent wide open looks at the basket; while the Knicks seem content to shoot from well outside the paint whenever they have the ball. For his part, Stoudemire leads the Knicks in scoring early, as he ultimately will for the day. But there are also times when he seems exhausted, hanging back under the offensive basket even as his teammates race back on defense.

At the end of a quarter Atlanta leads by 10. With former Knick Jamal Crawford coming off the Atlanta bench to spark the offense, the lead balloons to 18 at the half. The 38 first half points are the fewest scored by New York in the young season. As the buzzer sounds to end the half the boos rain down from every level of seats at the Garden. I cannot help but think that this is an all-too familiar serenade for Knicks teams over the past few years, and one I am not at all surprised to hear.

But there are some signs that this season may not be quite as dire as the recent past. It’s still early in the schedule, but New York comes into this game at an even 8-8. They’ve gotten to .500 by alternating very poor play with some much more hopeful performances. A six-game losing streak that had fans fearing the worst has been forgotten in the wake of a subsequent five-game winning streak which they carry into this afternoon.

This single game mirrors those streaks, as New York comes out for the second half with renewed purpose and energy. While in the end that will not be enough to turn certain defeat into an improbable victory; their play does turn the halftime catcalls into raucous cheers as twice in the final quarter the Knicks cut the lead to just 4 points. It is the former Knick Crawford who again does the most damage to his former teammates, sparking Atlanta scoring bursts each time New York draws close. When the final buzzer sounds, it’s Atlanta 99, New York 90.

As I make my way out of Madison Square Garden, the mood of the 20,000 around me is one of disappointment, but definitely not anger or despair. Amongst these Knicks supporters there seems to be a real belief that better days lie ahead. This team is certainly a player or two away from being a true contender, and these fans will not hesitate to let the players know how they feel about dispirited play like today’s first half. But they are also ready to leap to their feet and roar their joyous approval, as they did throughout the final two quarters this afternoon. They know that their team is off to Detroit for another game the next afternoon (which the Knicks will win, in double overtime), and that the next home contest is just three days away. They will be back for that, another 20,000 strong.

Maybe it’s just the glow of the five game winning streak, or maybe a new day really is in sight. But as I come out into the chill wind blowing down 7th Avenue, it’s apparent that these fans have rediscovered the hopeful mantra of long-suffering followers of also-rans everywhere: tomorrow. Sometimes, for some lucky fans, tomorrow comes.


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