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
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.
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. CUT TO:
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!
When I was single, the random hook-up was one of the more thrilling experiences. It wasn’t something that happened often, so when it did, it was new, fun, and memorable. The actual act of getting with the girl was exciting and enjoyable (at least most of the time), but let’s face it, the next best part (or sometimes the best part) was telling your friends about it. Even women take part in this ritual. At brunch, groups of women sip on mimosas and talk about their latest hookups (at least that’s what happens on Sex and the City.)
When you tell a hook-up story, everyone listens. They are curious. They are excited to hear the details. They are your audience. You get to be the center of attention. Maybe you embellish a little bit here, and exaggerate a little bit there. But for those five minutes, you’re running the show, and it’s a great feeling.
As we get older, and settle down with our significant others, we no longer have hook-up stories. Our lives become dull and boring and we must live vicariously through our single friends. It’s quite sad, but it’s reality.
The only experience that’s even close to “hook up” stories is “running into celebrity” stories. And it’s really the same idea. You hype up a story how you shook hands with LARRY BIRD (Name Drop #1), got a hug from CARMEN ELECTRA (Name Drop #2), or how you peed in the same bathroom as ROBIN WILLIAMS (Name Drop #3.) In the end, it’s meaningless. But because it’s a celebrity, it becomes exciting. Just like gossip and just like hooking up. No matter how lame the story/hook-up is or who the celebrity/girl is, people will always listen because it didn’t happen to them.
Some people thrive on telling these stories. It gives them a sense of purpose. They even write blog posts dedicated to their most recent “running into celebrity” experiences. These people are name droppers. And I am definitely one of them.
September 26th, 2009
The Shannon Sharpe Story
I got the call just 14 hours before game time. Without hesitation, I accepted. I would be going to the Red Sox-Yankees game and sitting in $400 seats for free.
Apparently, my friend PA has a remote connection to JEFFREY LORIA (Name Drop #4); the owner of the Florida Marlins. Despite running the team in Florida, Mr. Loria has season tickets to the Yankees because his family lives in the area. His seats are the ones that are always empty because they are too damn expensive for mere mortals. We would be sitting in the Legends section. Today, we would be legends.
I visited Yankees stadium the night before and sat in the normal section; right field; highest level up. I was not overly impressed with the 1.5 billion dollar stadium. It was too big, too ostentatious; I felt like I entered an airport or giant mall. I immediately felt anxious and uncomfortable; of course, I am a Red Sox fan. So maybe it was just me.
Well, today was different. Today, I was rich. Today, I was a Legend. PA and I flashed our tickets and were escorted to a secret underground location. The floors were shinier, the air smelled cleaner, and the people were nicer (i.e. they didn’t spit on me or my Red Sox garb.)
Around the corner, down the stairs, and to the left, and suddenly we were in a giant, elegant, oversized dining room. And everywhere I looked was food; and not just hamburgers and hot dogs. We’re talking steak, another type of steak, and a third type of steak. All you can eat. And it was all free.
PA and I collected food items like trick-or-treaters on Halloween. We loaded up our plates, and carefully headed outside to our $400 seats; 4 rows behind the Yankees dugout.
The view was amazing (I could clearly see all the rolls of fat stored in C.C. Sabathia’s gut), but the food was even better. I felt like John Belushi in the cafeteria scene in Animal House. In a span of one hour, I devoured filet mignon, cheesesteak, a steak wrap, Chilean sea bass, fresh carved turkey, Peking duck, sausages & peppers, a hamburger, a Butterfinger, Snickers, peanuts and crackerjacks, and an ice cream sundae…and it was all on the Yankees. I figured if they can spend $1.5 billion on a new stadium and additional $200+ million on players, the least I could do was consume all of their food.
Pablo, the security guard, approached me as I sucked down my hamburger. He seemed fascinated by me.
PABLO:I have worked here the entire year. And you have eaten more then anyone I’ve ever seen. You’re unbelievable!
I shrugged, smiled, and then gobbled down my ice cream. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
I later learned that PA and I were on TV the entire game. Every time a left handed batter got up, we were in the background stuffing our faces. It was just like George Costanza at the U.S. open when the camera captured him chowing down on a hot fudge sundae.
Mid-way through my pig-out session, a familiar face sat next to me. It was SHANNON SHARPE (Name Drop #5.) Shannon Sharpe and I used to have a connection. He was on my fantasy football team 10 years ago. Although he has no affiliation with New York, he was somehow a Yankees fan. For those who don’t know, Shannon Sharpe is one of the most prolific tight ends from the 1990’s. He played for the Denver Broncos and then the Baltimore Ravens. In his 14 year career, he compiled 815 catches for over 10,000 yards. He’s listed as 6’ 2” and 228 pounds, but I swear, he’s twice that size, has 0% body fat, and is absolutely gi-normous. His hands were bigger then my entire body.
Shannon no longer plays in the league, but looks like he easily could. He can now be seen doing the halftime show for CBS. He’s the one who can’t speak clearly, and kind’ve looks like a horse.
Throughout the game, fans took pictures with Shannon and sucked up. But I really didn’t care. I was more into the game, and supporting the Sox who struggled against that fat ass Sabathia. I cheered on my Red Sox as loud as possible. If I had regular seats, I would’ve been quiet, but my theory on rich seats was different. If you scream out anywhere else, Yankee fans will pelt you with garbage, and douse you with beer, and you may get arrested by the impartial cops. But in the nice seats, everyone is civil because they’re rich; and because they don’t want to get tossed and lose their precious seats.
I wasn’t vulgar, but I put my hands together and shouted to the players who were within ear shot. Some Yankees fan didn’t like me so much, but they playfully ripped me and it was all in good fun. But the one man who ripped me the most was Shannon Sharpe. If the Yankees got a hit or the Red Sox got an out, Shannon didn’t just clap or cheer. Instead, he pointed his meat hooks at me and screamed. He had more fun mocking me then watching the game.
At one point, I left for more food. When I came back Shannon greeted me with some inaudible comments (I couldn’t understand what he said most of the time) and then a “You suck! Boston sucks!” I was actually quite honored. It was kind’ve a respectful hatred; like a hatred between siblings or rivals. My former fantasy football tight end, and my go to guy on the Broncos in Tecmo Super Bowl, was more concerned with making me feel bad then actually watching the game.
In the 8th inning, Shannon took off. His monster hand grasped mine and he uttered some more playful comments to me. He let out a hearty laugh and then went on his way. After he left, Pablo the security asked me what he said. I wasn’t positive, but I’m pretty sure he told me Boston sucked. He was right. They lost 3-0. But after all that food, those beautiful seats, and interacting with a former NFL star, I felt like a winner.
Theo Epstein Walks Into a Bar
That night, I went out for drinks at my favorite Boston bar in NYC. It had to be 3am when the bartender nudged me on the shoulder and said: “Oh my God! Theo’s here!” Theo Huxtable? Nope. THEO EPSTEIN (Name Drop #6.)
Theo Epstein has been the General Manger for the Red Sox for 6 years. He’s got a dimpled chin, plays the guitar, has won two World Series for the Sox, and he’s Jewish! Every New England man would love to be him, and every New England women would love to be with him.
I’ve met big sports figures before: VINCE CARTER on the film set of Like Mike (Name Drop #7) EMMIT SMITH at the ESPY Awards party (Name Drop #8), AND KIRK GIBSON at Fox Sports in LA (Name Drop #9.) But this was Theo Epstein!
I stood proudly as I approached Theo. I pushed out my chest showing off my Red Sox shirt. Theo sipped on his Bud Light bottle; that’s what I was drinking too! For one of the first time in my life, I didn’t embarrass myself in front of a celebrity. I’ve had so many painful run ins like the times I met LARRY DAVID(Name Drop #10), SETH ROGEN(Name Drop #11) or TOPANGA from Boy Meet World ( Name Drop #12.)
But this time I was actually cool. Theo and I bantered back in forth for a few seconds. He asked where I was from and we made small talk. I thanked him for all the work he’s done for the Sox, and wished him a Happy Jewish New Year. We clicked bottles and took a swig. I offered him another beer on me, but he declined. He wished me a good night and thanked me for the support.
Afterwards, I wondered how many other general managers, coaches or even athletes would go to a Sports Bar at 3 am, have a Bud Light, and casually talk to their fans. Then I realized how lucky I was to be a Red Sox fan even if they do make me cry sometimes.
On the way out, I passed by ANDY SAMBERG (Name Drop #13) from Saturday Night Live fame, but I was too drained to approach him. I’d met enough people for the day.