Amid talk of yet another coronavirus variant, last Tuesday may not have seemed like the best time to allow thousands to congregate indoors for hours. That did not deter the Knicks and Nets from playing before fans for the first time in a year at Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center after Governor Cuomo lifted restrictions. And indeed, the precautions taken at the games were strict. The number of tickets was capped at 10 percent capacity, or about 2,000 per game; attendees were required to present a negative COVID test taken within the previous 72 hours; and social distancing and mask-wearing were aggressively enforced. For superfans craving a sense of community with other superfans, attending the first game was worth the risk. We spoke to six fans who were at the Garden on Tuesday about the experience of the game, the arena, and the crowd.
Richard Rosenthal, a Knicks season-ticket holder, was hesitant when he was invited by a friend.
When I was getting ready to go, I caught myself changing my shirt. And I was like, Why am I worried about what I’m wearing to the Knicks game? And then I realized I wanted to wear Knick colors — my orange Knicks shirt and a blue sweater. My wife asked, “Are you excited?” And I said, “I am! I really have butterflies in my stomach.”
I felt extremely confident that I was going to be safe, and I have to say when I went through the whole procedure that they’ve set up, I was so impressed by how well-run it was. When I walked into the Garden and saw the court and saw the guys shooting around, I got a little misty. A friend texted me, “Was it emotional?” I said, “Yes, very much so.” He said, “I felt it on the TV, too.”
There was nothing extraneous [in the game presentation] except for the fans and the players. Celebrity row consisted of two people who were ten feet apart — [former New York Giant] Justin Tuck and Tracy Morgan. Everybody else was spread out — rows in between people, at least eight to ten seats between people in a row. And the energy was there. Chants of “Defense!”, chants of “Let’s go Knicks!” And when Julius Randle got announced — and you can hear my voice quivering now — chants of “MVP! MVP!” because he had gotten elected to his first All-Star Game that day. It was just great. I thought it was a really great New York City experience. The only time I saw people take a mask off was to yell about two foul calls in the last three minutes, and they were horrible calls against the Knicks! I came home and said to my wife, “I had three and a half hours of feeling normal.”
Gregory Armstrong was eager to see his team as it plays unexpectedly well this season.
No one expected that we were going to have a renaissance going on here. So that really made it like desperate times to try to get back in the building. It was like I was going on a date — I had to take out my outfit, had to make sure I had the right shoes. I haven’t missed the season opener in 30 years. The doors were opening at 6 p.m. I’m a unique fan: I did an advertisement for Bud Light and I have my picture on the wall at Madison Square Garden. So I went up to the Chase Bridge [catwalk seating area] just to see if it was still there, and it was, so I kissed the picture on the wall. I’m still there.
The one thing that was strange is when I finally walked up into the Garden, into the corridor, it was weird. I mean, I’ve been in the building empty before. But the fact that it was a game night and there’s just minimal fans — that was just kind of surreal. I had a friend there who was in my area and I tried to go down to see him, but they had the unsold seats roped off.
The dancers were not there in body but they were there in spirit. In the third quarter, they showed a video of a prior performance at another game. Most of the other stuff was the basic game ops that they normally do. They played a lot of rap music. They have the organ; they played the defense chants. But the thing is, it just had the audience of a preseason game or a scrimmage. The building is at 10 percent capacity — you can’t really re-create the energy of 20,000 people with that sparse of a crowd.
Lionel Eba, a model, is a regular at Knicks games and came down from his apartment at Hudson Yards.
In a way, it was actually good because usually it’s really crowded — you can’t get in really fast. But Tuesday there was no contact. Each ticket has its own entrance so there’s no waiting in line. They check your temperature, and you have to come in with the PCR test, and they match it to your ID, and they let you in. And usually when you leave a game you get stuck for a while, but Tuesday within two seconds you were out. Getting the tickets wasn’t hard. Everything was done through the MSG app. It felt really weird inside the arena with only 2,000 people, but after being home for so long, seeing different kinds of people was so exciting. It was loud. Nothing like before, but there were fans yelling.
We still missed the energy and the big crowd. They don’t have much food anymore. They only have, like, hot dogs and sodas — no nachos or chicken tenders. Usually they used to throw T-shirts at the public or things like that. Now everybody that came to the game received a free T-shirt. There was a bin where you could grab one.
Jourden Moore, a basketball-obsessed teenager visiting from Atlanta, jumped at the chance to see a game.
I was at our hotel in Manhattan and I was looking online and it said, “Fans are welcome back.” It was just crazy being there, because I know the history of how many people played there — about how the Garden is this great place for basketball, about Kobe having big games there. Everybody there was happy too. A lot of people were walking around saying, “I missed it.”
They had a welcome-back video pregame, and then [Julius Randle] had a speech welcoming the fans back and talking about how excited he was going to the All-Star Game. It was super loud — like going to an open gym. The DJ was playing music the whole entire game so I guess that was to fill some of that noise. There were people getting drunk and stuff. There were [Steph] Curry fans up at the top screaming. I wonder how it is at full capacity.
Jeffrey Silverman couldn’t turn down a friend offering excellent seats.
The Friday before, I told some of my friends I was going and there was a lot of jealousy. It wasn’t, “You’re gonna see the Knicks and the Golden State Warriors.” It was more like, “Oh my God, you’re going to a live event.” The staff at the Garden was really welcoming, really happy to see people back there, and could not have been more accommodating. I think the fans were being very respectful and appreciative that they were able to get there. The press weren’t there — I think they were up in the boxes. You couldn’t bring the normal stuff. I had to leave my stuff at work, so I didn’t go in with anything at all. You weren’t allowed to bring a briefcase.
What was weird was the lack of people in there. You look around thinking this is just surreal. I’ve been to concerts here, I’ve been to games here. It’s empty. But for so few people, it was kinda loud. I don’t know how much of it was piped in to enhance it, but we had some cheers going on. When Randle got up there and it was announced he was going to the All-Star Game, people started chanting, “MVP! MVP!” I think Madison Square Garden did an unbelievable job, and it’s hard for that organization to do a good job. Walking out was kind of cool. Beside the fact that they lost, everyone seemed a little bit more uplifted.
Superfan Anthony Donahue returned to the Garden with a heavy heart after losing his sister to brain cancer over the summer.
Of course, everything was surreal. Even with the Knicks being bad over the years, the Garden is always full to capacity. No disrespect to my Nets-fan friends, but it felt like going to a Nets game in the early ’90s.
With everybody being on edge, I just didn’t know what to expect. So I got there early, at 3 p.m., and it really went smooth — I’ll be honest with you, way smoother than I thought. It was really chill. I was one of the first in line. [After getting in] I just took it in. I breathed in the air. I shed a tear. And then I saw some security guards and officers that I’ve known for my whole life. It was very emotional, especially with everything that’s happened in my life, losing my little sister. I’ve kept in touch with a lot of people on social media and stuff like that, but you get a chance to see them in person, it’s very, very emotional. I do [Knicks fan events] and at every Knicks game, fans over the years have stopped to tell me they like my work and appreciate what I do. Five or six different fans came up to me on Tuesday night and gave their condolences about my sister. Random people that I’ve never met. That really took me off guard and the first few times, I mean, I had tears immediately in my eyes.