NEW YORK–Madison Square Garden, home of the NBA’s New York Knicks and NHL’s New York Rangers, finally has some direction business competition in the Big Apple with the Brooklyn Nets’ new Barclays Center opening across the East River.
But while the $1 billion Barclays Center has Jay-Z, the World’s Most Famous Arena has something Barclays can’t match: a 133-year history of famous sports events. They range from the Knicks’ only NBA titles in 1970 and 1973, and the Rangers’ Stanley Cup win in 1994, to the “Fight of the Century,” in which Joe Frazier floored Muhammad Ali with his signature left hook in 1971.
To celebrate the second phase of MSG’s 3-year, $850 million, inside-out transformation, MSG president and CEO Hank Ratner wheeled out the big athletic guns to discuss the Garden’s “defining moments” here Wednesday.
Former Knicks Walt Frazier, Patrick Ewing and John Starks, former Rangers captain Mark Messier and many others took the podium with MSG Network announcer Sam Rosen in Madison Square Park, site of one of the arena’s first locations in Manhattan. The assembled media pack ate up the sports anecdotes — but grew bored when former New York Governor Mario Cuomo segued from his minor-league baseball days to campaigning for President Obama. Aside from the politics, it was a good event. Here were some of my favorite stories:
— The Dunk: It’s one of the most famous plays in Garden history. During the 1993 NBA Playoffs, Starks soared over Michael Jordan and Horace Grant of the Chicago Bulls to throw down a thunderous left-handed dunk.
“I knew I had to go in strong. I just took off. I didn’t realize how far out I jumped. After the game, I passed Michael Jordan in the hallway. He just looked at me — and kept walking,” recalled Starks.
The former Knick only realized how big the play was when he saw it splashed all over the back pages of the NY tabloids the next morning. To this day, His Airness still disputes he was posterized, said Starks.
During a Derek Jeter golf tournament years later, Starks ran into MJ holding court in Jeter’s pool room. His Airness kidded him about the play.
“The first thing he said was, ‘You didn’t dunk on me.’ I said, ‘Well, you tried to sneak out of the picture.’ The Garden is a special place. Every athlete wants to perform very well in the Garden.”
Here’s video of the play with narration by the great Marv Albert. We see Starks and Ewing pull off the pick and roll, then Jordan comes flying in to support Grant. You be the judge:
— The Drought: Messier will always be revered in New York for ending the Rangers’ 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994. He described watching the reaction of Rangers fans after they witnessed their team win its first Stanley Cup since 1940.
Said Messier: “There were generations of people in the stands that night, fathers, sons, grandfathers, people who had waited a long time for a moment like that.”
— The Limp: Willis Reed wasn’t supposed to play in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers after suffering a thigh injury in Game 5. But the Garden crowd went nuts when it saw The Captain limping though the tunnel.
Frazier, now an analyst for MSG Network, said Reed’s entrance shocked both his teammates and opponents.
“I saw (Wilt) Chamblerlain, I saw (Elgin) Baylor, I saw (Jerry) West, three of the greatest players ever. They were just standing there mesmeirized looking at Willis. I said to myself, ‘We got these guys. It gave me so much confidence to see that.”
Frazier poured in 36 points with 19 assists and the Knicks beat the Lakers to win their first NBA title.
— Two quarts of blood: For my money, one of the best stories came from Jay Tunney, son of former heavyweight boxing champ Gene Tunney. His father’s mostly remembered in the history books for beating Jack Dempsey twice in 1926 and 1927. But his Dad’s victory over Harry Greb to regain the light heavyweight belt at the Garden in 1923 meant just as much, he said.
The year before Tunney suffered what would be the only loss of his boxing career as Greb “pulverized” him, recalled Tunney. “He lost two quarts of blood. Blood was everywhere. It was all over the front row of people.”
Tunney went on to to beat Dempsey for the heavyweight title. But his rematch victory over Greb was also a “defining moment,” his son recalled.
“Against Dempsey, he proved something to the world. Against Greb, he proved something to himself. That he had the guts to stand up to the most rugged, roughest people in the ring. From there he never looked back.”
The arena’s sports history will be the centerpiece of several new exhibits when the Garden reopens in November.
The first 10 of the Garden 20 “Defining Moments,” including The Dunk, will be commemorated on the 6th Floor Madison Concourse. The new section will also have a “Garden 366″ visual retrospective that highlights one moment in the arena’s history for every day of the year.
My favorite Garden moments include being there for the Rangers ’94 Cup run and the first time I saw Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. What are yours? Weigh in below:
(Photo Credit: George Kalinsky for Madison Square Garden)