M.S.G.: Stop Calling it The Basketball Mecca

Adam Underhill


I’m in love with New York City, and have adopted it as my true home after living here for some five years. There aren’t many things other cities can boast about that I think New York doesn’t do better, or could do better if it wanted to. However, one area where I’ve remained true to my Wisconsin roots is sports. Like any good sports fan, I stay loyal to the teams I rooted for as a youth, specifically the NFL’s Packers and NBA’s Bucks. Living in the Big Apple has hardly dulled my passion for those teams, although I’ll admit that when baseball season rolls around I’ll casually root for the Yankees (it’s better than whatever passed for baseball in Milwaukee). And it’s hard not to have a soft spot for the Jets and Giants when they’re on television so much, robbing New Yorkers of the NFL’s other big name marquee Sunday matchups.

It’s basketball where I have a tough time showing the love. It’s easy to pile on the thoroughly pathetic Knicks, 27 games under .500 with a payroll that could budget a Peter Jackson blockbuster. Enough ink has been spilled over the redundant backcourt, the boneheaded trades of Isiah Thomas, and the exposing of Larry Brown for what he really is––a good but not great basketball coach who has been around a really long time.

No, the issue at hand is the home of the Knicks, Madison Square Garden. More specifically, I have always been annoyed with the Garden’s blithely tossed-about nickname in relation to hoops as the “basketball mecca.” This sports cliché is practically required parlance by city sports writers like Peter Vescey or Mike Lupica, who may have moved beyond fourth grade, but whose writing styles have not. Likewise it is part of the groupspeak of the ultra-insulated NBA, whose players know better than to say anything original or provocative, lest they show any disrespect. MSG’s web page on the Knicks stops short of using the term ‘Mecca,’ perhaps hoping to avoid violent protests in the Muslim world. However, that doesn’t make its opinion of itself when it comes to roundball any less audacious:

New York is the center of the basketball universe.

Basketball lives on every street, in every playground and in the greatest basketball arena in the world––Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks are the home team of the center of the basketball universe.

Following that is a shameful pandering to Knicks’ fans and their basketball IQs with the phrase “tickets on sale now!” But I digress.

Excuse me, but the Garden is the center of the basketball universe? When I first moved here, I believed in that kind of hyperbole, only because I failed to scrutinize it. Obviously, the phrase is pure puffery; there is no way to quantify an arena’s basketball mojo. But we can at least blow holes through a nickname and reputation that is utter bullshit.

Madison Square Garden, in two of its physical incarnations, has been the home of the New York Knickerbockers since the team’s founding in 1946. The Knicks are certainly one of the most famous teams in sports by virtue of their location––every sports team in New York shares this distinction, although none so much as the Yankees. And in 61 years of history, a team can’t help but have some classic moments in competitive athletics. The championship Knicks teams of the early ‘70s and perennial playoff teams of the mid ‘80s and ‘90s certainly made legends of Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Patrick Ewing, and Bernard King. Yet the fact remains, the Knicks have won exactly two NBA titles (1970 and ’73), or exactly as many as the Golden State Warriors. Two. That’s one more title banner hanging for the Knicks than hangs for the Seattle Supersonics, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Washington Wizards, and the Milwaukee Bucks (who actually won their title when they played in an arena known as the MECCA). Yes, the Knicks have eight conference championships, and had the misfortune of running into George Mikan’s Lakers twice in the fifties, then Wilt’s Lakers in 1972. In 1994, with Michael Jordan out of basketball, the Knicks finally made it back to the Finals, but, despite a seeming advantage in heart and brawn, narrowly lost to the Houston Rockets. 1999 saw a more surprising return in a strike-shortened season, but without Ewing the team was dominated by San Antonio. The Knicks aren’t what you would call cursed, but they’re not exactly blessed.

Besides the good-but-not-great Knicks, the St. John’s Red Storm basketball teams play their home games at MSG (okay this required more researching on my part). I remembered a brief run of success from St. John’s around 1999 or 2000. But the mention of this school does not cause the average hoops fan to spout out names of great alumni the way mentioning, say, North Carolina or UCLA would. Nevertheless, what the hell do I know? I went to the history page for St. John’s men’s basketball, and here is what I unearthed: The Red Storm is the fifth-winningest team in college basketball history (1,689 wins). OK, but that’s a longevity-based mark covering 99 years. What else? Eighth-best winning percentage in college history (.673). Not bad. How about sixteen NIT Final Four appearances and two NCAA Final Four appearances? (Before the 1950s, the NIT was the more popular basketball tournament.) OK, but where’s the stat for the number of NCAA or NIT championships? I don’t see it. They have none? Actually, they have six NIT championships, although St. John’s website is curiously mute on this fact. They won two NITs back in the forties, when it was the equivalent of today’s NCAA tourney, and four more in the who-gives-a-shit era. The Storm has no NCAA title, although it got blown out by Kansas in 1952. But that happened in Seattle.

The NIT, which determines the sixty-sixth-best team in men’s college basketball, is and always has been played at Madison Square Garden. Since 1985 the Pre-Season NIT has also been played there, attracting more marquee programs like Arizona, North Carolina, Duke, Syracuse, and the like. As with the Maui Invitational, the Pre-Season NIT serves as a warm-up for the season, in addition to being a moneymaker for the Garden. There is no doubt that both NITs have showcased considerable talent on the hardwood, but no matter how we dress it up, the NIT is Salieri to the NCAA’s Mozart. (To be fair, the NCAA Final Four was played at MSG from 1943-48, and one more time in 1950, when it was won by the City College of New York in what must have been one of the greatest moments in New York college athletics, and Garden history.)

The WNBA’s New York Liberty, tenants since 1997, have zero championships, although they’ve been to the playoffs eight times and won four conference titles.

That’s a rich basketball history, but not a regal one. Remember, a ‘mecca’ is defined, besides as an actual place in Saudi Arabia, as “a center of activity sought as a goal by people sharing a common interest.” In other words, Madison Square Garden purports to be the destination of anyone looking to play amateur or professional basketball. This would require every kid with a ball and a hoop to aim considerably low, since no one dreams of hitting the game-winning shot in the NIT, or wanting to be “Like Pat,” or, for that matter, part of a franchise known more as perennial also-rans than as anything resembling royalty. It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to say that Madison Square Garden has a richer history of professional wrestling than basketball; after all, it’s the birthplace of Wrestlemania.

Or consider other NBA arenas for a moment. The Boston Celtics won sixteen NBA championships while playing at the old Boston Garden. The Los Angeles Lakers have fourteen, including six at the Forum in Inglewood and three at their present home, the Staples Center (also home to the Clippers). The Chicago Bulls won six titles, three at Chicago Stadium and three more at the United Center. Even the coldly-named AT&T Center in San Antonio has seen its Spurs win two titles in its three-year existence. Yet neither the owners nor the tenants of these stadiums have felt the need to confer upon them the status of “mecca.” They don’t have to.

No, the term “basketball mecca” is a terrible misnomer, and probably part of New Yorkers’ insistence that everything here is somehow bigger and better than anywhere else simply because, well, it’s in New York. Usually this cultural chauvinism holds up. Even if the world’s tallest building isn’t in Manhattan anymore, which do you love more, the Empire State Building or the Petronas Towers? What other city’s mayor do you know by name besides your own (unless he got busted smoking crack)? Yet the city’s other sports stadiums show considerable restraint when it comes to nicknames. Yankee Stadium is affectionately known as “The House that Ruth Built.” The USTA Center can be referred to as “Flushing Meadows” with an air of both regality and placidity, akin to an upscale country club. The Giants and Jets have played in Giants Stadium in New Jersey for years, and this embarrassing fact has kept the Meadowlands from acquiring any true affection of its own, beyond its status in tailgating lore. But with three Super Bowl victories between the two teams, what do they care?

I’ve always preferred the Garden’s more generic nickname, “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” This, of course, is probably true, and it encompasses everything that the Garden can showcase, from the Knicks, Liberty, and Rangers to rock concerts, political conventions, boxing, and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. (And, yes, Wrestlemania.) It invokes a sensationalism that recalls the days of P.T. Barnum, who in fact opened the hippodrome in 1871 that would later be named Madison Square Garden. Basketball is but one form of entertainment that puts asses in seats at this fabled venue, and the Knicks, et.al., ought to be proud to play there. It does the Garden an injustice to aggrandize its basketball history and stature. New York City is the center of a lot of different universes, including theatre, publishing, finance, fashion, and (probably) baseball. The basketball universe? Let’s not embarrass ourselves with this foolish consistency any longer. We shouldn’t have to.