"Alright, one thing," said a member of the Madison Square Garden security staff to three colleagues who'd circled up with him. "Don’t get all fuckin' nervous like you’ve never worked a game before."
It was an admission that this wasn't just any game, and even the square-jawed seriosos of stadium security might feel the moment getting to them at some point. It was Game One of the first-round NBA playoff series between the Atlanta Hawks and the hometown New York Knicks. The Knicks were back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. But more than that, after a season of pandemic distancing and skeleton event-work, where only in the last few regular-season games did 2,000 fans make it in the Garden, there would now be 15,000 raucous Tristate Area diehards yelling obscenities, drinking beer, and booing the hell out of anyone not in a Knicks jersey. Things could get a little harder to manage at this, the largest event held in New York City since the pandemic began—and which, at one point, made this town its epicenter. After a year defined by immense tragedy, but also far too much predictability and cyclical monotony, something unexpected might just happen.
Still, the pregame rituals were there. In the 5 o'clock hour, when the seats were still empty ahead of the 7 p.m. Eastern tipoff, Knicks rookies Obi Toppin and Emmanuel Quickley were among the first out to start putting up shots, while a bunch of Hawks took the other hoop. All around them, the gears of a large-scale production ground into motion. The organ player started getting his fingers loose, testing out his "DE-FENSE" riff. The technical staff ran through the audio and video clips they'd blast out to the crowd when the time came: hype music, like Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What"; Celebrity Row intros for New York icons like Ed Burns and Jon Stewart; an adaptation of Freddie Mercury's famous vocal routine with the crowd at Live Aid 1985, except superimposed on a deepfaked video of a prairie dog doing the singing. They tested the lights that ringed the first level of the arena, flashing blue, white, and orange, and flitting back and forth along their circuits. It was the rehearsal for an NBA game.
The early signs were that not much of that production would be needed, however. As the first fans trickled in before 6 p.m., they made themselves known. The energy would be organically supplied. "Let's go!" went the screams. "We're here, baby!" That was the catchphrase of this great return, displayed on the circular roof of this grand old building, the oldest major arena in New York and in the NBA: "WE HERE." At the Garden? Back in the playoffs? Out in the world, beyond our circumscribed pandemic lives? As Julius Randle emerged for some catch-and-shoot around the three-point line, demonstrating the new perimeter shooting touch he brought to preseason camp that would transform his game and this Knicks franchise, the "MVP" chants began to ring out. By the time Spike Lee appeared courtside—orange shirt, orange fedora, and orange-accented Nikes—the first waves of cheers and applause began to ring down from the rafters.
Among the first to arrive in the section next to the press box were two fans, young and old, decked out in gear. They asked a stadium staffer to take their photo standing in the aisle with the dazzling lights of the court behind them. As they perched themselves on the stairs, maskless, two generations together as a sea of people grew all around them, I couldn't help but think that they stood to represent so much of what we've lost over the last year, and so much of what we all hope to get back in this tantalizing summer ahead. I asked them the silly question of whether they were excited to be there. "Excited?" asked Ferdinand Suba, Jr., 26, who'd come with his father, Ferdinand Sr., who's in his sixties. "We’re lifelong Knicks fans, but this is our first playoff game." It was also their first public event together since the pandemic struck, and since they'd been vaccinated against the disease. They had seen plenty of Knicks games, and spent plenty of time with one another. And yet there was still something new for them to find here, together, here at the reopening of the world.
As tipoff creeped up, so did the roiling energy of the arena. "Smile, you're back at the Garden!" went the announcer, and the cheers erupted. Helpfully, the PA added that you should keep your mask on "unless you’re sitting in a VACCINATED section!" The cheers went out again. The vast majority—as much as 90 percent—of the crowd was fully vaccinated, and that meant that most sections were an explosive entry into the new normal: people sitting shoulder to shoulder in the old arena's tightly packed seats, no masks, yelling and cheering. At one point, I saw a guy execute the classic 360 high-five routine, sharing a moment with a bunch of complete strangers around him with whom he shared only a love of New York and Knicks basketball. There were no pandemic pods here. The minority in attendance who had not been vaccinated had to have a negative rapid test from the full-service testing facility adjacent to the arena, a vision of pre-vaccine pandemic life that the United States simply never even attempted.
It's a moot point now. As the lights went down and the lineups were announced, the noise grew deafening. It was a rollicking atmosphere, a celebration of the city and the team and the freedom to be here. The noise of thousands of people together seemed to cascade off the famous rafters and land on the back of my neck, trickling down my spine until it was made abundantly clear that I was a part of something. Star ESPN pundit Stephen A. Smith appeared in the press box and threatened to bring the house down, revving up the surrounding crowd with a devilish grin as he himself reveled in the prospect that his Knicks might really compete this year. By the time the referees for the night were announced and roundly booed by the entire stadium, I felt comfortable in saying that New York is back. When Danilo Galinari, a former Knick, was also derided relentlessly, it served as proof that this city can still hold a grudge.
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The most raucous disapproval, however, was reserved for one Trae Young, the star guard for the Hawks, who got special treatment from the beginning—the ultimate sign of respect from a New York crowd. By the time Spike Lee got into it with Young in a remake of his famous Reggie Miller confrontation, the case was closed. We are back, and so was the ghost of Reggie. Young, making his playoff debut, greeted the "Fuck Trae Young" chants that regularly rang out with 32 points, 10 assists and 7 rebounds—as well as, at one point, a finger to his lips in a shhhh gesture. It was impossible to imagine this happening in the NBA Bubble where, for all the relentless competitiveness of professional athletes, there was no atmosphere, no gathering of thousands to constantly reinforce the feeling that this all matters because we have all come to witness it. There are some things that cannot be communicated by the TV camera's lens and the knowledge that many millions are watching on the other side. Sometimes, the stakes can only truly be established by thousands of people in the same room.
When the game actually did tip off, the crowd effect really came into view—and for the Knicks, not in a good way. They had looked loose in the warmups, joking around and holding some impromptu sprint races to the sideline. But for most of the first quarter, it looked as if the moment might get to them. They looked shaky; shots weren't falling; their touch around the rim wasn't there. Alec Burks, one of the relative few in this Knicks team with playoff experience, was so jacked up that when he was called for an early foul, he couldn't resist taking out his frustration on the nearest advertising hoarding. He quickly pulled it back into place and helped pull the team back into it after a first quarter where they shot 28 percent from the field. Burks found his composure and found 27 points in 26 minutes off the bench, including 18 in the fourth quarter.
It was in that second half where the Knicks, having spent the second quarter grinding back into the game, started to assert themselves on the contest. Julius Randle, this season's revelation, never quite got into the game, as Atlanta seemed to decide that someone else was going to have to beat them. But the Knicks spread their scoring around, and sophomore wingman R.J. Barrett spent much of the game on a mission to tell everyone watching that he's got the stuff. When he absolutely threw it down on Bodgan Bodganovic on the fast break, the place exploded again. People took to their feet and seemed to lean forward towards the court, waving shirts over their heads or pumping their fists or pointing demonstrably as if to say, I see you. I see what you just did. Try getting that from a TV camera. Each time a shot went up, there was once again that magical moment of dead air, that transcendent anticipation as the whole 15,000 drew breath at once as the ball approached the rim until it went through and the river of sound came flowing out and washed over the whole place.
And all along, the production of the arena kept sashaying into the proceedings. Jon Stewart was welcomed to Celebrity Row with a video of his testimony before Congress on behalf of 9/11 first responders whose healthcare the American federal government had dragged its feet on funding. The place exploded in pride in a man who'd become, after his Daily Show stint was over, a warrior for New York. Mariska Hargitay was introduced with a Law and Order: SVU clip before the jumbotron cut to her courtside and she pulled down her mask to mouth, "Go Knicks" with a gleam in her eye. David Guetta appeared for a halftime concert, yelling "NEW YORK CITAAAY!" over the opening notes of his first song. A "90s Dance Cam" segment featuring fans grooving to "Poison" by Bel Biv Devoe caused something more than a stir. The Freddie Mercury-prairie dog mashup went over big time, but not like a kiss-cam opportunity for an elderly couple who, in truth, looked a little confused about the assignment. The crowd cheered, louder and louder, trying to summon the moment from these two surprise actors in the play. When the camera panned away sans kiss, there were more raucous boos. This city is special.
But once again, the real boos were reserved for Trae Young, whose James Harden-esque game of slow-motion drives and crafty footwork was causing havoc in the Knicks paint. If Young wasn't getting to the rim, he was lifting a soft-touch floater over the bigs in the lane and finding a bucket. If he got double-teamed, he was finding shooters on the perimeter. And failing all that, he was getting fouled. When the refs took his side on a highly marginal foul call in the frantic final minutes, as the teams swapped lead changes and every possession took on high-octane significance, it became a perfect confluence of boo-able events. The crowd obliged.
And then the game ended. With a whimper. After clutch buckets from Alec Burks of the Knicks and a crucial go-ahead basket from Young with .9 left on the clock, Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau called a timeout and the ball was advanced to halfcourt. The New York Knicks, back in a close-to-full Madison Square Garden, would have one shot to win it or send the game to overtime. But when the whistle went, and the gears of the Knicks inbound-play machine went into motion, they only succeeded in getting the ball to Julius Randle with his back to the basket at the top of the key—and with multiple Hawks all over him. There was little chance he could turn and shoot before the buzzer sounded, and so it was. The Hawks triumphed, 107-105, in an inauspicious ending to a game that promised, and had delivered, so much.
The air went out of the arena all at once, and as Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" came on the sound system, the 15,000 faithful went streaming out into the rest of their lives. A few stuck around to boo Trae Young when he was finished with his postgame interview. He grinned at the folks around the tunnel as they lambasted him, even throwing a young Knicks fan his towel. The kid held it up like he'd caught a fly ball, wheeling around to see who'd seen. "We ain't done yet," said a concessions worker as he walked down the hallway ringing the second level of the arena, rousing his colleagues as he went. "We got a game two. We ain't done yet." Was he talking about the team, or the jobs they all had to do to prepare for another game at the Garden? Maybe both. Maybe all of it.
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