It’s called The World’s Most Famous Arena, but for much of the 21st century, Madison Square Garden has been more infamous than anything – a place where star athletes notoriously fail to meet expectations and coaching careers go to die.
Outside of the New York Rangers‘ Stanley Cup Finals loss in 2014, the Manhattan arena’s tenants haven’t even sniffed a title this millennium. And while New York has enjoyed some success on the ice, the hardwood has been far crueler as the Knicks have won only three playoff series since reaching the NBA Finals in 1999.
Despite the losses, actors, musicians, cable news anchors, and future presidents continued to populate the courtside seats known as ‘celebrity row’ – although now their presence at MSG seems like less of a PR stunt. Instead, New York’s elite are leveraging their fame for what are, once again, the hottest tickets in the city.
Winners of 11 of their last 15, the Knicks have been at 97.5-percent capacity this season after surpassing the Los Angeles Lakers in October as StubHub’s top NBA team in terms of ticket demand. Similarly, the Rangers have been at 99.1-percent capacity in 2022-23 – up from 93.5 percent in 2021-22.
But the uptick in demand is as much about new blood as wins and losses. The Knicks’ off-season signing of point guard Jalen Brunson and a midseason trade for his former Villanova teammate, Josh Hart, helped propel coach Tom Thibodeau’s team to a recent nine-game win streak. And not to be outdone, the Rangers have set their sights on a fifth Stanley Cup title with recent trades for perennial All-Stars Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Josh Hart #3 and Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks walk off the court after the game against the Utah Jazz at Madison Square Garden
New York Rangers right wing Patrick Kane (88) and right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (91) speak on the ice during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators
(From left to right) Eric Andre, Emily Ratajkowski, Diplo, Iggy Azalea watch Nets-Knicks on February 13 at Madison Square Garden
For Knicks fans, the highlight of the summer was the acquisition of Brunson — a two-time national champion at Villanova and the son of Rick, a retired New York guard.
Generously listed at 6-foot-1, Brunson played second fiddle to Luka Doncic in Dallas, but has stepped into his own since joining a Knicks team that has endured near-constant turnover at point guard over the last 15 years: Stephon Marbury, Chris Duhon, Toney Douglas, Raymond Felton, Chauncey Billups, Jeremy Lin, Baron Davis, Raymond Felton again, Pablo Prigioni, Shane Larkin, Langston Galloway, Jose Calderon, Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, Ramon Sessions, Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, Dennis Smith Jr., Trey Burke, Elfrid Payton, Derrick Rose again, and Immanuel Quickley, to name just about all of them.
For Knicks president Leon Rose, the decision to offer Brunson a four-year, $104million deal meant putting an end New York’s clown car of point guards.
The GM nearly acquired All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz, but balked at including swingman Quentin Grimes in the trade, according to ESPN. Mitchell — a Connecticut native whose father worked for the Mets — was ultimately dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But while some fans were left wondering about a Brunson-Mitchell backcourt, the Knicks have moved on, entering the weekend in fifth place in the East at 39-29 — three games back of the fourth-place Cavs.
Brunson has averaged 23.8 points per game, second on the team behind Julius Randle’s 25.2 average, while adding a team-high 6.1 assists a night and shooting an impressive 41.4 percent from 3-point range.
Brunson has averaged 23.8 points per game, second on the team behind Julius Randle’s 25.2 average, while adding a team-high 6.1 assists a night and shooting an impressive 41.4 percent from 3-point range
Jon Stewart and Bella Hadid attends a game between the Pistons and Knicks on October 21
But as good as Brunson has been, he and the Knicks only seemed to get sharper with the February 8 acquisition of Hart from the Portland Trail Blazers.
Brunson’s reaction to the deal actually went viral, after fans recorded him in Philadelphia, where he was having his jersey retired at Villanova.
‘Oh s***,’ Brunson exclaimed after a passer by shared the news. ‘Yes!’
‘He’s a tough-minded guy,’ Brunson later told reporters of Hart, a 6-foot-5 swingman known for tough defense, smart decision making, and solid shooting. ‘He doesn’t back down from a challenge and that’s how he is and that’s how he’s been. I’m not worried at all. He’s going to fit in.’
Brunson was right about his former Wildcats teammate. Since being traded to New York, Hart has played in 11 games off the bench, but has still averaged 29.2 minutes while making a remarkable 62.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 15 of 24 from deep, to average 11 points a game.
As a result, the Knicks reeled off a nine-game winning streak that petered out as Brunson began battling foot soreness this week.
And when asked if recent Knicks losses were the result of fatigue, Hart endeared himself to working-class fans by putting the situation into proper perspective.
‘It’s a reality, but the reality also is our job is to play basketball,’ Hart told reporters. ‘And you got people getting up at 6:00am, doing 12-hour shifts, those guys are tired. For us, we’re playing a game, and obviously we’re fortunate enough to play a game like this. But we have to keep that in perspective.’
In addition to Brunson (left), Hart (center), also previously played with Julius Randle (right) when the two were on the Los Angeles Lakers together
Hart (left) is a versatile defender, capable of hanging with some of the NBA’ top players, such as Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum (right)
Hart has a $13m player option for next season. However, he is widely expected to opt out of that so he can sign a longer deal to stay in New York.
It’s an obvious move for both parties, given Hart’s effectiveness and fit in New York. Not only does he have experience playing with Brunson at the college level, but Hart also played with Randle on the Lakers.
‘I think he has really good chemistry with Julius as well, they play together, but the thing with Jalen and he is to go through big moments and have the pressure of winning a national championship together, I think that ties you together with that group forever,’ Thibodeau said of Hart’s fit with Brunson and Randle. ‘Their bond is special. The thing I love about what Josh does for the team is it’s for the team, everything.
‘I think there’s a lot of guys that score points in this league and they really don’t impact winning the way Josh impacts winning,’ Thibodeau continued. ‘Sometimes they’re just tough plays, hustle play … sprint back, steal the ball back, plays like that give your team a lot of confidence.
‘It’s a lot of dirty work, but it’s also the glue of your team, it helps you stick together. There’s going to be ups and downs during a game, a season, and those types of guys I think are the type that help you build a winning culture. We’re thrilled obviously to have him.’
Celebrities — always a fixture at MSG — have taken notice, as comedians Chris Rock, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, Eric André, models like Emily Ratajkowski and Bella Hadid, Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, and laundry list of actors have been seen courtside in recent weeks.
Montreal Canadiens defenseman David Savard (58) chases New York Rangers right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (91) during overtime at Bell Centre
Fans hold signs welcoming Patrick Kane #88 of the New York Rangers prior to the game against the Ottawa Senators at Madison Square Garden on March 2
The New York Rangers celebrate after Patrick Kane #88 of the New York Rangers scored a goal during the second period of the NHL regular season game between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers at the Bell Centre
Rangers fans are hoping they’ve stumbled on a similar recipe with the acquisitions with Kane and Tarasenko.
Both wingers are still new and finding their place within the Rangers as head coach Gerard Gallant tinkers with his lines.
For now, Kane – a three-time Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks – is playing right wing on the second line, alongside center Vincent Trocheck and left winger Artemi Panarin.
Vladimir Tarasenko #91 of the New York Rangers skates down the bench after his second period goal against the Ottawa Senators at Madison Square Garden on March 2
Tarasenko, who won a Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues in 2019, is on the first line with center Mika Zibanejad and left winger Chris Kreider.
The early returns have been mixed, with the Rangers going 3-2 since acquiring Kane on February 28, although he picked up a power-play goal and an assist in Thursday’s win over Montreal, and added another goal in Saturday’s win.
But small sample sizes aside, the expectations for the Rangers have grown enormously as a result of the moves.
‘It was pretty cool for us to see the ovation that he got in the warm-ups,’ Ottawa Senators center Derrick Brassard, a former Ranger, told the New York Times of Kane’s MSG debut.
‘It’s a special place to play,’ Kane said after the Rangers 5-2 loss to the Senators on March 2. ‘Original Six franchise, New York Rangers, playing at MSG, and to get a reception like that, it’s something I’ll never forget.’
The acquisition of Kane has also created a few new hockey fans, including Brunson.
‘I need to get to a rangers game this year,’ Brunson tweeted after Kane was traded to New York.
The following day, Brunson arrived at MSG in a new Kane jersey emblazoned with the former top draft pick’s No. 88.
Other celebrity sightings at Rangers games this season included actors like Michael J. Fox, Liam Neeson and Alexander Skarsgard, as well as Giants stars like Dexter Lawrence and Kayvon Thibodeaux.
The Rangers currently sit at 36-19-9, good enough for ninth-best in the NHL, thanks in large part to netminder and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin.
After establishing himself as one of the NHL’s premiere goalies with a 2.02 goals-against average in 2021-22, Shesterkin has been nearly as good this season, with 28 wins on the year — third in the NHL.
Whether or not the Rangers have enough to overtake the first-place Boston Bruins remains to be seen. Boston recently became the fastest team in NHL history to reach 100 points in a season, but the acquisitions of Tarasenko and Kane are designed to close that gap in the season’s remaining weeks.
‘Obviously, it’s exciting,’ Kreider told the New York Post of the Rangers’ new lineup. ‘But it’s up to the players now to get it to mesh. We’ve got to work together, communicate. Even me, Mika and Vladi are still getting better I feel like every shift and getting more comfortable with each other from the first couple times we played together.
‘It’s rare where you can just throw a bunch of guys on a team, throw a line together and expect instant chemistry.
‘There needs to be that adjustment period, so it’s up to us to shorten that adjustment period.’
And therein lies the challenge for the Rangers, who have spent decades acquiring big-name stars after their prime, in a futile attempt to join the league’s elite.
All-Stars Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Rick Nash, and Pavel Bure all failed to push the Rangers over the top during their tenures.
Truthfully, the Rangers haven’t had a big-name acquisition fulfill his promise since Mark Messier in 1991, which was the dawn of MSG’s last golden era.
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN’S GOLDEN ERAS
Willis Reed #19, head coach Red Holzman (R) of the New York Knickerbockers in the locker room is being interviewed by ABC’s Howard Cosell after the Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in game seven of the 1970 NBA Championship
The current incarnation of Madison Square Garden – the fourth building to bear the name – has enjoyed more than its share of sports’ greatest moments, much of which took place in the early 1970s.
The Knicks opened the decade by winning their first NBA title – a seven-game victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. The series is best remembered for injured Knicks captain Willis Reed, who famously emerged from the tunnel that would later bear his name to hit his first two jump shots and provide an emotional lift in the Game 7 win over LA.
The next year it was the ‘Fight of the Century, which lasted 15 grueling rounds before Joe Frazier won a unanimous decision over Muhammad Ali in front of a sold-out crowd that included Sammy Davis Jr., Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Dustin Hoffman and Hugh Hefner.
The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1972, where Rod Gilbert, Brad Park, and Jean Ratelle fell to Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and the heavily favored Boston Bruins in six games.
The Knicks would win their second, and last, NBA title in 1973, beating the Lakers once again as Reed picked up his second Finals MVP award.
Ali and Frazier met again at MSG in 1974, only this time, it was Ali winning an unanimous decision.
The Rangers would be back in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1979, losing to a legendary Montreal Canadiens squad, but MSG’s popularity and its teams’ success would wane as the 70s gave way to the 80s.
Wilt Chamberlain (13), of the Los Angeles Lakers, grabs Walt Frazier (10), of the New York Knicks, around the shoulder and appears to be ready to slap his wrist as they both go after a loose ball during the fourth game of the 1973 NBA Finals
Mark Messier of the New York Rangers celebrates his cup-winning goal during game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Vancouver Canucks at Madison Square Garden in 1994
The arena did host Wrestlemania I in 1984, where Hulk Hogan ushered in the Hulkamania era by beating the Iron Sheik.
But MSG would be reborn again, thanks to the Knicks’ selection of Patrick Ewing in the 1985 NBA Draft and, later, the Rangers’ 1991 trade for four-time Stanley Cup winner Mark Messier.
Soon, with the Knicks wooing legendary Lakers coach Pat Riley and the Rangers’ hiring of coach Mike Keenan, both teams would be competing for titles again as celebrities such as Woody Allen and Spike Lee became MSG fixtures.
Thanks in part to Michael Jordan’s brief retirement, the Knicks finally vanquished the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference playoffs to advance to the 1994 NBA Finals, where they would lose to the Houston Rockets in seven games.
Meanwhile, the first-place Rangers came back from a 3-2 Eastern Conference Finals deficit against the New Jersey Devils to advance to the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, where they defeated the Vancouver Canucks in an equally difficult seven-game series.
But Keenan would leave New York in a dispute with the Rangers following the season, and with Jordan’s return, the Knicks soon fell back in the Eastern Conference pack. And outside of a shocking Finals appearance as an eighth seed in 1999, when they lost to the upstart San Antonio Spurs, have been outside the NBA’s title picture for a quarter century.
Under the much-maligned ownership of James Dolan, who began consolidating control of both franchises in the late 1990s, both teams would struggle for the better part of the 2000s.
Knicks reached two NBA Finals in the 1990s, with the help of Patrick Ewing (right) and Latrell Sprewell (left), who joined the team in 1998
National Hockey League Hall Of Famer Phil Esposito appears with actor Alan Thicke (aka Alan Willis Jeffrey), New York Rangers Center Pierre Larouche and John McEnroe at the Pro-Celebrity Hockey Challenge charity game between former pro Hockey players and celebrities on March 20, 1988 at Madison Square Garden
(Left) Actor Christopher Reeve and his son Matt pose at the New York Rangers game on October 23, 1988 at Madison Square Garden. (Right) Actors Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman take in a Knicks game in 1994
Actor Elliott Gould, left, is seen next to Donald Trump and Marla Maples at courtside during the New York Knicks game against the Phoenix Suns on March 5, 1991
Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn attend an NBA Finals game against Houston at MSG in 1994
Mark Messier #11 and head coach Mike Keenan of the New York Rangers get ready for the Stanley Cup team picture after the Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals on June 14, 1994 at the Madison Square Garden in New York, New York. The Rangers defeated the Canucks 3-2 and won the series 4-3
JAMES DOLAN COMES UNDER FIRE
Dolan currently faces a number of controversies, including recent criticism for banning lawyers engaged in lawsuits against MSG from the arena with the use of facial-recognition technology.
He’s also been slammed by commuters for his refusal to relocate the arena, which sits atop the subterranean Penn Station, preventing one of the world’s busiest train outlets from attempting some much-needed renovations.
But the controversies hardly end there.
One fan, a Merrill Lynch financial advisor named Brett Klein, recently told longtime sportswriter Ethan Strauss that he has been harassed by MSG security at least 10 separate times since writing ‘sell the team’ on a Facebook page dedicated to Dolan’s band, JD & The Straight Shot.
Dolan took similar offense in 2019, when a fan was ejected from a JD & The Straight Shot concert in Tennessee for holding a sign reading: ‘Sell the Knicks.’
New York Knicks owner James Dolan watches against the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, November 30, 2022
He also famously barred Knicks legend Charles Oakley from the arena.
Oakley, who already had an acrimonious relationship with Dolan, was arrested on February 8, 2017 after being physically removed from his seat by arena security during a Knicks game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Lee, a longtime Knicks fan, boycotted the team in 2020 after a separate incident with security, but has since returned to the arena. Other critical fans have also been banned from the arena at various times.
In 2015, Dolan responded to an angry email from a fan by telling him to root for the Nets while accusing him of being an alcoholic.
At the time, 73-year-old Irving Bierman told The Wall Street Journal that Dolan was wrong to accuse him of alcoholism, even if the Knicks owner was, himself, a recovering alcoholic.
‘Honestly I had no idea [Dolan] had a drinking problem,’ Bierman said. ‘I didn’t care, and the fact that he’s been sober for 21 years, good for him. God bless him…[The] last time I had a drink, I was 18. Now I am 73. I mean, how dare he?’
One low point came during the 2016-17 season when Oakley, a retired Knicks star, was ejected from MSG and accused of being an alcoholic by Dolan, who has admittedly gone through rehab himself. Oakley, who already had an acrimonious relationship with Dolan, was arrested on February 8, 2017 after being physically removed from his seat by arena security
Frank Isola, who previously covered the team for the Daily News and now appears on ESPN, has pointed out that Dolan only reacts to personal criticism.
‘If you noticed, James Dolan is most passionate about criticism from the media and fans,’ Isola wrote on Twitter in 2019. ‘Criticism of his players and coaches doesn’t rock his boat. The won-loss record is also secondary. Basically said ”we’re trying” like he’s running a U10 soccer team.’
Dolan would probably characterize that depiction as unfair, but he and everyone in New York know the best way to end the criticism is to win a title.
Both the Rangers and Knicks are still facing an uphill battle in that regard, but with the new fresh blood in the building, the pain of recent years is beginning to subside. And for the first time in recent memory, New York’s NBA and NHL fans are both actually looking forward to the playoffs.