The Knicks play in what many consider to be the greatest arena in the NBA. Madison Square Garden is known as the Mecca of basketball, and when you play well in MSG you’re remembered forever. It’s just a shame that for the past two decades the Knicks themselves have hardly lived up to the expectations the arena and franchise have set for itself. The Knicks are a laughingstock, widely considered one of the worst run franchises in the NBA.
Despite the best efforts of the organization, there is still a certain, inescapable mystique to being in the Garden. It’s why so many superstar caliber players speak so fondly of MSG when they get the chance to play there on the road, but for Knicks fans, it has to be pure torture. NBA stars regularly speak about how much they love New York and MSG, but when the opportunity arises to possibly sign with the Knicks in free agency, they choose somewhere else. Each summer, the Knicks go in with the hope that the brand and city will carry them, but for more than two decades, it simply hasn’t worked out. Every team has its misses in free agency, but few teams miss as consistently as the Knicks do.
For many teams, landing a star in free agency is a pie in the sky dream. One that’s assuredly not going to happen, so when it doesn’t it’s easier to move on. But for the Knicks, the glimmer of hope is always just bright enough to believe it could happen because players talk about how great it is to play in New York. Star players fawning over New York and the idea of playing in Madison Square Garden is a time honored tradition of the last 25 years, starting with the GOAT and passed on through generations of living legends.
Jordan had the entire world at his fingertips when he entered free agency in 1996. He could go anywhere he wanted and do whatever he wanted. He had already left the NBA once to give playing baseball a try, but when he returned he was still the GOAT and the biggest draw on the planet. He was also almost a member of the Knicks.
The story is fairly well known by now, but Jordan was trying to pressure the Bulls into giving him a new contract and keep the team he liked around him. The Bulls were considering trading Scottie Pippen, but in the end, they didn’t and Jordan re-signed in Chicago. To show how real the idea of Jordan leaving was, the Chicago Tribune ran a story after Jordan re-signed with the headline “NEARLY A KNICK.” It was that close, with the Bulls ultimately topping the Knicks reported offer of $25 million (that was in part an endorsement deal tied into his NBA salary). It was also the beginning of two decades of stars teasing the Knicks and their fans with non-stop “What If’s?”
Stephen Curry is the greatest shooter in NBA history, but when he entered the NBA he wasn’t an immediate success. Injuries and questions about his size led to teams being unsure of what he would be someday. He would end up signing a four-year extension with the Warriors in 2012 for only $44 million. Not big numbers for the future star he would become, but it makes sense in context at the time. Later that season Curry would be seen scoring 54 points in MSG while he shimmied across the floor, announcing his presence as one of the league’s elite offensive players.
Curry was drafted by the Warriors at No. 7 in the NBA Draft. Right behind them at No. 8? Well naturally that would be the Knicks. According to Curry, that’s where he wanted to play, but the Warriors ruined that dream and picked him anyways. The Knicks ended up with Jordan Hill while Curry went on to become a legend in the Bay. You can’t really blame the Knicks for missing on Curry — that title belongs to the Timberwolves that took two point guards with the fifth and sixth picks ahead of him — but it hurts nonetheless knowing that he had New York circled but never ended up there.
When players say they made their name in Madison Square Garden they usually mean they had a big performance there while they were already an NBA player, but it was their performance in MSG that put everyone on notice. For Walker, MSG played a pivotal role in his career, but it was before he was when he was a college star at UCONN during the 2011 Big East Tournament. Walker had one of the most magical runs ever when he led UCONN through the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament on the way to a title. To make things even more special for Walker he grew up in the New York area. He’s a New York kid playing in an arena he grew up dreaming about. A perfect candidate to one day join the Knicks.
Walker spent the first eight years of his NBA career in Charlotte, but everyone always looked back to that magical run in MSG. Every time he came to New York it was a point of discussion. Will Walker eventually head home to the Knicks? When it became obvious that Walker was going to leave Charlotte this past summer, the immediate destination in everyone’s mind was the Knicks, via Posting and Toasting.
“I’ve been hearing it for years now, the Knicks,” he told reporters during his appearance at NBPA youth summer basketball camp on Thursday. “Every time I come home — ‘When you coming home to the Knicks?’ — that’s all I get now. So I don’t know. MSG is a special place. The Knicks are a special team. Of course I was a Knicks fan growing up. Always rooted for the home team. But like I said, I really can’t see myself in a Knicks jersey — ONLY because I’ve only been in one jersey. I really don’t know.”
Until Walker decided to sign with the Celtics instead, working out a sign-and-trade deal that sent Terry Rozier to Charlotte. The Knicks missed on the hometown kid who grew up a fan of the team and is most identifiable with the arena they play in, and didn’t really seem to even get much consideration from Walker, who inked a deal with the Celtics quickly once free agency opened.
Currently rehabbing from an Achilles injury, Kevin Durant didn’t let too much mystery surround his free agency choice this summer. He went to Brooklyn to join up with Kyrie Irving in a deal that was reported before free agency even opened. However, the Knicks were long considered the frontrunner for his services, but the two sides never even met before he chose their in-city rival. A lot of teams can’t get meetings with stars, but not a lot of those teams have had those players say how much they love playing in your home arena.
Kevin Durant on Madison Square Garden: “It’s like a playground with walls. You walk outside and you’re right on the street. It feels like you’re playing at Rucker Park, just indoors. And that energy… it’s just pure, pure love for the game at the Garden.” pic.twitter.com/p9UeSOGnUj
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) October 26, 2018
A playground with walls? Love for the game? Durant is as pure basketball as it gets and you can tell he adores the mystique of Madison Square Garden, but when it came time to pick a destination for free agency he chose the other team in New York. When he’s healthy next season he’ll surely enjoy playing in MSG just as much as he always has, but it will continue to not be in a Knicks jersey. The Knicks insisted they weren’t spurned and instead were the ones with questions about his health, but given that everything had seemingly been set up all year to make a run at him, few bought that reasoning.
Kobe’s career was always in a Lakers jersey and the closest he ever got to leaving involved a trade demand to Chicago. So there was never an indication that he had the Knicks in his head until the end of his career when everyone started to ask him to reflect on his time in the NBA. Bryant’s always been one for mystique and he was definitely one of the many stars that loved playing in MSG, but you never thought he wanted to play there. That was until he said he did at least think about it. This, of course, didn’t come out until after he had been retired for a little while, via Frank Isola of The Athletic.
There are some teams … I always kind of dreamed about playing in New York and what that would have been like. It’s true. As a fan, the Garden was the historical arena. It’s like the last one left. So, when I came into the NBA there used to be Chicago Stadium. It’s crazy to think that you guys probably don’t know what Chicago Stadium is. But it was Chicago Stadium and there was the Boston Garden where Tiny did a lot of his damage. Then there is Madison Square Garden.
So, there is like three historical arenas. Chicago Stadium and Boston Garden were torn down. The only thing left was MSG. So, I always wanted to be a part of that history and play in it. So, New York was a team … it would have been pretty good to play in that city.
Once again. Here is a major star saying how much they love MSG and how cool it would have been to be a part of the history there, but Bryant never once even looked at the Knicks during his career. Part of this had to do with him winning championships in Los Angeles, but when his trade demand went through he didn’t pick New York. He picked Chicago. Even in hypotheticals, the Knicks get passed over.
Is there a greater tease in the history of Knicks basketball than LeBron James? This man loves Madison Square Garden and has never been shy about letting everyone know how much he loves it. Every time he plays in New York he talks about how great an arena it is.
But has he ever once even considered the Knicks as a serious option? No. He took a meeting with them in 2010, but it’s been well reported that they were never in serious consideration. He was always going to team up with Wade, but it was never going to happen in New York. He still talks about how much he loves MSG, he said it again on Wednesday night, but he’s wearing a Lakers jersey right now. Not a Knicks one.
The real twist of the knife with James though has to be when he and Wade played each other for the final time. James and Wade were caught on camera saying a final matchup like this could only happen in Madison Square Garden or Staples Center. Many took this as James final decision in his most recent free agency was between the Knicks and Lakers. Except not really.
“According to multiple sources close to James, he meant that a final meeting with Wade was so special, it could only be held at a venue like Staples Center or Madison Square Garden — two history-rich arenas in the glitziest and most glamorous cities in the NBA,” Vardon wrote.
No player ever has trolled the Knicks like LeBron and there is a good chance no player ever will troll them like that again, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be more with the opportunity. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson will be next on the Knicks great quest for a superstar, with Giannis a free agent in 2021 (pending a supermax extension he could sign in Milwaukee) and Zion the star draft pick that never made it to New York.
UPDATE: ZION WILLIAMSON
With Giannis signed to a supermax now, the eyes of New York turn to Zion Williamson who got fans all kinds of excited after his first pro visit to the Garden when he was nearly blushing when asked about it. Williamson gushed about the “atmosphere” and how it’s his second favorite place to play behind New Orleans and just overall couldn’t contain his excitement.
— KEL (@YourAverageKel) April 18, 2021
Given that Zion is on Year 2 of his rookie deal and will almost assuredly sign a max extension next year, Knicks fans have another 5-7 years of teasing to deal with before Williamson could become a reality.