November 21, 2008 11:47 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
NEW YORK CITY -- Madison Square Garden IV, indeed the fourth venue to have had this name, is a layer cake built on the corner of 7th Avenue and 33rd Street. It opened in 1968, four years before I was born. By the time I started going to games there, in the mid-1980's, its internal workings were as stained and dysfunctional as those of a 60-year-old lifetime chain smoker.
The "blue seats" in the ring farthest from the floor, in particular, were in the worst shape. I learned a lot of things about human nature up there in the ten-dollar obstructed-view seats during Rangers games, where the dockworkers would drink and yell and vomit and piss in the aisles. Folks would come down from Harlem or in from Queens for Knicks games, and I saw more than a few instances of hand-sex up there in the 400 level. I don't recall many people sitting up there for the NIT or Holiday Festivals or Big East tournaments, that is unless Saint John's was playing. Then it was hard to find a seat.
Even when the crowds were thin, Madison Square Garden maintained its status as the capital of college basketball. It's always mattered to play here, a feeling that's survived the building changes as well as the generations that have passed since the NIT stopped meaning anything. New York City is the place where the original championship was decided, before the NCAA stole the idea. In sepiatone days, cigar smoke would create a cloud above an arena floor full of set shots and chest passes, scratching and clawing and blood in the post. New York City is the crucible out of which college basketball started to matter, before it was polished and buffed and packaged for mass consumption.
Between the time I moved to Oregon for college in 1990 and the time I returned seven years later, MSG had undergone a makeover. Much like the rejuvenated Times Square just six blocks north, the World's Most Famous Arena was suddenly its sparkliest. Proper lighting was installed up in the 400 level, and the seats were changed from blue to a soothing aquamarine. A ring of luxury boxes were installed. They painted the stairwells and the aisles and put up tan-colored stucco everywhere. When I would drive the two hours up from Philadelphia to see the Rangers or a college hoops tournament, I'd find an expensive "fan experience" in a place where "life experience" had always been free.
I'd go to the Big East tournament every year, and I remember the fans from around the country reacting to the big city and the gleaming facade of the arena more than I remember the actual basketball. Once I discovered the joys of mid-majordom, I'd come to the Holiday Festival and root against Saint John's, hoping Hofstra or Canisius or Columbia could pull off an improbable upset. I miss Big Saturday, the quadrupleheader held in early January that would bring together schools from the NEC and MAAC, give them a taste of the big stage. I loved the players' reactions when they'd look up for the first time, and see that roof, that famous roof.
But at the same time, things changed for New York as a hoops mecca. Starting at the top of the food chain, the Knicks are as relevant in the NBA as the Oklahoma City Thunder, and signs around the arena now insist that fans should be excited about somebody named "David Lee." (John Doe wasn't available.) After a string of scandals and disastrous years, Saint John's can't draw at the Garden anymore, and play games at their old shoebox gym. Manhattan and Fordham, battling over the Bronx once again this very weekend, are stuck in down cycles. And neither Long Island or Saint Francis, the NEC's two Brooklyn entries, have made a dent on those leagues in years.
Last night, I went to the Garden for possibly the thousandth time in my life for the Coaches vs. Cancer semifinals, but this time I was a real actual reporter. For a half, I got to sit in the long press box between the 300 and 400 levels, the one that I sat behind when I had a partial Rangers season ticket in the late 90's, wondering what kind of royal treatment was afforded the vaunted New York media (final answer: an $8 media buffet). I took in the late game between UCLA and Michigan in the same way I used to watch games as a younger man -- stretched across three random seats, with a beer in one hand and a container of criss-cut fries in the other (final price: $13). The whole night was a real sentimental journey.
But one thing really struck me. Using my yellow badge to move past the security barricades and descend into the backstage areas after Southern Illinois' loss to Duke, I felt drawn into a two-decade time warp. Past the black curtain, in the tunnels, is MSG how it used to be. The same cracked white paint, dull copper-finish signage and general neglect that I remember from the old blue seats is still there, underneath the fancy veneer that was painted on in the 1990's. The interview room, a dingy closet with strange stains on the walls, looks just like the bathroom behind the 410 sections where I once saw a guy take a crap in a urinal.
There's no doubt that Giuliani and Bloomberg did right by New York, that steps needed to be taken in order to keep Manhattan from becoming Gomorrah. (I was mugged once in the old Times Square, on a block where there's now a theme restaurant centered on wrestling.) But too much prettifying stifles the true soul of New York, the soot-stained, cum-encrusted heart that Lou Reed keeps singing about, the deep spirit that despises strangers and dies for friends. The niceness has even spread to what used to be the city's proudest export, basketball.
Maybe it's time for New York City basketball to generally get back to basics, peel back the layers, and return to the beautiful ugliness of old. To return to the roots, to the same blood and shit and piss that Our Game came out of. It's all still there, I saw it myself.
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