“There’s No ‘If’”: Scenes From a Knicks Playoff Game at Madison Square Garden
A little more than two hours before the New York Knicks tipped off Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the mob gathered outside Madison Square Garden was already nearing a fever pitch.
“Drinks have been flowing for a good couple hours now,” said Danny, a man in his twenties dressed head-to-toe in Knicks gear—and who, as soon as our conversation was over, immediately started a “Go New York, go New York, go!” chant across the sea of blue and orange that had formed around us. “It’s Friday night, 8:30 game. How could you beat it?”
It seemed obvious to Danny, and to anyone within spitting distance, that the time and day had been chosen to ensure that the Garden would be the best, most rabid version of itself.
“The NBA has the office on Fifth Avenue,” he said. “They love everything about the Knicks finally being back to relevancy.”
For the Knicks, nearly all of the last quarter-century has been filled with losing, scandal, and embarrassment, driving some fans to lunacy and others to despondency—but never to full abandonment. Jimmy, a portly fellow whose Knicks hat had been knocked backwards and to the side in a state of inebriation, said he’s been a fan since 1983. Between swigs from a brown paper bag, with a voice already hoarse from excitement, he expressed one of the more common sentiments I heard about why the energy in the Garden will never die, even when the Knicks were flatlining: “They owe this to me.”
Friday night, at least, they delivered: the Knicks cruised to a 99-79 win that made the fourth quarter mostly a formality. With just over seven minutes remaining in the rout, Obi Toppin threw down an and-one dunk that sent Spike Lee skipping up the sideline like a school child. It was certainly a cathartic night for the fans who packed the house—some in close proximity to Chloe Sevigny and Penn Badgley on celebrity row, others who secured nosebleed tickets and wore their best stained crew neck from the ‘94 Finals.
Outside the arena before the game, up and down West 31st Street, the prevailing sentiment was one of overdue relief. The fans are the ones who have suffered, who have been dragged through the mud by a very visible team that was invisible in the playoffs each spring from 2014 to 2020—a streak snapped during a COVID-shortened season that didn’t quite feel like the real thing. It was the fans who groaned through the season after that surprise playoff berth, when the Knicks went 37-45. The people who consistently flood the arena and keep watching on TV have seen a lot: a team whose primary starting lineup included Mario Hezonja, Noah Vonleh, and Enes Kanter; the Derek Fisher head coach experiment; franchise legend Charles Oakley getting banned from the arena he once starred in.
Still, the fans have remained loyal. Save for the 2020-21 season where the pandemic ruined the streak, the Knicks have ranked in the top ten of attendance every year since 2000-01, the first year ESPN started tracking attendance. This year they averaged more than 19,000 butts in the seats per night. (Despite all that, there were, of course, more than a few salty chants directed at the team’s owner, and a few people outside who had more colorful language for the prince of Cablevision.)
It’s not revelatory to say that New York sports fans are passionate, loyal, and, lovingly, slightly deranged. But Friday night brought out some truly unique specimens, like the young man I met from north Jersey wearing a horse mask. Or the teenaged autograph hound waiting for Ice Spice (she never showed) who said he learned the family business from his father. Or the trio of bros—one apiece from Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island—firmly in their cups at Tracks Raw Bar & Grill, estimating they were five drinks deep while it was still light out. They had spent years preparing for this moment.
“We’re such real Knick fans that we bought season tickets when they were eating shit,” screamed Brandon. “What we know now is that we’re going to work. This is not for pleasure, this is a business trip. I had to cancel important things to be here tonight. The wife stuff, the family stuff, the work stuff, everything was canceled. Calendar has been wiped clean.” The mission was clear. One of them pointed at MSG and said, “This place is going to burn when we win. You know that, right?”
The building is still standing, but it was on fire all night. The energy was somewhere between rock concert and megachurch inside, as overserved New Yorkers found salvation in clampdown defense and well-rounded team basketball.
Everyone got what they wanted—the couple smoking weed under the Penn Station scaffolding, the youngster who drew Julius Randle’s number 30 on his white tee, NYC scenesters who just wanted to feel included, the true heads who broke out the Taj Gibson and Chris Copeland jerseys, the lovers dancing to A Tribe Called Quest with someone dressed in a giant Dunkin’ cold brew costume. The Knicks enjoyed a resounding playoff win and let their fans bask in the glory. They just had to wait for it.
What is about this historically maladroit team that keeps people invested, often knowing full well what awaits them on the other side of the rake they keep willingly stepping on?
“I like the energy,” said Deon, a kid hoisting a foam finger who couldn’t have been older than 12. His dad, sporting the full Knicks package of deep New Yawk accent, peanut butter Timbs, and RJ Barrett jersey, beamed with pride while talking about making his son a Knick fan for life.
For some, the urge to keep going comes from a combination of this year’s team’s actual capability to meet fans’ tempered expectations, paired with needing to witness any sort of progress in person.
“I haven’t been to a Knick playoff game in almost 20 years,” said Debra, a middle-aged woman from Queens who laughed maniacally about converting her partner from Bulls to Knicks fandom. “I think they look pretty good. I mean, ya know—they have a chance to advance. I don’t know about the Eastern Conference Finals, but they have a chance.”
With the Knickerbockers now holding the upper hand (and a chance to close out the series amid deafening MSG roars in Game 6, if they don’t just finish things up in Cleveland beforehand), that calendar may need to remain open for at least another week or two. Barrett, who poured in 19 points on a potently efficient 8-of-12 shooting and seemed to thrive off the home crowd, explained the Bing Bong effect in his postgame press conference.
“It’s the Garden, man,” he said. “What can I say? It’s loud. It’s fun to play in. As a basketball player you grow up thinking about moments like these.”
The fans had been thinking about moments like this, too. I made the mistake of asking one guy pregame, who was wearing dark shades that definitely weren’t because the evening sun was too bright, what would happen if the Knicks lost. “Nah, there’s no ‘if,’” he replied. “I don’t like the word ‘if’.” Another dude, who had sort of a meathead Beastie Boys thing going on, was prepared to go to outlandish lengths to keep the Knicks from falling behind in the series. “That’s not happening,” he said. “I’ll get out there on the court if I have to.”
Check out more photos from the night here:
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