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Reality Price Check

When I was moved to the Knicks beat in the 2006-07 season, the first home game I covered that year was the fifth time in my life that I was inside Madison Square Garden to see the Knicks play a live game.

That wasn't because of a lack of interest. From the days when Bernard King was lighting up the NBA and putting a scare in the Boston Celtics in 1984, the Knicks were my team as a fan. But coming from a lower-middle-class family with two working parents — and, as a lot of you probably can relate to, my dad actually worked two jobs — spending money on tickets to see the Knicks wasn't an option.

This is significant today because of the announcement the team made on Friday regarding an astronomical spike in ticket prices for next season. The outrage you all are feeling now, I felt in the 1990s. Affording a ticket to a Knicks game was unrealistic for someone like myself in my early 20s as I reached an age of financial independence (which is a nice way of saying my parents cut me off).

And as history repeats itself, let me address a misconception of most fans that I'd like to correct here and now: reporters don't get free tickets to games. We don't have access to free tickets. If my son or daughter wanted to attend a game, I'd have to buy a ticket. And, quite frankly, I can't really afford it, either. Not for a decent view, anyway. Not for something that would be worth the expense of not only admission but transportation and, of course, food.

But that's a reality I'd grown so used to from my childhood that it doesn't faze me when I hear that tickets will get 49 percent more expensive next season. This in no way is an endorsement; it's more a depressing reality that I can commiserate with more of you. My entire life as a sports fan included this reality. Yankees and Mets fans and Giants and Jets fans already have experienced it.

And perhaps that was a big part of my motivation to become a sportswriter, so I could witness live events that I so often missed when I was younger. To see, feel and taste atmospheres that came filtered to me through a television and described to me in a newspaper.

People ask me all the time if, as a beat writer, I "get" to talk to the players. Yes, but to me, that isn't the privilege.

To me, it's getting to be there. It's being there and, at the risk of sounding sanctimonious, writing about it for those who were like me 20 years ago, when I couldn't afford to be there.

Yes, I've often complained about how the NBA has pushed print media members like me away from the court, and to some of you, it sounds like a lack of appreciation for still being in the arena. That which is being misinterpreted as a snobbish sense of entitlement actually is frustration in the fact that my job is to not just cover the game but the event that is the game. It's to include the sights and sounds and the energy that is best absorbed sitting courtside, embedded in the field of play.

Sitting 30 or so rows up, stuffed in a corner of the arena, limits a writer's ability to present to readers the intimate descriptions of the moment. The decision to cut the print media out of that valuable space of lucrative ticket real estate while keeping the television broadcast right on the court shows an alarming disinterest in the impact of the printed word. Then again, I get it: while the NBA makes millions off broadcasting rights, the league doesn't make any money off print journalism.

And I also understand that this is the only sport in which members of the media have had such close proximity to the game. In the NFL, NHL and MLB, reporters are stashed in a secluded media containers -- they call it a "press box" and it's often akin to the balcony where Waldorf and Statler sat and mocked The Muppet Show (age reference...Google it, they were funny) -- into which information is funneled and the television broadcast shows you what you are too far away to see for yourself.

Rumors rule print journalism these days because the actual game already has been described and dissected by the time the morning paper hits your doorstep. So yes, it all makes sense to me. It sucks, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't understand it.

And although I'll be disappointed when we're moved up and away from the court next season, I'll still be happy to be in the building. And it'll still be my job to describe the atmosphere to those who aren't there, especially if there's a lot more of you who won't . . . or can't.

Full disclosure here: I grew up with this team, but I'm hardly a credible source of first-person perspective about anything before 2006.

[Let me forewarn you here to bail out on this blog now or be caught into a swirling vortex of mushy, rambling nostalgia.]

The Garden buzz was something I had only read about. The roar was something I only heard through the television. Those bright stage lights were a bit discolored on my parents' Zenith.

My first time in the building was sometime in the mid-1980s to see the circus. I remember I spent most of the time staring at the copper ceiling. The second time was to see St. John's, with Boo Harvey and Michael Porter, play against Rik Smits and Marist in a semifinal game of the ECAC Holiday Festival in 1987. Apparently, as I later found out from Coming to America, Prince Akeem from Zamunda also was in attendance.

Yes! In the face!

It wasn't until April 1991 that as a gift, I got tickets to see the Knicks for the first time. Pretty good matchup, too: They played Michael Jordan and the Bulls. If I'm not mistaken, Gerald Wilkins was hurt that night, so starting in his place was a CBA refugee named John Starks. But it was a second-year player named Brian Quinnett, a second-round pick, who stole the show off the bench by outscoring Jordan 16-5 in the second quarter as the Knicks took a stunning 62-45 lead.

But a reality check was in store as Jordan scorched Quinnett and the Knicks in the second half. The Bulls outscored the Knicks 30-12 in the third and rolled to a 101-91 win.
It was hard to go away entirely disappointed. I mean, I finally got in the building. Well, sort of. I literally had my back to the wall behind me in the 400s, the former Blue Section, where the salt-of-the-earth fans still exist in a stratosphere so high and far from the court that at one point, I could swear I took a high-five from Lady Liberty when Quinnett drilled one of his two three-pointers in the game.

What I realized that night was that we may have been far from the stage, but the chants and the energy and the passion all seemed to develop from the 400s. It then would cascade down the upper bowl like a waterfall and splash over the Silver Spooners in the lower bowl and onto the court.

Just being in the building mattered for certain moments. I wasn't there to feel Patrick Ewing's outstretched arms hugging the crowd after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 1994, but I was for Larry Johnson's four-point play in 1999. I can't imagine that any other moment produced as spontaneously loud a moment as that.

My colleagues on the beat often roll their eyes at the fact that after almost five full seasons and nearly 200 home games, I still maintain a sense of wonder about being courtside at the Garden . . . and I haven't yet covered a playoff game.

I did have the fortune of being on the court — actually on the hardwood and, to add to the thrill, on camera for MSG Network — when Carmelo Anthony and the new-look Knicks took the floor Feb. 23 for the first time after the blockbuster trade. Trautwig was in my ear and asked me to describe the scene. I didn't initially look toward Carmelo, who wore a big smile the entire night. Instead, my instinct was to look upward, into the darkness of the 400s, toward the place I sat 21 years before, with my back to the wall, thrilled to just be in the building.

A nearly billion-dollar transformation project has to get paid for somehow, so despite frustrations, you can't begrudge the business decision to raise prices to inject more revenue. Of course this is the right time; with Carmelo and Amar’e Stoudemire and the return of this franchise to high-end status, it's basic supply-and-demand economics.

But something has to be left sacred, and if there is somewhere to be spared from the price hike, let it be for those hardy souls in the 400s. Let it be for the place where the energy builds and boils over until the entire arena is caught up in the buzz. Let it be for those with their back to the concrete wall, straining to decipher Landry Fields from Shawne Williams, just happy to be in the building.


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