While it may be the celebrities along the front row at Madison Square Garden that make New York seem a special place to play, it is on the playgrounds and high school gyms where basketball has always really taken hold in New York. And as the Knicks ready to embark on a season with a return to capacity at the arena, it is with three disciples of those playgrounds on the roster.
Kemba Walker, Obi Toppin and Taj Gibson all grew up playing on the blacktop outside and in high schools across the city -- Walker in the Bronx, and Toppin and Gibson in Brooklyn (though Gibson played high school ball in Westchester).
Is there something special about putting a contingent of hometown products on the court at Madison Square Garden?
"It’s pretty special," Walker said. "I've known Taj for a very long time. He’s been trying to get me to come here forever. So, it’s definitely very, very comforting knowing those guys. They know me. Watching Obi from afar, knowing he’s from New York and then coming here, it’s like we kind of already have that connection, you know? So, we kind of just got along really easy."
There has long been some allure of home for New York products. Bernard King remains a legend in the city. Derrick Rose conceded the starting point guard job before camp began, noting, "Coming in, he has a lot to prove being from New York. You have to give him the stage, being that he’s from here. You have to give him the opportunity."
"I didn’t know Kemba personally but he’s a New York guy," Toppin said. "Taj is a New York guy. We probably know the same people. We’ve been to the city. We’ve been to the same city games like Dyckman, Rucker Park, all those parks. We definitely know the same people. But to have all those people on the same team – New York guys – it’s amazing."
Toppin spoke of how special -- and odd -- it felt to hear his name chanted at the Garden when it filled up for the playoffs last season, the way he used to do it for his idols when he was a kid growing up with his grandfather a season-ticket holder.
Walker had made a name for himself as a high school star at Rice and then thrilled the Garden crowd while leading UConn to a Big East title. Now he’s happy, even if it took a while to get to New York as a pro, to be an example to the kids in the city.
"It’s different. I can’t even lie to you," Walker said. "It’s different. I was just telling Taj the other day, we come in and every year, every team they come give you sweatsuits and bags. My New York sweatsuit just hit a little bit different than my other sweatsuits from the last couple years. I just feel like me being from here — like, I’m really, really from here. Born and raised in the Bronx, you know?
"So, it’s definitely just a little bit more special. So, yeah, I just wanna be that role model for the young kids, because I’ve always felt like if I can do it, anybody can. Me, specifically, just being a smaller guy. Always been that way. Always. And I always overcame everything. So, yeah man, I want to be a role model for all the young kids in New York City. Whatever I can do to help, I’m here."