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100 Things Knicks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Alan Hahn
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Alan Hahn
All rights reserved.
This is the mecca — so when you enter for the first time, embrace that moment of hesitation as you gaze up at the famed copper-spoked ceiling. Yes, you're supposed to be in awe.
There is a reason why it is called "the World's Most Famous Arena." It has hosted some of the greatest events in sports and entertainment, from Frazier and Ali to John Lennon and Elton John, and, of course, the Stanley Cup Finals.
But when it comes to basketball, this is the game's biggest stage. This is where all of the greats come to make their mark before the most discerning fans in the world.
"This is the mecca of basketball," NBA MVP LeBron James has said about the Garden. "A lot of things have happened in this building. There is great history, and the fans have seen a lot. This is, like Kobe [Bryant] said, the last building that's still alive ... I honestly feel like you go on stage rather than on a basketball court."
"There's no way," he added, "that this could be just another building."
It's not just a building or even a location. It's a landmark venue that, in New York, has been simply known as the Garden for well over a century. It has been in four different locations around Manhattan since the first Madison Square Garden was opened in 1874. That first location actually was an open-air venue located at Madison Square (Madison Avenue and 26 Street), with 28-foot walls surrounding it on all sides.
But it wasn't called Madison Square Garden. It was actually first known as Barnum's Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome. P.T. Barnum, the legendary showman and the Garden's first owner, must have been a man beside himself with humility.
The name didn't stick (thankfully) once it was auctioned to a bandmaster named Patrick S. Gilmore, who renamed it Gilmore's Garden. Why "Garden?" During that period, garden was a term used to describe a gathering place. There was no NBA — there wasn't even basketball yet (Dr. James Naismith wouldn't invent the game until 1891) — so this Garden was better known for boxing matches, horse shows, and other exhibitions.
The Garden changed owners a few times before railroad tycoon William Vanderbilt took over in 1878 and renamed it Madison Square Garden on May 31, 1879. It lasted until 1889, when it was demolished and replaced with a new venue that included an 8,000-seat arena, a 1,500-seat concert hall, a 1,200-seat theater, and the world's largest indoor swimming pool. (Yes, a pool!)
This was the architectural brainchild of the great Stanford White, who, as fate would have it, was murdered on his prized venue's rooftop garden by a jealous husband who learned of his wife's affair with White.
The Garden's glory years at Madison Square ended in 1925 (the New York Life Insurance building, its gold pyramidal gilded roof well known in the famous Manhattan skyline, has since held the place), but the name was carried over to the new location on the west side at 49th Street and Eighth Avenue.
This next version of the Garden, known now as the Old Garden, was an 18,000-seat arena that opened in November 1925 with a six-day bicycle race. This was promoter Tex Rickard's dream. He's the founding father of the NHL's New York Rangers, who have been a cotenant of the Knicks since this Garden opened.
With its famous classic marquee glowing Madison Sq Garden and listing the events in block letters, it is there on 49th and Eighth where the Knicks first called the Garden home and basketball — especially the college game — became the main showcase. The Knicks played their first game at MSG on November 11, 1946, a 78–68 loss to the Chicago Stags. The last game came February 10, 1968, a 115–97 win over Philadelphia.
The current Garden opened February 11, 1968, eight years after it was originally proposed by then-Garden president Irving Mitchell Felt, and at yet another location: over Penn Station in the area between 33rd and 31st Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
The place is a treasured New York landmark, but truth be told, this "new" Garden was met with some heavy resistance when the plans were originally introduced. Though it was the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which owned Penn Station, who sold the "air rights" to construction above the station to make up for a deficit of over $70 million from the 1950s, the city came under fire for allowing the destruction of another New York landmark in Penn Station's classic street-level concourse with its majestic Corinthian columns and archways.
Penn Station would remain as a major commuter hub but as only a subterranean structure. The Long Island Rail Road concourse still maintains most of the Romanesque architecture from its pre-Garden days.
When Penn Station was demolished, an editorial in the New York Times called it a "monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance." The outrage spurred a move by the city to enact architectural preservation statutes to protect other buildings from meeting the same fate.
Coincidentally, when the current Garden started to show its age at the turn of the 21st century, one of the first proposals was to build a new one across the street on Eighth Avenue at the U.S. Postal Service building and then build a new Penn Station concourse back where the Garden stands. But after battling with New York City over various financially related matters, the Garden corporation decided the better plan would be to invest over $800 million into a major renovation of the current arena.
This project, which is being paid for with private funding, will see complete rebuilding of the entire arena — with expanded concourses, event-level and lower-level suites, a new upper-bowl seating area with significantly improved sightlines, two sky bridges that suspend over the playing surface, and a new and expanded Seventh Avenue entrance. The rebuild, which is being labeled as a "transformation," is expected to be completed by the 2013–14 season.
The beauty of this project is that the team will continue to call the Garden home for many years to come. In fact, as of 2012, this current Garden is 44 years old, making it the longest tenure of any of the previous Gardens.
It is here where that famous "Garden buzz" developed during the Knicks' championship era from 1968 to 1973 and where "celebrity row" — the front row of seats right on the court across from the team benches — became the famous place to be seen.
It is here where the crowd doesn't cheer, it roars. And it is here where the noise isn't just heard, it's felt.
Phil Jackson, who played many games at the Garden as a member of the championship-era Knicks, recalled in a New York Times story in February 2011 a night as coach of the Bulls in one of their many battles with the Knicks in the 1990s, when, during a timeout, he turned to his assistants and asked, "Do you feel this floor moving up and down, or am I crazy?"
Jackson then grinned and said, "So when they say 'The place is jumping,' it literally is."CHAPTER 2
What Is a Knickerbocker?
The NBA is loaded with nicknames that just don't fit the location. What lakes do you know of in Los Angeles? What jazz do you hear in Utah? Grizzlies in Memphis? Hornets in New Orleans?
Of the 30 teams in the league, Knicks may be the most curious of all and yet, with some research, you'll find the name may make the greatest historic connection.
So what is a Knick? Our explanation begins almost 150 years before the team was born. Knickerbockers started to become synonymous with New Yorkers in 1809, when the best-selling book, A History of New York-From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, was released. It was a satirical work, with fiction mingled in with facts, written by the pseudonymous Diedrich Knickerbocker.
The book was actually written by Washington Irving, the famous New York–based author who penned short-story classics such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" — and, as a slight to New York politicians, also was one of the first to use the word Gotham, which translates to "Goat's Town."
Knickerbocker was a character Irving created as an enjoyable older gentleman who left behind writings at the Columbian Hotel on Mulberry Street. Irving actually first introduced the character in small classified ads he posted in New York newspapers before the book was released. For instance, according to the New York Times archives, there was an ad in the Evening Post that asked for information about "a small, elderly gentleman in an old black coat and cocked hat" who had disappeared from the Columbian Hotel and left behind "a very curious kind of written book."
It was a brilliant way to create intrigue for a work that became the first best seller in the city's rich literary history. In fact, some people today view Irving's effort as an early example of the type of viral marketing we see today on the Internet.
Irving came up with the name using history as his foundation. The word knickerbocker was actually a label that was derived from the early Dutch colonists, who in the early 17th century began settling in the area that is now known as New York City. The Dutch colonists were recognizable for their short pants, or knickers.
The Dutch settlers, of course, bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape Indians for trade goods that amounted to about $1,000 in modern currency (sure, a bargain, but consider how much they had to spend in renovations!). The island was originally named New Amsterdam, but once the British took over in 1664, it was renamed New York, after the English Duke of York. For a brief period between November 1673 and November 1674, the Dutch reclaimed the city and gave it a third name: New Orange.
By 1785 New York City had emerged as the capital of the new United States. Through the 19th century, the city grew quickly and was the epicenter of not only great industrial and cultural development, but also many political battles and civil unrest.
The first use of Knickerbockers as a team name, according to the New York Knicks archives, was in 1845, when a Manhattan-based baseball team — the first organized team in baseball history — was called the Knickerbocker Nine. Casey Stengel actually made reference to this team when he was named manager of the expansion New York Mets in 1961. "It's great to be back as the manager of the Knickerbockers," the beloved "Old Perfessor" said at the time.
The Dutch translation of Diedrich is "father," and Irving's book not only created a nickname for a city's habitants, it spawned a beloved character, "Father Knickerbocker," who a century later showed up in political cartoons as an icon who took up causes for the people of New York, especially when it came to countering the rampant political corruption at the turn of the 20th century.
Knickerbocker became a commonly used term in relation to New York, including the hit Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), which starred Walter Huston, a famous stage actor of his time. Coincidentally, the stage version of this musical — it went to screen in 1944 — included Washington Irving as a prominent character.
So how does all of this relate to a basketball team?
Ned Irish, who helped found the Knicks (and the NBA) in the 1940s, was originally a sportswriter in New York, and from his journalism background came an appreciation for Father Knickerbocker and all things New York.
"The name came out of a hat," Irish's right-hand man, Fred Podesta, told Leonard Lewin of the New York Post in 1994. "We were sitting in the office one day — Irish, [team publicist] Lester Scott, and a few others on the staff. We each put a name in the hat. And when we pulled them out, most of them were "Knickerbockers." ... It soon was shortened to Knicks."
There is a legend, however, that Irish wanted the name all along. So either fate was on his side or the strong-willed founder got what he wanted.CHAPTER 3
The Greatest Generation
The road to greatness started with failure. The Knicks had just been finished off by the dominant though aging Celtics dynasty in the 1969 Eastern Finals. And in the cramped, almost medieval visiting-team locker room at the old Boston Garden, a steely determination was born.
"Everyone was talking championship, because we felt we were on par with the Celtics," Walt Frazier said in Dennis D'Agostino's wonderful book, Garden Glory: An Oral History of the New York Knicks.
"We weren't in awe of them anymore," Frazier said. "So we were all talking, 'Hey, this could be the year.' The confidence level was tremendous."
"We knew at that moment that we were the best," Bill Bradley said. "Or, at least, we thought we were the best, and we couldn't wait to get to training camp the next year."
We're not spoiling any ending by revealing that the Knicks went on to win their first NBA championship that following season in 1969–70 and then won another in 1972–73. It would be known as the "championship era" in franchise history, a proud period of time in which Madison Square Garden was still a spanking-new venue and the Knicks were the toast of the NBA and a team widely appreciated in basketball for their unselfish, intelligent style of play.
"We were not the biggest or the fastest," Frazier told NBA.com at a 30th anniversary celebration of the '73 championship team. "But we were the smartest. And we were the best."
The Knicks had come close before, in the early days of the NBA. They reached the NBA Finals in three straight seasons from 1951 to 1953 but lost in '51 to the Rochester Royals and in consecutive years to the Minneapolis Lakers in '52 and '53.
Then, after three more playoff appearances, came the first of two dark eras in franchise history, when the team failed to make the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons from 1957 to 1966. Pretty amazing, if you consider that the NBA only had nine teams during that time and six of them qualified for the playoffs each year.
The Knicks renaissance didn't happen overnight. It was built the old-fashioned way: incrementally over time and through smart moves in the draft.
The first building block of the championship era was put into place in 1964, when a bruising 6'10" forward/center with a soft touch from Grambling by the name of Willis Reed was drafted in the second round. In the following year, Bradley, a collegiate superstar from Princeton, was the team's No. 1 pick in the territorial draft. Bradley, however, didn't arrive until 1967 because he opted to spend two years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Frazier also came in '67, as a first-round pick out of Southern Illinois. (And, no, there was no such thing as Clyde at that point.)
In between the draft gems were a few shrewd trades, including a deal on October 14, 1965, that sent scoring forward Bob Boozer to the Lakers for sharp-shooting perimeter threat Dick Barnett. And, of course, the final piece of the puzzle, when Dave DeBusschere was acquired from the Detroit Pistons for Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives on December 19, 1968.
And in the midst was an unheralded yet significant decision made on December 27, 1967, after the Knicks lost to Seattle the night before and fell to 15–22 early in the season. Longtime scout Red Holzman, who essentially played a major role in putting the team together, was promoted to head coach. He replaced Dick McGuire, who simply switched jobs with Holzman, which would prove to have great long-term success for both. After years of failure, the Knicks seemed to get everything right.
The team, in its 24th season, won its first title on May 8, 1970, with a 113–99 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in an epic Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. The game produced one of the NBA's most legendary moments, when an injured Reed famously limped out onto the court during pregame warm-ups and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
That championship was part of a wild time in New York sports, as the New York Jets won the Super Bowl in January 1969, the New York Mets won the World Series in October 1969, and the Knicks followed with an NBA championship that following spring.
The five-season span from 1968 to 1973 was a great run for the Knicks, who reached at least the Eastern Conference Finals in each season and appeared in the NBA Finals in three of the five. Holzman and McGuire continued to tinker with the roster along the way, with the most significant addition being Knicks nemesis Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, who was acquired from the rival Baltimore Bullets on November 10, 1971, for Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth to add yet another star to the marquee lineup that already was adored by the city.
Despite Monroe's arrival, the Knicks lost in the Finals to the Lakers in 1971–72 but then exacted revenge in '73 with their second title, which was clinched in a 102–93 win over the Lakers in Game 5 at the L.A. Forum.
Reed, who was named Finals MVP for the second time, joyfully skipped off the Forum court with the game ball tucked under his arm. It was the best of times for a franchise that has, to date, savored only those two championships in more than six decades.
Excerpted from 100 Things Knicks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Alan Hahn. Copyright © 2012 Alan Hahn. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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