Over the course of the last decade, while the New York Knicks have wilted away into irrelevance, the American basketball-watching public may have forgotten the mystique of their arena, Madison Square Garden. It wasn't on national TV, it wasn't hosting playoff games, and it never made headlines unless LeBron James or Kobe Bryant showed up there and dropped 50.
But the players never forgot. No matter how long the Knicks stayed out of the public eye, the players always knew the cultural significance of MSG.
"Favorite place to play," Ray Allen said. "You're on Broadway. It's got that Broadway feel — you feel as though you're entertaining people. Even though we're going out there to do our jobs, that's how people look at us. The lights are bright on that court."
Glen Davis agreed.
"I think every player would say that," Davis said. "When you play in Madison Square Garden, it's like the dome of all domes. It's like a sanctuary of a place to play. Just the history of it makes it a great place to play."
Allen's been playing ball at the Manhattan Mecca for well over 15 years — he arrived at UConn in the fall of 1993 and began visiting the Big Apple every spring for the Big East tournament. He went from UConn to the NBA, so he's been coming back every year since.
"It's just so unique," Allen said. "The tradition — as a college player playing in there, playing in big games, understanding just the tradition of New York basketball and all the great players that have played there, that building is timeless. I don't know what the outside of the building looked like, but I imagine when Willis Reed walked back out on the floor back in the day [in the 1970 Finals], the building pretty much looked the same as it does now. It hasn't changed a whole lot."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers also has fond memories of MSG — he played for the Knicks himself back in the early 1990s, and he was around for two deep playoff runs under Pat Riley. He's seen the building with the Knicks winning, and he's seen it otherwise.
"I just know that whenever the Knicks are playing well and there's energy in the building, it's fun for everybody," Rivers said. "I love it as an opponent, I loved it when I was playing, I've always loved it. It has that energy, it has that feeling inside of it. You feel that."
The most energetic element of all might be a certain Knicks fan in the front row — filmmaker Spike Lee, who's always there to cheer on his hometown team. And when the Celtics are involved, the vitriol from Spike hits an all-time high.
"Always," Allen said. "I don't expect anything different. He was in our building — I saw a glimpse of him when we played Miami, and I know that he was rooting against us then, too. So I expect that every time we play. We might be on TV playing the Golden State Warriors, and he'd be yelling at the TV, saying 'Go Warriors!' He's always against us."