Sometimes a team’s arena/stadium is inseparable from their identity. In English football, Anfield isn’t just where Liverpool play; it’s a fortress. Lambeau Field is no mere gridiron; the frozen tundra is lauded as a legendary locale, or it was before they installed a heated field. The old Yankee Stadium was as much a part of the team’s identity as pinstripes and winnings. The new Yankee Stadium? Let’s say it is equally reflective of what the current owners value most, and leave it at that.
In the NBA, Oracle Arena gave Golden State a championship edge even before they started winning championships. The old Boston Garden was like if Hell, rather than freezing over, had been covered with parquet. Chicago Stadium was as loud an arena as any for the road team. And then, there’s the Mecca. Or so-called when it’s convenient.
As the New York Knick franchise stopped achieving anything of note on the court at the turn of the century, ownership zeroed in on marketing the building itself to distract from the losing. From MSG talking heads to the tabloid beat reporters to the fans themselves, a PR campaign spread so quickly and pervasively it was on top of us before we knew it. A tree grows in Brooklyn; a fetish grew in Manhattan. The team that played at MSG was relegated to a supporting role; the real star was Madison Square Garden itself, the world’s so-called most famous arena, which is something you only repeat ad nauseum when you know it’s not true. Ever heard the Eiffel Tower described as “the world’s most famous tower?” Have the Romans ever bothered with a “world’s most famous arena” media blitz for the Colisseum? Of course not. Entirely unnecessary.
But making the stadium the star allows for bizarre and bathetic bullshit attempts at defending the team’s poor play. Isiah Thomas once said he’d been as successful as the Knicks coach as Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy had been, given that none of them won a title in New York. This is what those of us who kvetch about James Dolan and culture carrying over mean. The Isiah argument is obvious rationalization on his part. But that same defense mechanism is being used to justify a Knicks odd quirk this season.
New York has the league’s second-best road record at 14-8. That’s better than a 50-win pace. Nothing to sneeze at. And yet, that accomplishment’s undercut by the Knicks’ losing record at home. At 11-13, they are the only team this year with a winning record to have a losing record at home; the next-most “winningest” team to do the same is Orlando. So what’s the issue? Don’t worry. There’s an excuse — if you’ll have it.
That excuse? The same crap Isiah first floated 15 years ago, something I’d never heard before and that’s never made sense since: that opposing players get soooo excited to show out in New York that they can’t help putting their best foot forward. They just can’t help putting forth A+ efforts every night. The poor, unwitting Knicks are the victims of Broadway’s spotlight.
What dross. Here’s why.
First of all, the Knicks have mostly sucked for 20 years. If you’re a 25-year-old NBA player who’s been following the league since you were 12, you’ve seen the Knicks be good twice IN YOUR ENTIRE LIFETIME and win one playoff series. That’s it. Any younger than that and the only time you’ve seen the Garden alive was when the nudniks cursed out Trae Young. If you’re 35 and you’ve followed the NBA since you were 12, sadly you don’t really have any more memories of a radicalized MSG than someone 10 years your junior. If you’re 45, you’re too old to play in the NBA. So who are these players getting all worked up to put on a show in New York?
Secondly, when exactly did this trend begin? Because a funny thing happened at Madison Square Garden in the 1990s and the 1970s, the team’s Silver and Golden Ages — MSG was a major homecourt advantage for the home team, ironically. From the 1969-1973 seasons, the Knicks were 154-47 at home, a 63-win pace. Over Riley’s four years in charge, the home record was 128-36, good for a 64-win pace. Wouldn’t teams and players have been even more motivated to put on a good show on the Knicks’ home floor when the Knicks were winning titles or competing for them? When the team featured five Hall of Famers, or the GOAT Knick in Patrick Ewing? You tryna tell me Pascal Siakam cares more about rising to the challenge of the 2023 Knickerbockers than Scottie Pippen did 30 years ago?
Finally, take a look at how the Knicks’ chief antagonists fared at 33rd and 8th back in the day. Michael Jordan played 15 home playoff games against the Knicks and won 14 of them; in New York, he went 5-7. Reggie Miller won 70% of his postseason Market Square Arena matchups with the Knicks, but lost about two-thirds of his contests in New York. The Riley Miami teams, as close to a doppelganger as the Knicks have ever known, were an even 7-7 in Miami over four playoff series against the Knicks, just 4-6 at MSG.
It’s not just the big teams, or those trapped in the amber of our pre-internet past. In 1993 and 1997 New York faced Charlotte, winning all five games in New York while losing two of three at The Hive. The LeBron James Heat won three out of three playoff meetings in South Beach but split a pair in the concrete jungle. Even the last Knick postseason saw this trend continue: Atlanta was 2-0 at home but 2-1 as the visiting team.
I don’t know why the Knicks are better on the road than at home. It’s not a Tom Thibodeau thing: two years ago they were 25-11 at home versus 16-20 on the road. I do think pretending today’s players are more amped to win in an arena they’ve never seen fully lit up is weak. Ditto thinking Kyle Kuzma cares more about winning here now than Alonzo Mourning did 30 years ago.
I imagine the reason the Knicks are so good on the road and yet sub-par at home has something to do with the way Thibs coaches. I think he sells out to win every game, every quarter, every possession so hard that it catches other teams by surprise when they’re at home and assuming an easy night. Maybe on the road opponents are naturally more adrenalized, anticipating the threat.
Madison Square Garden is probably not the world’s most famous arena, the brick and mortar never made a basket or defended one, and there has never, ever been an argument put forward in any other sport in any other arena about the stadium being a disadvantage because opponents care about it too much. When the Knicks are good again — like, consecutive 50-win seasons good — watch how fast this “MSG disadvantage” talk disappears like a fart in the wind.