Willis Reed. Walt Frazier. Patrick Ewing. Carmelo Anthony. Brad Carroll. What do those all-time great New York Knicks players and yours truly have in common? We've all played basketball on the famed court at the world's most famous arena. That's right, I got the chance to play hoops at Madison Square Garden, an opportunity that comes around once in a lifetime. Actually, less than that.
Luckily, my basketball skills had nothing to do with me getting the chance to shoot at the same baskets on the same wooden floor as the current New York Knicks do. Trust me, there is no way I should ever be allowed to even pretend to be a basketball player. I just needed to know the right person to have an experience never to forget.
Surprisingly enough, some of the best moments of the afternoon at Madison Square Garden came on the walk to the arena floor. After taking a freight elevator from the entrance on 33rd street in Manhattan up a floor, I got to walk down the hallway with framed photos of famous moments from the arena lining the walls. It's likely the same hallway, probably with some different photos, that I remember Hulk Hogan walking through when he was making his way to the ring to defeat the Iron Shiek at the Garden way back when. For the record, there was no photo of Hogan on the walk to the arena, but there was one of Triple H.
It was a walk that has probably been taken by countless superstars of sports and entertainment.
The hallway spilled into a larger area that had hockey nets and the boards
with yellow trim up against one wall, which again was something special to see. There was also a giant T-shirt launcher machine decked in the colors of the New York Liberty, which had a game later on that evening.
The next sight to behold was a simple white sign with black lettering high on one cement wall. One arrow pointed to the referee's dressing room, while the other pointed to the arena floor. This was the moment it began to sink in that I'd be on the court at Madison Square Garden in mere minutes.
Walking through the opening between the stands quickly revealed the large jumbotron high above center court. Player seats were on one side of the arena floor with courtside seats surrounding the wooden court. Those seats acted as a bit of a changing area for us, to get suited up with a specialized basketball jersey. For this event, I got to wear No. 37, as the higher the number, the bigger the size in this case. There would be no wearing my number, No. 7, this time around. It only became a souvenir.
Walking on to the actual court was a surreal experience, as I not only made sure to check out where I was stepping each moment, but also made sure to take extra time in simply looking at the backboard and net, the logos on the court, the jumbotron view the player's see, and the arena seating that went on forever. Since it was the summer, the logo at midcourt was that of the WNBA's Liberty, instead of the familiar blue and orange logo of the Knicks. That was a small disappointment, but not so much when you realize there is probably little to no chance anyone would be allowed to play on the court when the Knicks are in-season.
The one and only goal I had from a basketball standpoint was to make just one successful bucket during the afternoon. Just one. I didn't care if it was a short jumper, a layup, or a 3-point bomb. Any successful basket made would have meant the same.
As I got the ball for the first time and headed toward the basket for a potential layup, I would be lying if I said it wasn't a stressful situation. In fact, it was flat-out scary, even though the only other people watching were the fellow wanna-be hoopsters who also had no business being on an NBA court.
I dribbled to the basket, got about a foot off the ground, maybe less, and released the ball toward the backboard. The ball bounced off the glass and fell down through the net. It was a huge sigh of relief as the ball released from the net. I had accomplished the only goal I set for myself heading into the experience of a lifetime. I knew I had a story for a lifetime.
I got the full experience at Madison Square Garden. I got to play full-court basketball on the same floor as so many greats had in the past. I refereed every other game I wasn't part of, a great way to see the floor and arena while running up and down the court, barely paying enough attention to actually call a foul, but creating memories and thoughts to last forever.
And I made a basket. At Madison Square Garden. Seriously.