Saturday was a special day for pro basketball in New York City, with both the Knicks and Nets taking 1-0 leads at home in their respective first-round playoff series.
But if there was anything to be gleaned from New York’s 85-78 win over the Boston Celtics or Brooklyn’s 106-89 pummeling of the Chicago Bulls, it’s that the Nets’ fans can’t hold a candle to the Knicks’, and the Barclays Center — shiny, new and spectacular as it may be — is no Madison Square Garden when it comes to providing a memorable playoff basketball experience.
My NYC basketball tour started a little after noon, when I ventured into midtown Manhattan for the first half of the double-header — the first instance of two professional hoops teams playing home playoff games on the same day in New York since April 6, 1971, when the ABA’s New York Nets beat the Virginia Squires 135-131 at Hofstra University in Hempstead (because their own arena was booked) and the NBA’s New York Knicks beat the Baltimore Bullets 112-111 at MSG.
And, make no mistake, the scene at the Knicks’ second playoff win since 2001 lived up to the hype.
From the start, it was a weird afternoon for both New York and the visiting Celtics, who haven’t been back to Boston since Tuesday, the day after three spectators were killed in a bombing at the Boston Marathon. Celtics coach Doc Rivers described the tumultuous and harrowing week during his pre-game media availability, noting that Friday’s practice was more tense than usual, as his players watched from afar while police finally pinned down the second of the two suspects in the crime.
Before the game, a Boston Fire Department-FDNY joint team presented the colors before the capacity crowd, most of them wearing free road fluorescent-orange shirts handed out at the door, and Knicks star Carmelo Anthony and Celtics star Paul Pierce came out to mid-court to speak to the fans about the tragedy. During Pierce’s brief statement, a small faction of Knicks fans began to boo — the only disappointing aspect of the MSG experience, really — but other more respectful fans quickly drowned them out.
“I don’t think that was the right thing to do; you don’t boo somebody like that,” Anthony would say afterward. “At the end of the day, we all know what happened in Boston, and our prayers go out to the families and the city of Boston. And in a situation like today, it was all about the U.S. It’s our country, and it’s sad that we’ve got to go through unfortunate tragedies like this. I don’t think whoever booed should have. Not in a situation like that.”
At 3:04 ET, the game tipped off, and for nearly two and a half hours, until the final buzzer at 5:31, the arena was absolutely raucous, fluctuating between fury and fervor during a game that saw one riveting Red Panda Acrobat performance, 11 lead changes and 11 ties, and never saw either side lead by more than seven points.
In the second half, New York’s defense finally settled in and its offense — led in part by former Nets teammates Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin — found its flow, and when Anthony’s well-defended jumper gave the Knicks an 83-76 lead with 1:21 left, the still-packed house, entirely on its feet, erupted in its loudest cheers of the night.
Now, I know what you’re saying: All NBA arenas are loud, especially during the playoffs. And, to a point, you’re right. But there’s something special about the excitement inside Madison Square Garden — something organic and undeniably real that’s hard to find in most buildings. The passion is authentic and the sound gives you goose bumps, and until you’ve experienced it, you can’t possibly know what it’s like.
And that’s a front on which the Nets crowd — at least for now — can’t possibly compare. And I know, because I was there, too.
After Anthony finished his media session at MSG at 6:41, I hopped on the 2-train to Brooklyn and got off at Atlantic Terminal around 7:10. And from the moment I walked into the billion-dollar monstrosity, I was bombarded with reminders to be excited, starting with a glowing plastic bracelet featuring the hashtag “#helloplayoffs.” When they got to their seats, fans were met with black T-shirts promoting the “blackout in Brooklyn,” and the media seats even had cookies commemorating the first playoff game at Barclays Center.
A drumline — one not unlike the Knicks’ own drumline — took the court before the game, as did the Nets’ unnerving Brooklyn Knight mascot. And finally, at 8:14, after a riveting national anthem from Nets forward Jerry Stackhouse (no, really) and an unintelligible statement from owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the game tipped off. And though the arena was loud for most of the night, the energy was somehow lacking.
Throughout the evening, deafening music thumped and the team’s dreadlocked PA announcer urged the crowd to make some noise and support their team. But it seemed cheesy and even unnecessary at times, leaving me wondering why they needed to be reminded.
By and large, the sound felt manufactured in a way I’ve never experienced at MSG, and though there were genuine moments of excitement — like the reaction after Deron Williams’ thunderous reverse dunk with 39 seconds left in the third — the spectacle surrounding the game ultimately took away from the incredible basketball the Nets were playing on the floor. In short, it was fun, but it wasn’t a Knicks game.
Of course, it’s not fair to compare Nets fans to Knicks fans. The Knicks’ zealous gang of supporters has been cultivated over decades of successes and failures in one of the world’s most famous arenas, while the Nets’ are still working with scraps as they try to build a fan base from scratch in a new neighborhood.
Earlier this season, the Nets and Knicks both panned the idea that they have a “rivalry” brewing, dismissing it as something that must be earned. And as far as I’m concerned, the luxury of a truly elite crowd and an unforgettable basketball experience must be earned in the same way.
Right now, win or lose, the Knicks are the best basketball show in town and for the foreseeable future, the Nets will struggle to compete — regardless of how competitive they are on the floor. (And after Saturday, both teams seem headed for the second round.)
Over time, Brooklyn will carve out its niche and nurture a dedicated fan base that doesn’t need to be prompted to be excited, and whenever that finally happens, a Knicks-Nets playoff double-header will truly be a historic event.