Monday, November 23, 2009

Classic Moments from Madison Square Garden

I grew up in Boston so there will always only be one Garden for me: The Boston Garden. But now that I’ve lived in New York for close to five years, I feel obligated to recognize one more: Madison Square Garden.

Over the years, MSG has hosted some of the most memorable and unique sports/entertainment moments of all-time. The list includes:

The 1994 NHL All-Star Game, the 1998 NBA All-Star Game, and the unforgettable 1999, 2003, and 2006 WNBA All-Star Games

Wrestlemania I, X, XX (Long live Andre the Giant)

Music acts by AC/DC, Céline Dion, Iron Maiden, Kiss, Whitney Houston, Johnny Cash, Beyoncé, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eminem, The Grateful Dead, Paul McCartney, Shania Twain, Jay-Z, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Joel, Phish, Elton John, Elvis Presley, Madonna, Metallica, U2, The Rolling Stones, Britney Spears, Shakira, Justin Timberlake, NSYNC, Cher, Christina Aguilera, Spice Girls, The Who, Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin, Barbra Streisand, Green Day, The Beastie Boys, Pearl Jam, and Led Zeppelin.

Classic bouts that include: Rocky Marciano versus Joe Louis in 1951; Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali in 1971 (“The Fight of the Century.”); and Rocky Balboa versus Clubber Lang in Rocky III.

The 1970 NBA Finals, Game 7 aka The Willis Reed Game.

Prince Akeem winning over Lisa and her sister in Coming to America, and adopting one of the best lines in sports: “In the face! In the face!”

John Starks dunking over Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the 1993 NBA Playoffs.

Marilyn Monroe singing happy birthday to JFK.

Pope John Paul II speaking at MSG in 1979.

I have saved my three personal favorite Madison Square Garden moments for last. These stories may not have been on TV or in the newspapers, but they happened to me, and I’ll never forget them.

They will always be my classic moments from MSG.

Mazel Tov!

What happens when you cross a Rabbi with an NBA basketball game? It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it really happened in October of 2009. Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks hosted Tel Aviv in an exhibition game for charity. A portion of the proceeds went directly to Migdal Ohr, the world’s largest orphanage.

My friend JM and I were excited to cheer on some basketball playing Jews. Ironically, most of the Israeli team consisted of African-Americans who never made it in the NBA. But there were at least a few scrappy Jews on the court.

The crowd seemed to lean in the favor of Tel Aviv. After all, they were playing the dreadful Knicks. Jewish songs like the “Have Nagela” played during breaks (as well as the Black Eyed Pea song where they say "Mazel Tov!"), and the whole scene felt like Jewish summer camp. Even bitter Knicks fans were rooting for the Israeli team.

Overall, the whole game was bizarre. At halftime, Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman stepped onto the court to educate us about his charity. Then, he led all of MSG in Jewish songs. My friend and I sang along because we knew the words, but it just felt weird watching an Orthodox Rabbi hype up a group of sports fans. Professional basketball and Judaism just don’t mix (except for Dolph and Danny Schayes.)

In the 3rd quarter, things got dicey. The Israeli coach was hit for his second technical for arguing, got ejected, but would not leave the game. The Rabbi got up from his seat, walked across the court, and pleaded with the refs. It took almost ten minutes to resolve everything because the coach wouldn’t leave, and the Rabbi wouldn’t stop talking to the refs. It was one of the oddest sights that I’ve ever seen.

At the end of the game, the refs were accused for being anti-Semitic (by me.) And the Knicks finally found someone they could beat. And it was all for charity. Only at MSG.

You Gotta Love the Hawks

The New York Knicks hosted the Atlanta Hawks on November 11th, 2009.

In this game, the Knicks blew a 13 point lead, and ended up falling to the Hawks by 14. They struggled in the 2nd half, and I felt bad for Knicks fans for a few seconds (nah, not really.) When the game ended, the real action began.

My buddy MO took me to the game and casually proposed that we meet up with one of his buddies afterwards. What I didn’t realize was that his buddy was the equipment manager for the Atlanta Hawks.

When the game ended, security pushed everyone towards the exits, but we had an ace up our sleeve. MO gave me a flimsy red piece of paper that said Knicks on it. It could’ve been made by a child. I flashed the pass and security let their guard down. They escorted us to the VIP area where friends and family waited for the opposing players and coaches.

I pictured the VIP area to be a green room of sorts; free food, flat screen TV’s; something upscale and fancy; it was New York after all. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, we waited one section above the court in the seats. It was no different then a high school game when the families sat in the bleachers and waited patiently for their sons to get out of the locker room.

I was just happy to be there, but it struck me that the NBA; a league with tons of cash, and the New York Knicks; a team with tons of cash would treat the visiting family and friends with such disregard.

MO and I schmoozed with others until the players came up wearing street clothes. I got introduced to JAMAL CRAWFORD who would torch my Boston Celtics two nights later. (My friend MO was especially excited to meet him because Crawford was on his fantasy team.)

ME: Hey, I’m Paul.

JAMAL: I’m Jamal. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Paul.

He looked me square in the eye and was way too friendly. It was like he just took a class taught by David Stern; NBA 101: How to Talk to Fans. Don’t get me wrong. It was nice to be treated with respect, but something just seemed a little off.

I shouted out Go Blue! (in reference to Michigan), and he seemed to genuinely like that. He smiled and continued shaking hands.

A few minutes later, MO’s friend directed us through the bowels of Madison Square Garden. We passed through the tunnel, and I imagined all the famous athletes and performers who have walked through the same historic spot. MO’s friend seemed to know everyone, and I was happy to be with him. I didn’t know where we were going next, but I would follow this guy anywhere.

A few minutes later, MO’s friend said it was time to head back. I assumed the night was over, but instead, he pushed us on the bus: THE TEAM BUS. Athletes poured on, and I realized DOMINIQUE WILKINS (now doing TV commentary for the Hawks) was just a few seats from me. This was the same guy who perfected the windmill dunk; the guy who went head to head with Bird in the epic1988 NBA Playoffs. Now he was riding a bus with me. I desperately wanted to speak to him, but I decided against it. I was too nervous.

Once we reached the hotel, autograph seekers were befuddled when I walked off the bus. What was this little white Jewish dude doing here? They probably assumed I was a trainer or something. But for just a minute I felt like an NBA player.

And then I realized the other side to being a professional basketball player. They may have millions of dollars, be in perfect physical shape, and stand close to seven feet tall. But in the end, they’re not much different from us. In fact, they seemed more like a bunch of high school kids.

They take a bus just like my high school basketball team. They wear backward hats, saggy jeans, and have headphones glues to their ears. Just like my high school kids. They play with their cell phones, ignore me while doing this, and hit on any girl close to them. Just like my high school kids.

In the end, they’re just a bunch of kids having fun.

A few minutes later, I downed a Heineken at the bar while sitting near JOE SMITH. He was greeted by two models, and seemed eager to spend some of his $4,795,000/year contract on the ladies.

He was just another average kid having some fun.

You Gotta Love The Knicks

The last game of 2007, my buddy PS invited me to the Knicks game at MSG. It was free and they were playing the Celtics. I still didn’t want to go. But then he mentioned one more thing: FREE CONCESSIONS. Yeah, right. You probably get a free bag of peanuts. But it was enough of a temptation…I was in.


The greatest time of my life! For those who didn’t read about it, the New York Knicks and MSG gave away everything (except beer) for free. It was an apology for the abysmal season. Even David Lee got on the mic before the game to apologize to the crowd. His last words before going on to lose to the Celtics bench were: “Enjoy the free food.” He got a standing ovation.

When I say free, I mean free. People went up to the counter and would order 6 pizzas. Two dropped on the floor; so what—they had 4 left. There were no lines because everything was ready to go. I’ve never seen New Yorkers so happy in my life. No rules. No lines. No money. Smiling faces. Peace on Earth.

I consumed chicken fingers, french fries, 2 hot dogs, ice cream, a different kind of ice cream, a hamburger, kettle corn, pizza, popcorn, a candy bar, crunch n munch, and 3 liters of coca-cola. I was like Frank Drebin’s buddy Ed at the Angels game in Naked Gun.

My favorite moment was when a man on his cell phone walked by a pretzel vendor. They must’ve caught eyes because as cellphone guy kept his pace, the pretzel-man threw him a no-look pretzel pass. Cellphone man caught it in mid stride and consumed his pretzel while still talking and walking. It was awesome!

At the end of the night, the Knicks lost again. But the crowd won. We were nauseous, but the good kind of nauseous. The one where you know you just ate $100 worth of food. People left with crates of candy bars, chips, popcorn and more. It was like Y2K and everyone was heading for their bomb shelter.

It was the best game of my life. I never though I’d say it. But you gotta love the Knicks!

And you gotta love Madison Square Garden!

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