New York Knicks: When The Garden comes alive in new normal

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.

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.

Gianna Gregoire and Anthony Donahue stand at center court before the Knicks-Celtics game on Dec. 1. Photo courtesy of Anthony Donahue

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. I’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 haven’t seen good basketball in a while,” another Knicks superfan Greg Armstrong told Empire Sports Media.

Greg Armstrong posed for a souvenir photo during his return to The Garden. Photo courtesy of Greg Armstrong

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 I’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 I’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.

David Perlmutter and his son Levi enjoy the Knicks-Warriors game, marking the first time that limited fans are allowed in the Madison Square Garden. Photo courtesy of David Perlmutter

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

EXCLUSIVE: Cole Anthony’s high school coach hopes former star ends up at New York Knicks

Cole Anthony, New York Knicks

Archbishop Molloy High School has produced two of the best points guards to come out of New York in two-time NBA champion Kenny Smith and Kenny Anderson.

The traditional New York high school basketball powerhouse hopes that Cole Anthony, the son of former New York Knicks first-round pick Greg Anthony, would be next in line.

Anthony’s rise started in Molloy, where he starred for three years before transferring to Oak Hill Academy for his senior year. He became the first freshman point guard to start in the school history immediately, and he almost led them to the city championship in his sophomore year.

“He’s a leader.  He immediately comes into the room and takes over,” Molloy coach Mike McCleary told Empire Sports Media.

“Even as a freshman, we had a strong seed class, and while he wasn’t the captain of that team, he was still a leader on that team.  By the time he’s a sophomore, he was already the captain of the team,” he added.

While Anthony became the most hyped high school player to have come out of New York in recent years, his stock considerably dropped after the North Carolina Tar Heels experienced their first losing season under Roy Williams in 18 years with him as their lead guard.

Anthony missed significant time due to a knee injury, but he was still able to lead the Tar Heels in scoring with 18.5 points per game.  However, his inconsistent and inefficient shot-making (38% from the field) and playmaking (4 assists against 3.5 turnovers per game) became a cause of concern.

McCleary believes his former star’s struggles in college is just an aberration.

“One of the things that hurt him this year at North Carolina is that they were not as talented as the previous years.  And he was clearly their best player and that left Cole very exposed to try to do too much.  But if he has other weapons on his team, I think he’s more than capable of using those weapons and being very successful as a point guard,” McCleary said.

At 6-3, Anthony has some size concerns, but the NBA Playoffs have shown us that small elite guards (6’0 Kemba Walker, 6’1 Donovan Mitchell, 6’2 Damian Lillard, and 6’4 Jamal Murray) have so much value in the league.

“I definitely think that’s gonna be the challenge for him but he’s a great athlete as they all are in the NBA.  Size is something that hurts him a little bit but he’s very competitive, a smart kid and I think he’ll pay close attention to the scouting reports to be able to use his intelligence, his skills, and athleticism to be an effective defender,” McCleary said.

He even adds that Anthony would be perfect for the modern NBA due to the fact that “the lane is so wide open now because of the three-point threat and that might offer him more opportunities to get to the rim and open up opportunities for his teammates.”

Anthony, who is modeling his game after Russel Westbrook, according to McCleary, has a quick first step and loves to attack the rim. In fact, Anthony averaged 5.8 free throw attempts in college, which McCleary believes could translate well in the pace-and-space NBA.

However, while it has been reported that the Knicks have extensively scouted Anthony, the team is divided on the polarizing prospect.

Some within the organization is not a fan of Anthony and believe his stock dipped because he was hyped and got exposed in college.

“He’s talented, but he doesn’t have a history of winning,” the source told Empire Sports Media.

But there are also Anthony fans within the organization.  Just like Allan Houston, the Knicks’ Special Assistant to the General Manager, who even commented fire emojis to Anthony’s recent beach workout, posted by one of his trainers, Mike Atkinson.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

🏖 🤫⏰❗️ @the_cole.anthony #sportsperformance #trainingday

A post shared by Mike Atkinson (@mike__atkinson_) on Sep 4, 2020 at 4:36am PDT

While Atkinson declined to be interviewed for Anthony’s pre-Draft workout process, he told Empire Sports Media:

“Cole will be a great addition to any organization. I’m confident in that.”

It’s a fact that Anthony hasn’t won a championship in high school and college, but he’s been part of the gold medal team in the 2018 FIBA-U18 Americas, and he was named to the all-tournament team.

During his successful high school run, he’s led Molloy to the Catholic High School Athletic Association finals (though they got upset by the fifth seed team Cardinal Hayes) and semifinals.  In his lone year at Oak Hill, the decorated academy that produced Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, he averaged a triple-double in leading the Warriors to the semifinals of the GEICO High School Nationals. He was named Player of the Year for both his success in basketball and academics, then he collected all the MVP awards in the McDonald’s All-American Game, Jordan Brand Classic, and Nike Hoop Summit and had a Defensive Player of the Year award from Nike’s EYBL.

“He’s a super talent.  I think if you put him in the right situation, he can be extremely successful. I think he could be a leader because of his talent and personality and work ethics,” McCleary said.

Anthony’s talent is undeniable, and his fall in the Draft boards could be a boon for the Knicks who are looking for a lead guard.  The polarizing prospect could still be available by the time they pick at No.8.

If McCleary has his way, he wants his former star to stay home and get drafted by the Knicks.

“I think he’ll fit well wherever he goes because his father who was in the NBA has always preached to him about being a good teammate, not only about being a good player and what it takes and all that stuff because it’s already a given in his case.  But his father has been telling him about being a good basketball player and being a good teammate and to the other people in the team,” McCleary said.

“And I suspect that these are lessons well learned because he responds to his father very well and he has a lot of respect for his father. And I think he’ll be just fine and become a very good lead guard in the next level and hopefully, that’s the case (in New York) so I get to see him more,” he added.

Greg Anthony talks how his son, Cole, would fare with the New York Knicks

Cole Anthony, New York Knicks

The New York Knicks have a top-10 selection in October’s NBA Draft; they’ll find out where they pick on Aug. 20, when the NBA Draft lottery takes place. One player who could find himself in the orange and blue next season is UNC point guard Cole Anthony.

SNY’s Ian Begley reported in May that the Knicks have “extensively” scouted Anthony. Cole’s father, Greg, was a point guard for the Knicks from 1991-95.

In an interview with Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, Anthony said his son would “embrace” playing in New York City, where he grew up.

“I think he would embrace (the Knicks), I think it would be a really good situation for him,” Greg Anthony said. “He’s going to be fine. He had a rough year last year. A lot of stuff that happened, it shook the system a little bit. But he handled it really well, he dealt with his adversity and he got better. And so, he’s going to be fine. He’s going to be a much better pro than the impact he had in college.

“Would it be awesome if he goes to New York? He’s from there, he’s raised there, he lives there. He would embrace it and love it. But if he’s somewhere else, he’d feel the same way. He’s just about basketball. He just wants to play and be a great player.”

Anthony was a potential top-five NBA draft pick in the early stages of the 2019-20 college basketball season, but a midseason knee injury sidelined him for seven weeks.

His father feels that despite the “horrible” year, Anthony “learned a lot” and is “going to be a great player.”

“He had a horrible year. Probably couldn’t have had a worse year, and he still put up 19 (points per game), 6 (rebounds) and 4 (assists). He didn’t shoot it well, but he didn’t have the opportunities he would’ve liked. He learned a lot, had a great experience there, and where he ends up — I know how he’s wired, he’s going to be a great player. So I’m not really worried concerned.”

Anthony played one season at UNC. Across 22 games, 20 of which were starts, he averaged 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, four assists and 1.3 steals per game. Anthony shot 38.0 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from beyond the arc.

The Knicks have two first-round draft selections and their own second rounder (38) in the 2020 NBA Draft after going 21-45 this season.