Thanks to my friend Mal, I had two free courtside seats to yesterday's noon game at MSG as Pittsburgh took on St John's. Originally Tieff was going with me, but he had garage renovation issues. Mal was unavailable as well. So, I asked my four year old son Matthew to go. I don't think he was interested in the basketball game as much as the train ride into the city (I was right on that).
So after giving assurances to my wife that he would be just fine, Matthew and I embarked on a very familiar trip to me. Matthew soaked in his first LIRR train ride by drawing a train with a conductor and people (always make sure your four year old has a knapsack of paper, drawing material, markers, snacks and his favorite toy). As for me, I have been taking train rides into MSG since I was in college to watch basketball games, Knicks games, concerts etc. And I have seen my share of St John's games here, especially when they were in their glory.
I remember sitting up in the 300's with my ex girlfriend Mary watching the Jonnies take on Syracuse in a sold out Garden. I had my binoculars with me watching Mark Jackson dribble at the top of the key on Sherman Douglas at a critical point late in the game. Jackson took his eyes off Douglas for a second and Douglas took the opportunity to steal the ball from Jackson. Cuse went on to win the game.
Those days are long gone. In January, I wrote "My Take on Empty City", which was my addendum on Kyle Whelliston's terrific Mid Majority article on "Empty City". In my article, I talked about how St John's has fallen from grace thanks to some bad coaching choices and the mighty Big East passing it by. Yesterday was another example of it. As we sat in my courtside seats as my older son munched on a soft pretzel, I could see directly ahead of me a good chunk of the empty 200 and 300 section seats. How that would not have happened in the Carnesecca days.
As for the game itself, coming off a heartbreaking MSG loss to Marquette a few days prior, I could tell the Jonnies were very flat. That is a dangerous combination when you are not a good team as St John's came into the game at 5-9 in the Big East and 15-11 overall. Especially when you are playing a nationally ranked Panthers team that was supposed to be in rebuilding mode and was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East.
Despite a 7 1/2 hour bus ride, the Panthers were not lethargic and jumped out to a 16-8 lead with nine and half minutes left in the first half. Beleagured Jonnies coach Norm Roberts called timeout, but to no avail. As his team of bricklayers continued to put up bad shots and miss free throws, the Pitt lead swelled to 26-14. Pitt would end up shooting 50 percent from the field in the first half.
And the St John's fans behind me voiced their displeasure, which is now seemingly in its eighth straight year since they last made the NCAA Tournament (first round loss to Wisconsin in 2002). How bad was St John's playing? At one time in the first half, the Jonnies were shooting 22 percent from the field (overall 33 percent in the first half) and only 53 percent overall from the line for the half (7 of 13).
It was during this time that my son Matthew voiced his displeasure about the noise in the Garden. You see, he had tubes inserted into his ears last month to relieve a fluid problem, which resulted in his hard of hearing. Now he hears really well and he is not used to loud noises, such as PA systems and the such. Matthew wanted to go back on the train and home to Bellmore and mommy. And well I had been planning to leave the game a little early anyway to make sure to catch game number three of my 24 hours of college basketball, Georgia State vs. Hofstra.
As I consoled Matthew by having him curl up into me, it was during this time I noticed the rest of our entire row. The two of us were sitting on the end of the row by ourselves. So I had to take this picture with my cell phone camera (since my canon camera batteries died).
Now it so happens that a couple showed up to their seats in the row a few minutes later. But the vision of the empty row, along with the scoreboard and the overall lack of enthusiasm in the crowd of 6,859 (which is a little more than a third of MSG's capacity) mentally reinforced what Kyle and I both wrote about back in January.
When Pittsburgh called timeout with 15 seconds left in the half leading 31-23, that was our cue to leave. We walked up to the stairs to the exit and I stopped to put Matthew's jacket on him. I then looked back at the court and the arena in general. It's amazing what can happen in the span of eight years. A once filled arena now at barely over a third capacity. It made you wonder is it really this bad. Pittsburgh would go on to beat St John's 71-64.
Then when we stopped in the bathroom because nature was calling for me, I just listened in on all the disgust of the St John's fans. How Anthony Mason Jr. couldn't hold a candle to his dad. How bad a coach Norm Roberts was. How bad the shot selection was. How bad the St John's facilities are compared to other Big East teams. Then I realized, these are the remaining diehards who are trying to be loyal, clinging on for hope and venting because there is no justification for their support. For many others, that hope is long gone and in such a tough economic climate, it's hard to justify spending dollars on a team that has been not very good for a while now. As far as St John's is considered, right now MSG truly is an empty city.
As we left the Garden, my older son announced to me "I am not going to any more basketball games with you any day". Guess he really hated the noise. Or maybe it was St John's bad first half. Either way, we caught our 1:16 train back to Hicksville. On the ride back, Matthew fell asleep. I doubt very much that he had visions of fast breaks dancing in his head.
As I viewed our snowy landscape courtesy of our latest blizzard, I could only hope that eventually he will enjoy loud college basketball arenas like MSG. The question is will St John's ever fill the Garden again so it can be loud? Right now, the answer is "Not for the forseeable future". And that's a shame.