It had been more than eight years since the New York Knicks had
last participated in a playoff game when they stepped onto the
floor Sunday night for their matchup with the Atlanta Hawks. Over
the 2,927 days that separated postseason appearances, the
Knickerbockers lost more games than any other team in the NBA. The
first 20 years of the 21st century provided depressingly few
opportunities for Knick fans to get genuinely excited about the
present or the future of their favorite team. Between awful trades and embarrassing
off-court controversies, it
became increasingly difficult for New Yorkers to remain loyal to
their hometown team. However, so many of them did.
For those reasons alone, this 2020-21 Knicks squad has
engendered an incredible amount of love and affection from the
Knicks fan base.
More than that, this particular team will forever hold a special
place in the hearts of many fans due to everything going on outside
the comfy confines of the court as the season played out. The
season started in December, which coincided with a dizzying spike
in coronavirus cases nationwide. By January, the COVID-19 crisis in
the U.S. had reached a terrifying peak, with the country averaging
more than 250,000 new infections and nearly 4,000 COVID-related
deaths per day. Sports, which have long been considered a
much-needed distraction from the weighty worries of the "real
world," have been crucial to the mental health of so many of us
during the dark days of the pandemic. Due to a tightly-packed
schedule, Knicks fans have had the opportunity to tune into a game
seemingly every other night for the past five months.
In seasons past, Knicks games had often been rendered
meaningless by Christmas, as the team sank to the bottom of the
standings, year after year. Shockingly, the team didn't follow the
all-too-familiar script in 2020-21. Although multiple outlets
projected New York to finish with one of the league's worst
records, and Las Vegas set the Knicks over/under win total at 22,
the 'Bockers got off to a solid start. Still, even the most
optimistic fans assumed the team would come crashing back down to
earth, sooner or later. But a funny thing happened on the way to
the lottery: the Knicks kept winning.
And it felt as if New York's loving embrace of this team was
about more than just its surprising success. It might have had
something to do with parents, worried about COVID outbreaks at
their kids' schools, cherishing the opportunity to get lost in the
triviality of a basketball game for a couple of hours. Or New
Yorkers choosing to worry about who Tom Thibodeau should start at
point guard instead of stressing about the sputtering
If there was ever a season Knicks fans needed something to be
hopeful about, something to believe in, it was this
It had been more than two decades since the Garden rocked and
swayed and shook the way it did Sunday night during Game
My first year covering the Knicks professionally was 2005. Over
the past 15 years, I've sat through plenty of games when the
loudest the building ever got was when the Knicks City Dancers
would fire T-shirts into the crowd. With many fans unable to afford
tickets and the team effectively eliminated from playoff contention
by Thanksgiving, there wouldn't be a passionate "DE-FENSE" chant
inside MSG for months at a time. If the Golden State Warriors or
Cleveland Cavaliers were in town, the loudest cheers were often
reserved for Steph Curry or LeBron James.
Yet, the cacophony of sound heard inside Madison Square Garden
during Game 1 was reminiscent of an earlier era, when giants such
as Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason roamed the paint
inside the World's Most Famous Arena.
The electricity and energy inside the building was evident from
the very start of the evening. As soon as the gates opened and
patrons began flooding in, cheering and chanting began to emanate
from all corners of the arena.
By the time the Knicks players sprinted out onto the floor for
pre-game warmups, the clamor had reached a fever pitch.
I remember Jeff Van Gundy once telling me that one of his most
enduring memories from his time spent in New York was how loud the
Garden got some 30 minutes before games even tipped off during
those epic playoff runs in the 1990s. I thought about JVG's
observation as I looked around MSG Sunday night with the guttural
shouts from 15,000 unleashed fans washing over everyone.
The Knicks got off to a slow start in Game 1, possibly jolted
and jittery by the deafening crowd noise. It was something they
hadn't experienced this season, as local municipalities had set a
cap on the number of people allowed to attend sporting events held
inside. Nonetheless, everyone knew the Knicks were going to make a
run. The partisan supporters packed inside MSG would make sure of
Surprisingly, it was a pair of rookies that sparked the charge.
With New York down seven points in the middle of the second
quarter, Immanuel Quickley dropped in a floater. A minute later,
Obi Toppin drained a three-pointer from the top of the key. When IQ
sank a three-pointer from 30 feet on the following possession, the
Born and raised on Long Island, I made many a pilgrimage to MSG
far before I started covering the team. On special occasions
throughout the '90s, my dad and I would hop on the LIRR and head
into the city. For those who weren't fortunate enough to experience
it, it's hard to describe how loud the Garden got during crucial
playoff games in those days. The decibel level inside the Garden on
Sunday night was likely the closest approximation.
Midway through the third quarter of Game 1, RJ Barrett broke
free on a fast break and viciously dunked over Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Those of us seated on the Chase Bridge felt it wobble and quake in
the aftermath of that Barrett bucket.
Speaking with reporters on Monday, Obi Toppin said the players
"felt the floor shaking" Sunday
night. Barrett described the atmosphere inside MSG as "amazing,"
adding it was "better than [he] could ever imagine."
A buddy of mine, seated in Section 109, texted me a screencap
after the game; it showed that the health app on his phone had
detected increased heart rate and physical activity from 7 to 9
p.m., signifying he had been exercising strenuously. My friend, a
season ticket-holder for more than a decade, also noted that there
was a feeling of camaraderie and togetherness among those in
attendance Sunday night that he hadn't experienced
The Knicks allowed 15,047 fans into MSG for Game 1, only 75% of
the building's typical capacity of 19,812. However, it's important
to note that most of those 15,000 fans were forced to spend the
better part of the past 15 months inside, socially isolated. I
don't think it's a stretch to speculate that it contributed to the
heightened intensity inside MSG. For many fans, it was the first
time they had the opportunity to gather and let loose in a
community setting; the first time in a long time they had the green
light to scream and cheer and high-five strangers.
The Knicks ended up losing the game, of course, with Trae Young turning raucous applause
into eerie silence late in the fourth quarter.
Yet, afterward, outside the Garden, there was still a palpable
sense of excitement and exhilaration among many of the fans exiting
the arena and heading out into the NYC night. And with Game 2
scheduled for Wednesday, it's safe to assume Knicks fans, whether
they plan to watch the game inside the Garden or from their couch,
will relish the opportunity to be pleasantly distracted once