By the time you read this, it’s been about nine months since I watched the New York Knicks play in Madison Square Garden for the first time.
The game was played on a Friday night, and the primary reason I remembered that important detail is because I bought tickets online. And the one thing I fear the most when planning to do something for the first time is mix up the dates.
Friday. March 23, 2018.
I double-, triple-, quadruple-checked the date as if I was booking the church for my wedding day. The second reason why I remembered the date is because I repeated it many times to Erwin Valencia, the Knicks’ director of training and conditioning. I reached out to him on Facebook to let him know I’ll be in town on March 23, 2018. A Friday.
I met Erwin online two years ago. His name came up when I was searching for captivating stories about people doing the basketball gods’ work behind the scenes. His story was perfect: a UP graduate who somehow ended up in the daily NBA grind. I sent him a bunch of questions via email and expected a reply in cold, boring Word doc. Instead, he sent back a 15-minute video of himself gamely answering FAQs about his journey from Manila to New York.
So when I told him I’d like to meet him in person, it was purely on-brand for him to respond with a, “Of course, kababayan! Remind me closer to the dates so I can give you postgame passes.” My lungs tightened and I felt a tickle in my throat. It was an instant asthma attack.
I reminded him when it wasn’t close to the dates, then reminded him more when it was.
“I can’t always promise a win…but I can promise the best basketball entertainment you’ll ever experience in the world’s most famous arena,” Erwin said on one of our (many) exchanges (mostly initiated by me, reminding him of the date).
The date was set, tickets and passes were secured, and my life savings emitted the death rattle. I was going to see my hero Michael Beasley in person. I was going to watch the Knicks play, and inevitably lose, and nothing else mattered.
Game time between the Knicks and the Minnesota Timberwolves was scheduled at 7:30 p.m. My wife and I arrived at The Garden an hour earlier. A gentleman in a suit met us outside the merch store by the entrance to hand us access to the pregame warmup. Two flimsy cardboard passes that were as valuable as two winning lotto tickets. I had the urge to kiss the gentleman on the hand, but I knew in my heart it was inappropriate.
My wife and I—along with two other women dressed for clubbing—were led to a dimly lit, private room in the second level, where I assumed the VIPs hung out before and after the game. I was probably wrong, but it felt nice just to think that. Rooms led to other rooms, then an escalator a floor up to more doors, to more rooms, like hidden arteries inside the world’s most famous arena.
Then—after grabbing a free, extra large, blue “New York Forever” shirt strewn on an unmanned table—another door opened and that’s when we saw it: the heart of The Garden, where Jarrett Jack was on one end of the floor shooting 3s.
Seeing Jack, a 13-year NBA journeyman, work on his shot, hit a couple of long ones and brick a few, was a calming sight. It was like watching the office veteran doing his early morning routine of filing documents before everyone arrived, and being left in awe. Perhaps watching the pregame warmup of your favorite team wields some sort of magic.
Jack was later joined by Kyle O’ Quinn, a strapping big man who practiced his midrange game. O’ Quinn had Tim Duncan’s touch in pregame warmup. Like magic.
On the far opposite end from where my wife and I were standing (one row away from courtside), Andrew Wiggins and his cornrows put in pregame work. And we just…stood there, looking around, taking in as much as we can. We had no idea what to do with pregame access.
“You got five minutes,” an MSG official in a sports coat told us. What do you do in five minutes?
I glanced over at the two women who walked with us to courtside. They were taking selfies. So me and my wife took selfies. But when I only have that much time left on the clock, that close to actual, breathing, sweaty NBA players, holding my shit together was number one priority.
Then Beasley, in a hooded shirt and game shorts, walked passed us and waved at someone who’s not me and that’s all it took. Shit wasn’t held together. I whipped out my phone and took a four-second highlight video of The Walking Bucket.
And, just like that, our courtside privilege time was over.
Before heading up—like way up—to our seats in Section 212 (code for “Damn, those players look small!”), I made one last sweep of the scene. MJ once dropped 55 here, I thought. Kobe dropped 61 here. Reggie dropped bombs here. The Knicks dropped a lot of games here. A lot of games, shedding respect and decency in the process, probably. But scanning the shiny hardwood in front of me and the dark stands behind me, this was paradise for now.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t a fan of the Knicks since birth.
I officially jumped on the Knicks bandwagon around late-2000s, uninvited and late to the party. But as long as the party is in New York, that’s all that mattered to me. It was around that time when I fell in love with New York, the city. It followed that I develop similar emotions for the city’s basketball team, regardless.
Being a New York fan, I’ve learned, teaches you to appreciate the minute details. It allows you to be simultaneously numb and intense, if that makes any sense at all. Numb to mockery, to the Melo drama, to questionable draft picks, to laughable personnel moves. But intense when the opportunity presents itself (e.g. Linsanity).
The game blew by fast, the fastest two hours of my life. From Section 212, I watched two versions of the game: one through a blurry, bird’s eye view of the action and the other through the big screen at eye-level.
At one point in the second half, I looked down on the court and was confused to see a hungover Allen Iverson. I looked at the screen and saw it was Trey Burke. I didn’t see Jarrett Jack play a single minute of basketball in any of the two versions. Beasley played himself into foul trouble. Karl-Anthony Towns bullied his defenders.
My wife constantly asked me about Kristaps Porzingis, the only Knick she knew. I shook my head and smiled every time at the thought of KAT vs Kristaps, but when reality set in, the only thing I could only say was, “Wala eh.”
But mostly, I didn’t care about the score nor the stats nor what could have been. I enjoyed a plate of nachos. My wife cheered with me. During every timeout, we got up and hopelessly waved our hands like crazy to get a T-shirt. We shouted “De-Fense!” with the MSG faithful. Numb and intense.
The Knicks went on a late scoring surge to close the game. Everything Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. hoisted somehow found the bottom of the net. It felt like a win. Expect it wasn’t. The Knicks lost, 104-108. The Wolves were the better team; the Knicks limped without Porzingis. Watching from the rafters didn’t bend that unnerving truth.
As my wife and I made our way to the exit, I sent a text message to Erwin, asking if he was still in the arena. He replied a few minutes later, when we were standing right outside the gate. He’ll meet us courtside, he said. My lungs tightened and my throat wanted to burst into a million explosions. Erwin had postgame passes for us, like he promised, but we had already stepped out of the building. No re-entry.
I blew my one chance to step on the Knicks home floor. I missed out on the opportunity to step on the same floor where MJ, Kobe, Reggie, and Beasley did their thing. No selfie at the logo. At first, a sinking feeling in my chest wanted to get out, grab me by the neck, and chokeslam me into the depths of hell. But then I began to quietly laugh at the cosmic fuck-up. I thought, what a Knicks thing to do.
Instead of indoors, I met Erwin outside the Garden that chilly night in March. He was his usual warm and cheery self, just the way I remembered in the video he sent me. He asked if we had a good time. I said we had the best time. We talked a bit about plans for the evening—him going out dancing with friends, us going home to dance with our haywire emotions.
We said our goodbyes and Erwin walked away to enjoy a night out in the city like it was any other Friday night. Except it wasn’t.