The Garden is Back, But Are the Knicks?

Dave DeBusschere's and Willis Reed's retired numbers hang from the Garden's rafters, serving as a memory for two of the players of the Knicks only two Championships.

Call me a Communist, a terrorist, or just being cheap, but last night was my first time watching the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. And despite the fact that the Knicks showed no effort on the defensive end in a 118-110 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, the experience of seeing the Knicks was fantastic, even if they are nearly 40 years removed from their last championship.

I was never much of a basketball fan as a child. I remember watching Michael Jordan win his final two championships with the Bulls, but aside from that, I never grew up with basketball the same way I grew up with baseball and football. I was too young, at five years old, to remember the Knicks making the 1994 Finals, where they lost in a decisive seventh game to the Houston Rockets. By the time I had started to get really interested in basketball, Jordan had retired and the NBA entered a lockout, and I didn’t even bother with watching the 1999 season. Of course, that was the year the Knicks made their most recent finals appearance, but I was too busy watching Derek Jeter and the Yankees defend their 1998 World Championship and enter the heyday of their dynasty.

Plus, the players of the post-Jordan NBA had more character issues than the Star Wars prequels. Even the game’s greatest post-Jordan star, Kobe Bryant, was not immune to it.

It was impossible for me to watch, let alone get passionate. I smiled when the Nets made back-to-back finals appearances, and maybe if they had gone better than 1-8 in those two series, it might have changed my perspective on the sport. For the most part, I was content with watching the Yankees and Jets and letting winter weeknights be reserved for schoolwork and video games.

I started watching basketball when I started calling high school games for 91.9 WSHR. I was content with watching my high school teams, and then watching the Big East games leading into March Madness. By the time I was in high school, the Knicks were going through their worst slide since the 1980’s. Poor ownership, general management and coaching led to the team playing poor on the court while also being shackled by horrible salary cap management and trading away draft picks for talent that never delivered.

When I really started to follow basketball, which is about three years ago, the league had changed dramatically since I was in middle school. New stars like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and LeBron James (pre-Decision) made the game enjoyable to watch, and you could honestly root for the players without wondering if they were still on probation.

The only thing that stopped me from enjoying watching college stars transform into professional stars was the New York Knicks, who from 2003 up until last season, failed to make the playoffs. They also failed to bring life to the Garden. The greatest moments at the Garden for most of the 2000s was watching an opposing player come in and drop 50 on the Knicks, like James did in February of 2008. Compare that to the Golden Days of Walt Frazier passing to Bill Bradley for a lay-up, or Willis Reed hobbling out of the tunnel before Game 7 of the 1970 Finals and hitting his first two (and only) shots of the night. Hell, even compare it to when the Knicks were perennial playoff contenders in the ’90s!

A lot of that changed when the Knicks signed Amar’e Stoudemire in the summer of 2010 and made a serious run at James, which eventually failed. The Knicks finally had a superstar player, even if it meant that the league’s most under-appreciated player, David Lee, was now trade bait so that Amar’e could take his position. The Knicks started slow but picked up pace in December, and Stoudemire went on a string of 30 point games that quickly made him beloved in New York. When the Knicks traded four players in exchange for another superstar, expectations went through the roof. Carmelo Anthony was supposed to be the Knicks answer for not winning the LeBron James sweepstakes, and when the Knicks beat LeBron’s heat in their third game with Melo, there was reason to be excited. But team depth was an issue for the Knicks, and when they playoffs came, it was exposed. With Amar’e playing injured, and Chauncey Billups (also acquired in the Carmelo deal) went out with a bad ankle, the Celtics rolled through them in the first round of the playoffs.

Expectations continued to be high entering this season, and even if fans had to wait an additional two months for basketball, the Garden was rocking when the Knicks beat the Celtics on Christmas Day to start the season. Shortly afterwards, me and my friends bought tickets for the home game against the Bobcats.

Team defense continued to be an issue for the Mike D’Antoni coached team, and the Knicks entered last night’s game at 2-3. Three friends, and myself got to the Garden an hour before the game, sat from our over-priced seats in the upper deck and watched the Knicks come out onto the court for the warm-ups. I had been to the Garden a handful of times before, from concerts to St. John’s games and for the Big East Tournament. However, you don’t really get the full Garden experience from a half-filled college hoops game.

If there was any question about what the Garden meant, it was answered quickly. The montage video – of Knicks greats from Dick McGuire, to Dave DeBusschere, to Reed’s Game Seven entrance, to Frazier’s outstanding 19 assists in that Game 7, to Starks and Ewing – made you realize what Madison Square Garden was all about. The line-ups were introduced in a way that would have made Red Holzman cringe, and the game was afoot. Instantly, Tyson Chandler slammed home an alley-oop that made the sold-out crowd roar.

That was about the only highlight.

The defense failed to close out on shooters and hardly forced any turnover’s for D’Antoni’s run-n-gun system. The offense looked just as bad, with many possessions ending in a pass to Carmelo on the high post and settling for a dreadfully bad looking jumpshot. After one half, the Garden had enough. Stoudemire’s desperation three had cut the Bobcat’s lead to 10 at halftime, but already, “Fire D’Antoni!” shouts had rung out from the fans. It got even worse in the second half when the Knicks lone bright spot, rookie Iman Shumpert, didn’t get a second half start and the Bobcats increased their lead. The Garden was alive, alright, except with boos for everyone in the arena not named Iman Shumpert.

The rookie guard, whose pick was heavily criticized this past June, ended up scoring 18 points in 30 minutes, shooting 60 percent and draining four three-pointers. Compare that with Toney Douglas, who in 39 minutes, finished with 13 points and shot 6-17 from the field, going 1-6 on bad looking three-pointers. That, more than anything else, drew the ire from the Garden. When a player like Shumpert gets hot, and the building is chanting “Shum-pert!” while Toney Douglas couldn’t hit water if he fell off Chelsea Pier, that’s when fans get angry. No Knick played well, but the game was close enough to always be interesting, especially when Anthony hit a three pointer and Chandler was fouled all at the same moment, leading to a four-point play to cut the lead to seven with a minute left. But the Knicks could never get a meaningful stop on defense, as Boris Diaw and Gerald Henderson looked like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

What made the night special was just being at the Garden, which I appreciate for it’s basketball history much more after reading Harvey Araton’s book “When the Garden Was Eden”, which details the Knicks during their Golden Years from ’68-’73. Reading it, you get a sense of how much basketball mattered to the city during a turbulent time for the nation, and how much basketball could matter to the city if another Knicks team like that ever cropped up again.

A team like “The Old Knicks” may never come around again, and the closet the city might ever see to that just might be “STAT and Melo”. The Knicks will not look like a winner and a dominant team on a night in-night out basis until they start playing defense, and playing as a collective unit on offense, and play the game in a way that wouldn’t have Dave DeBusschere rolling in his grave. Until that happens, the Knicks will always be stuck in the void that they have been in for the past 10 years.

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