A buddy from work (a Kentucky native) organized an outing to Wednesday night’s Kentucky-UConn game at Madison Square Garden. I’ve been to a bunch of Knicks games over the last three years, and I hadn’t realized how much I’d come to associate MSG with dead crowds, empty seats and so-so NBA basketball.
Because on Thursday night, the Garden rocked. And it caught me completely by surprise.
It was clear on the way to the arena that the crowd had huge potential. We stopped at a UK alumni event at a bar near MSG on the way and made a U-turn because the crowd of blue sweatshirt-wearing people who were clearly not from New York City was overflowing into the street. Kentucky fans were drinking on the sidewalk. They had no concept that drinking on the sidewalk might be illegal. It was awesome.
And these people traveled, from Kentucky, for this one game. Hell, two of the people in our group of eight had traveled from out of state (one from Lexington, the other from Washington, D.C.).
That is devotion. This was a Wednesday night. This was not a Saturday college football game you could use an excuse for a weekend getaway. These people took days off from work to come to New York City and watch a non-conference college game.
We got to MSG close to halftime of the undercard (Georgia-St. John’s), and it felt like a Knicks game. The stands were half full and people were barely paying attention to the game (One guy in our group remarked, “I keep looking up and they are still playing basketball”). But as the second half wound down, you could feel the atmosphere changing. People wearing dueling shades of blue were taking their seats. You could hear chants of “Let’s Go UConn!” and “C-A-T-S, Cats, Cats, Cats!” from the walkways inside the arena.
It dawned on me as the players warmed up that I had never been to a neutral court game before. And I cannot believe it took me this long. Let me tell you: Neutral court games that can draw are awesome. To say fans were talking trash to each other is an understatement.
And they were talking trash because they sensed the historical importance of the game. They understood that these are two of the premier programs in NCAA history, and that they may not meet again for a decade. (They had only met once before). This game mattered. It mattered because of the programs, the coaches, the star player (we’ll get to him) and because it was taking place in New York.
Watching a game like this amid a divided crowd is a different experience from anything the NBA can ever offer. The best way to explain it is this: When the C’s are rolling in Boston, the fans go crazy together. It’s a jovial and positive communal experience. The entire arena rocks together, cheers together and gets quiet and dejected together as the game ebbs and flows. There are very few visiting fans—if any—at which the rowdiest among us can direct our bragging/taunting/joking/projectiles.
This is not true at a neutral court game. There is always someone to taunt, including perhaps the person right next to you. Kentucky roared out to a 12-0 lead, and the UK fans were delirious. The other half of the crowd just sat there, stunned. They were targets for the UK fans. One guy about 10 seats to my right (a guy way too old to be acting like this) stood up, saw a UConn fan in his twenties about 30 feet away (wearing an Okafor jersey) and yelled, “You gonna score tonight, boys?” (And he dragged out the word “booooooyyys” to emphasize that he was, in fact, saying “boys” and not “men”).
The UConn fan smirked and yelled back, “What? You haven’t won anything. Sit down!” A drunken young UK fan a few rows in front of the older fellow took up his defense, and the two young guys (separated by about 10 seats and two rows) spent the entire first half ripping on each other. (Unfortunately, they were not very creative. They didn’t get much beyond “Sit your ass down!” and “Scoreboard!” The UK guy once rubbed his eyes and put on his sad face, miming “Are you gonna cry about it?” The bird made a few appearances).
UConn responded with something like a 24-6 run, and the dynamic completely flipped. The UConn fans were cupping their ears and doing their whole, “What? I can’t hear you now!” thing and the UK fans were stunned.
It seemed like a fight could break out at any time. You know what the cool thing about it was, though? There was only one fight. The trash talk verged into aggressive territory a few times, but a lot of the guys spewing it had knowing smiles on their faces. They understood that what they were dishing and taking was part of the experience each of them had come to the stadium to have. In a way, the situation was less dangerous and combustible than the one that happens when a group of fans of the home team decide to torment one or two fans of the visiting team—something we saw several times during the Major League Baseball playoffs this season. That is gutless bullying designed to ruin someone’s experience.
This sort of equal strength trash-talking—this was the experience.
As we were leaving the arena, we walked by a group of dejected young UConn fans who were staring into their phones texting in effort to avoid eye contact the happy UK groups walked by. An hour earlier, this particular UConn crew had been itching for some verbal sparring. They were barrel-chested 20-somethings with way-too-groomed beards, earrings and backwards hats they had been tossing at people below them before the game. (Yes, they were throwing their own hats). Now they were silent.
A UK couple walking by cheered and pointed at them. The biggest UConn guy stood up and said something to the girl in the couple. I couldn’t catch it, but I think he said something like, “You’re lucky that [expletive] is with you, honey,” implying that his gentlemanly respect for women (an attribute all men with pencil-thin beards share) preventing him from attacking the woman’s boyfriend. She stopped in her tracks and I thought she was about to enter finger-wagging mode. Instead, she leaned over the railing and whispered something in his ear. The two started laughing and high-fived. Then she left.
Oh, this is a basketball blog? Some observations from a very, very, very distant fan of college hoops (but also a Connecticut native who generally knows what’s going on with UConn):
• UK is a better team than UConn, and the gap will probably grow by the end of the season. UConn really has only two guys who can score (Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker), and their skill sets overlap. They have no post game. Four years at UConn, and Stanley Robinson still really doesn’t know how to play offense. Every UConn halfcourt possession seemed like terribly hard work.
Kentucky, on the other hand, had a much easier time generating open looks. They just have better players. If Coach Cal is as good as he thinks he is, this team should be a monster by March. DeMarcus Cousins played well for about five minutes on Thursday. If he plays well for 15 minutes during a March game, watch out.
On the other hand, UConn is UConn. They don’t have the interior talent or depth to be a truly great team, and they don’t have anyone who can shoot threes. Lots of ugly, physical games coming up for the Huskies this season.
• John Wall is basically as good as the hype. Athletically, he’s off the charts. His quickness to the ball pursuing steals on defense seemed to surprise UConn’s players. During crunch time, the UK offense stalled and Wall just took over the game. He made two straight isolation pull-ups in the last 4:00—NBA-level shots, but taken over much smaller players than he’ll usually face in the league. Still—impressive. UConn’s guards couldn’t defend him.
• After those shots, the Huskies switched Robinson—a 6’9” forward—onto Wall, and it deterred him from shooting. Down 61-60 with less than a minute to go, Calipari called timeout and drew up a motion offense play that used a dribble hand-off/pitch to give Wall some space from Robinson and get him moving as he received the ball. It worked beautifully; Wall streaked down the left side, rose up and nailed a lay-up on the left side of the rim, plus the foul.
As my Kentucky buddy noted, he didn’t shoot the lay-up left-handed. He didn’t have to. He hung in the air as the defender bounced off of him, gathered himself and shot a two-handed lay-up. A strong, controlled and athletic play.
• Kemba Walker: Please stop talking trash after every single thing you do. It’s embarrassing.
• I had forgotten how repetitive college cheers are. I must have heard the “C-A-T-S, Cats, Cats, Cats!” cheer 100 times during the game. Literally. And Kentucky can do better than having half its cheerleaders holding up a sign that reads “Blue” (cueing one side of the crowd to chant “Blue!”) while the other cheerleaders follow by holding up a sign that says “White” (cueing the corresponding cheer).
I sort of felt like I was in a nursery school class learning the names of colors. (And that is not a joke about Kentucky. Just about the cheer. UConn is similarly uncreative).
• In any case: Great atmosphere, mediocre hoops. The NBA is better basketball. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.