By Andrew Kahn
NEW YORK—Wilt had some unbelievable games here. Ali and Frazier fought here. Elton has played here more than 60 times. The players who will take the court at Madison Square Garden this weekend, though, don’t remember any of that. And yet they still regard the Garden as the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Tonight the Garden will host NCAA Tournament games for the first time since 1961. Connecticut plays Iowa State and Virginia takes on Michigan State; on Sunday, the winners will face off for a trip to the Final Four. The players, born in the mid-’90s, aren’t old enough to have witnessed most of the arena’s greatest moments. The New York Knicks last won a championship in 1973 and haven’t even reached a conference final since 2000. LeBron and Kobe put on monster performances at MSG but both have had higher-scoring games elsewhere. None of that seems to matter.
“As a basketball fan growing up, Madison Square Garden has always been the arena where you see big time players go off for huge games,” said Virginia senior Joe Harris. “Regardless of where the Sweet 16 would be, it would be exciting, but the fact that we’re playing in MSG adds a little bit more something to it.”
Players from all four teams mentioned the great players who’ve suited up at the Garden. Michigan State sophomore Gary Harris said, “It’s just a huge place in the history of basketball.” Virginia sophomore Evan Nolte echoed that sentiment. When asked for specifics about why he holds the building in such reverence, Nolte talked about its popularity that stems not just from basketball moments but all of the concerts, too. “I’ve grown up always hearing about the Garden,” he said. None of the players interviewed grew up within 700 miles of New York.
When asked if they thought the Garden was still a big deal for young athletes, the four coaches sounded disappointed at any suggestion otherwise. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo compared the building to former Spartan Magic Johnson. He can mention Magic’s name to his current players and still get a reaction. “Everybody knows him, everybody knows who he is, what he’s all about, no matter when you were born. And I think Madison Square Garden is something like that.” Izzo said all his former players who went on to the NBA, from Scott Skiles to Steve Smith to Zach Randolph, all say the Garden is the place to play.
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said, “I don’t know if there are a lot of arenas that would have the same impression that a place like Madison Square Garden would. They understand it. They see it. They go out there and see the banners…To come to New York City and play in the Garden I still think has a great affect on these kids.” Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie, who, like Hoiberg, experienced the Garden as an NBA player, called it the “greatest arena alive for basketball.”
There’s at least one player who isn’t thrilled to be playing here. Adreian Payne is 0-3 at Madison Square Garden during his four years at Michigan State and has scored a combined three points in those games. Asked if there is anything special about playing in the Garden or if it’s lost on him since he’s relatively young, Payne declined to answer. “Pass,” he said with a laugh.
Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local Sports who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn
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