Three hours before the Madison Square Garden opened its doors to fans for the first time in almost a year last Tuesday, Anthony Donahue was the first to show up.
First one here! ðŸ™ðŸ¼ðŸ§¡ðŸ’™ pic.twitter.com/vjhahZXWHK
â€” Anthony Donahue (@AnthonyMSG) February 23, 2021
Donahue, a New York Knicks superfan, anxiously waited for 352 days for this moment to arrive.
“It was tough, Donahue told Empire Sports Media while he was preparing to attend his second straight Knicks game last Thursday. “Everything has been tough the last 11 months — personal trials and tribulations. When you’re going through something personal, and you don’t have [any place to go] — for me, my favorite place to go in the world is the Madison Square Garden. So to not have that for 11 months, it’s tough.”
The music in The Garden hit different for Donahue in an emotional return. It was a bittersweet moment for him.
“I was thinking about my little sister, who passed away from brain cancer back in August at the age of 21, and how I’ve been bringing her to Knicks game all her life. And she’s not here physically with me anymore. Even when she was not with me at the games, she was texting me, telling me to bring her home popcorn or food, or asking me who I saw because people at The Garden are family to me. I was thinking about her the whole time,” Donahue said.
The Knicks superfan found solace in The Garden, where the special bond and fandom he shared with his sister Gianna Gregoire will forever be remembered.
A season ticket holder since 2004, Donahue had become one of the most famous fans at the world’s most famous arena, even parlaying his passion into a career when he hosted a Knicks-centric podcast show for SNY. His first indoctrination to The Garden’s mystic began during the Knicks’ Finals run in 1994. In 2001, just as the Knicks started their plummet to the dark ages, Donahue remained loyal and started regularly going to the games.
This season is one of the better times to be a Knicks fan. The Knicks are winning some games.
They are playoff hunting instead of tanking.
Imagine the Knicks fans’ agony of not having the chance to watch their beloved team rock The Garden on some nights.
“The waiting part was tough, man! You’re used to going to games. Iâ€™ve been a ticket holder for 29 years, so it kinda sucked not being able to get into your normal routine, and the fact that the team was playing really well made it even worse. We havenâ€™t seen good basketball in a while,” another Knicks superfan Greg Armstrong told Empire Sports Media.
Armstrong, a ShopRite supermarket manager, has been a Knicks fan since the 1973 championship team, which he said he followed religiously on Channel 9.
Basketball is a religion in New York. If Rucker Park and the other city playgrounds are the chapels, the Mecca is the basilica.
“We all know what basketball means to the city. We’re excited about it. There’s nothing like it, there’s no place like the Madison Square Garden, there’s no place in the league like that,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau before Tuesday’s game. “Our fans are our lifeline.”
Every Knicks game equates to a day of worship for the fans. Pilgrims from all over New York and even from outside of the five boroughs come together and transform The Garden into a basketball paradise where players love to indulge.
For almost a year, the fans were confined to watching the games on TV, following and passionately debating every news and rumor on social media.
So last Tuesday, that joy, which COVID-19 took away, returned, albeit only experienced by a small group of Knicks fans.
“Being one of the few [people] to attend was special because it was like our own private experience and one that Iâ€™ll look back on as a once in a lifetime (I hope!),” David Perlmutter told Empire Sports Media.
“My first thought last [Tuesday] night was wow, no one is here! I knew it was only 10 percent, but until I arrived, I could not grasp the size of The Garden compared to 10 percent attendance. It was like we were part of an incredibly private club, which I guess I kind of was.”
After the game, a Knicks spokesperson told reporters that their first attempt at bringing back some sense of normalcy was a success. The sold-out crowd of 1,981 were able to clear all health protocols.
“Everyone was wearing a mask and following the rules, and at one point, my friends and I were congregating in the lobby, and they told us to split up,” Armstrong said.
“It was strict, but it was smooth. You have to make sure you have your COVID-19 test result with you, show your ID, and stuff like that. I didn’t have any problem nor noticed anybody who encountered a problem,” Donahue added.
If Donahue shared his Knicks fandom with his late sister, Perlmutter shares his passion with his son. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t stop them from continuing their father-and-son bonding last Tuesday.
“I was with my son Levi who is 6 yrs old, and he has been coming with me since he was 2+ with noise-canceling headphones. Since Iâ€™ve been going to games with him, I have very little interest in going to any games without him. Watching the game through his eyes is my favorite thing to do,” Perlmutter said.
Perlmutter, a managing partner of the Forrest Hills Financial Group, has been a Knicks fan since 1992 and a season ticket holder since 2005. But last Tuesday, he saw The Garden in a different light.
“It was the first time I was able to tour The Garden, which was cool. We went up to the bridge to get a close-up view of the retired banners and walked through the Bud Light district. I have never been before to both areas despite having been able to attend hundreds of games. It was a unique experience to watch my son run around all these areas without worrying about losing him in a crowd or him bumping into people,” Perlmutter said.
With only a limited number of fans allowed initially, The Garden had a small-town church vibe where everyone knows each other.
“It’s great to be back. It’s not how it used to be, but hopefully, it will again soon. I was with my good friend Elgin (Swift). I enjoyed it, and it was a time to catch up with some people. I saw some of the security guards, ushers, and team employees I haven’t seen in a while. I saw some fans I hadn’t seen in a while. Considering the situation, I enjoyed it. It wasn’t as hectic or as crazy as I may have thought. It was an extremely smooth night,” Donahue said.
Donahue enjoyed everything except the fact that the Knicks lost a close call to the Golden State Warriors.
“We didn’t play our best basketball, but I love our team. Of course, we’re not a championship team. But we’re a team that plays hard, plays defense, personifies our head coach Tom Thibodeau. It kinda makes fans feel a little nostalgic about the 90s team we love so much because of the type of defense they play,” Donahue said.
While a Knicks win could have been a perfect ending for Donahue’s emotional return to The Garden, he was appreciative of the experience and put things in proper perspective.
“I just didn’t want to lose the first game back. I’m a die-hard Knicks fan. I don’t even want to lose a preseason game. I’m definitely upset after the game as far as losing. I want that win so bad. But all in all, when I got home, I was thankful that I was back to The Garden, thankful that I got to see some of the New York fans’ faces. And just thankful to be alive, just thankful and cherish every moment that we have in this beautiful life,” Donahue said.
Two nights later, Donahue finally got to experience a Knicks victory in the new normal. The Knicks handily beat the lowly Sacramento Kings, 140-121, where The Garden was rocking the whole night.
The fans have found comfort in their beloved team under this COVID-19 pandemic. The Knicks have managed to thrive too under difficult circumstances.
Devoid of a superstar, the Knicks produced an All-Star in Julius Randle. They found a hidden gem in rookie Immanuel Quickley. Thibodeau has made the Knicks believe again.
A coach plucked from the Knicks’ storied past has transformed the league’s laughingstock into a bunch of overachievers with defense as its bedrock.
The Knicks are winning. New York basketball is back on the map.
This is the new normal for Donahue, Armstrong, Perlmutter, and all the Knicks fans.
The Garden comes alive in the new normal.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo