NEW YORK – As I walked through Madison Square Garden out onto the floor for the Sweet 16, I heard a group of Baylor cheerleaders talking behind me. One explained to the group, “Madison Square Garden is the world’s most famous arena.”
Great branding by MSG — no thanks to its professional basketball tenant.
Quick, name the most exciting Knicks moment at the Garden of the last 10 years. Does it involve Jeremy Lin? There was the brief glimmer of Knicks Tape. A couple Porzingis putback dunks. Even when history is made at MSG, it’s being made by LeBron, or Kobe, or Steph. Or in the case of the Knicks, it’s simply made for ineptitude, like when Charles Oakley famously got kicked out of the arena by James Dolan’s security team in February.
Henrik Lundqvist may have more signature moments by himself in the last decade than the Knicks as a team. It’s crazy to think, and even crazier to be made true, but the Knicks have become the Clippers of their own building.
Yet the Garden remains the Mecca of basketball, spoken about in hushed tones with the kind of reverence usually reserved for sports franchises that actually, you know, win.
I asked South Carolina point guard Rakym Felder, who played high school ball in Brooklyn, about the atmosphere for their Sweet 16 game vs. Baylor. The energy was electric from the tip (You can sometimes hear “Cocks” cheers at the Garden, but they’re not normally supportive).
“Just amazing,” Felder said, as his Gamecocks would eventually play their way into their first Final Four and a trip to Phoenix. “You dream of playing in this arena as a little kid. Just being on this stage – in the Elite 8 – it’s just amazing. All the historical moments here. All the amazing games been played here. All sorts of sports.”
Notice the qualifier. I asked him about a Knicks moment. He mentioned he was in the building for Carmelo Anthony’s buzzer beater vs. Charlotte. This is where we are: A regular season game between two non-playoff teams qualifies as a “big” moment.
Within three hours of those comments, we had a trio of incredible moments at MSG. Zak Showalter made a ridiculous three to force overtime for Wisconsin against Florida. Canyon Barry chased down Khalil Iverson on a layup attempt that may have sealed the game for the Badgers, and then Chis Chiozza hit a buzzer-beating three to lift the Gators to the Elite 8.
Any of those three belong on the list of most memorable recent moments at the Garden, ahead of almost any non-Linsanity related Knicks play of the last few years. A kid who shoots his free throws underhand made a game-changing chasedown block to help win a game. That’s a Garden moment.
In some ways, the Garden has become synonymous with basketball drama in spite of its professional team. The Big East Tournament has offered moment after moment for a generation. From Gerry McNamera to Kemba Walker, the Big East Tournament never seems to fail to provide high drama.
We added another chapter of March Madness history this year with the instant classic between Florida and Wisconsin and the Cinderella story from South Carolina. At what point do we say it’s the Mecca of college basketball? The spell still holds for fans across the country and the world.
A few weeks back, a friend from Creighton came to watch the Big East Tournament. I got a text from him the first night that read simply, “The Garden is just …”
You can still fill in the blank for yourself, even if that blank doesn’t include the Knicks.
Hundreds came just to watch the Badgers open practice at MSG. Gamecock fans packed the rafters for its team’s first Sweet 16 appearance in over half a century. Aaron Rodgers, Andy North, Katie Holmes, and Ryan Fitzpatrick came for the Wisconsin-Florida tilt, and Badger fans drowned the arena in a sea of red.
There is still something special about it. Something that heightens the environment. Maybe part of it is being in New York, where you almost feel more important walking down the street simply by osmosis. Things happen here. Big things. When the first bucket dropped for South Carolina Friday night, the crowd erupted. The energy was palpable.
“That’s when I got the butterflies in my stomach,” Felder said. “When it was my time to come in, running to the table, I was like ‘Oh man, here we go.’ It was just amazing to be out there on that floor.”
Two nights later, the Gamecocks made their first trip in program history to the Final Four with Darius Rucker in the front row cheering on South Carolina. Only at the Garden.
The Knicks may not be your father’s Knicks, or even your grandfather’s, but the Garden is still the Garden, an awe-inspiring place capable of elevating any moment to historic levels almost by definition. If it happens at the Garden, it matters. Even if the most famous team that plays there doesn’t.