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How Knicks proved sports has a place
As I emerged from the tunnel and stepped onto the court before the New York Knicks’ 104-84 season-opening win over the Miami Heat Friday night, I panned around the gorgeously renovated Madison Square Garden, occasionally shifting my gaze to Dwyane Wade’s pregame warm-up routine.
And as I took in the start of another season at the basketball Mecca one thought continued to cross my mind: What in the world am I doing here?
Four days after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, turning neighborhoods along the Jersey shore into barren beaches while destroying the beaches themselves, wreaking havoc across the New Jersey and Connecticut suburbs, inundating much of lower Manhattan with water and completely obliterating parts of the outer boroughs and Long Island, why was I at an NBA basketball game?
And, perhaps more pointedly, given the dire condition of the city around me, why was there even a basketball game being played at all?
I was one of the lucky ones this week; my neighborhood escaped Sandy’s wrath virtually unscathed. I never lost power, there were no fallen trees on my Hell’s Kitchen block, and other than a crane dangling precariously from a high rise up the street, there was little evidence that a storm had passed through at all.
But others — in the press box, in the stands and all around the region — had too many gut-wrenching horror stories of their own to tell for a game like this to feel even the least bit important in the grand scheme.
One reporter had to hunker down with his elderly mother, who wasn’t well enough to evacuate her Rockaway home. Another returned home to Long Island to find his car was damaged beyond recognition by the storm. For many others, food and patience were running short, a common theme across the region.
As of Friday, people in Brooklyn were still waiting in lines hours long so they can take a shuttle bus to work in Manhattan. Others waited in lines just as long for gas so they can get to where they need to be. Much of the area was still without power, with some walking miles just for a place to charge their phones so they could communicate with concerned family.
And, sadly, as people continue to sort through the wreckage around the five boroughs, they’re still finding bodies, including, on Thursday, a set of 2- and 4-year-old brothers, ripped from their mother’s arms by the rushing flood waters in Staten Island. The death toll in New York City alone is at 41 and rising — a grim reality of how catastrophic severe weather can be.
The Knicks’ original season opener, scheduled for Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets, had already been postponed, ostensibly out of concern and respect for the community, but also because the transportation lines around the city — and particularly to Barclays Center in Brooklyn — were rendered useless by the storm.
And earlier Friday, the New York City Marathon, a massive event that brings tens of thousands of visitors and pumps countless millions into the local economy, was canceled as well, amid intense pressure from the New York community to not run the race.
So, why, given the destruction and grief surrounding them, were these players here, on this court, preparing to play a kids’ game to pass the time? Why was anyone here? Shouldn’t this have been a case where the show didn’t have to go on?
I wasn’t alone in my hesitance about the need for a basketball game during such a desperate time for New York City, either. Before the game, a number of players from both teams expressed uneasiness about the game. Something about the whole situation just felt forced and wrong.
But then the fans started filing in from 7th Avenue and kept pouring in, filling the upper and lower bowls, and for some reason, being here, in this building, started to feel right — like maybe this was supposed to happen.
Before the game, after a chilling national anthem from a former NYPD officer, the entire Knicks team congregated at center court, where star forward Carmelo Anthony spoke to the crowd and thanked the fans for showing up, urging them to come together and rebuild the city.
By tipoff, the house, which I expected to be somewhat vacant, was packed with 19,033 fervent fans. The atmosphere in the building was utterly electric — think Linsanity, and then some — and only picked up as the game played out and the rout began to take shape.
’Melo’s 3-pointer with 6:34 left in the first gave the Knicks a 15-6 lead and forced a Heat timeout and elicited a cacophonous roar from the MSG crowd. Then Anthony did it again with a fall-away 3-pointer to give New York a 33-17 edge as time expired on the quarter. He finished with a game-high 30 points.
Steve Novak’s 3 — one of 19 total on the night for the Knicks — gave the home team its largest lead of the night, 75-52, and sent fans into a frenzy with 3:12 left in the third. Then, in the fourth quarter, with the Heat stars already called to the bench, the crowd started chanting for new Knick Rasheed Wallace to check in, and head coach Mike Woodson obliged. (Wallace later hit a 3, too.)
The arena was still full as the final buzzer sounded, and the fans, many of them desperate for anything to be happy about, celebrated the win like a championship — like it meant something more than just your average victory. And maybe that’s because it did.
“There’s so many emotions, because you’re hearing all the horror stories of what is going on around the city, and the last thing you wanted to do is come out and play a basketball game, to be honest with you,” Knicks center Tyson Chandler said afterward.
“But we have a job, and the moment we walked out and we saw the fans in the arena, we understood that we had an opportunity to shed some light and give them a smile, even if it’s just for 48 minutes or a couple hours to take their minds off of things.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are still a million reasons why Friday’s game should have never been played, and I’m not trying to argue that one basketball game is going to have a tenable impact on this distraught city going forward.
Tomorrow, there will still be people concerned about when their power is going to come back on, how they’re going to get gas in their car, what they’re going to eat, how they’re going to get to work and — when Monday comes around — how they’re going to get the kids to school. And, in some particularly heartbreaking cases, people still have to figure out how they’re going to put their homes and lives back together — and no amount of basketball is going to change that or make that better.
Most of New York will wake up Saturday unconcerned with the Knicks or basketball or anything other than pushing forward and looking to the future, and that’s fine.
But for those who do care, for those who showed up Friday night or watched on TV or listened on the radio, Friday’s game — whether it should have been played or not — was a welcome respite from the madness of the hellish week they just endured. And that, right or wrong, is why the show went on.
“We gave them a good show out there tonight,” Anthony said. “And that’s the least that we could do.”