For this sociology of sports project, I decided to attend a New York Knick’s game at Madison Square Garden. The game took place on February 28, 2014 and the opponent was the Golden State Warriors.
History of Professional Basketball
Invented by Canadian Doctor James Naismith for the YMCA, the purpose of basketball was to provide for a physical activity during the winter months. The name of the game is derived from the fact that the original game featured peach baskets nailed to boards. The first organized game of basketball was played in Springfield, Massachusetts on January 20, 1892 (Faurshcou, n.d.). During the first several decades of existence of the game, various professional basketball leagues struggled to gain popularity and were certainly no match for Major League Baseball. However, gradually the game gained recognition and in 1949 the two most popular leagues – the National Basketball League (NBL) and Basketball Association of America (BAA) merged to create the present-day National Basketball Association (NBA). The first season featured seventeen teams separated into three divisions, but by the time the 1953 season had begun, the teams had consolidated into eight franchises due to low attendance (“NBA is born” n.d.). The teams, which continue to exist to this day, are the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia (now Golden State) Warriors, the Minneapolis (Los Angeles) Lakers, Buffalo Royals (Sacramento Kings), Fort Wayne (Detroit) Pistons, Milwaukee (Atlanta) Hawks and Syracuse Nationals (Philadelphia 76ers). The Lakers and Celtics reigned supreme from the start, with the former winning four titles in a five year span at the beginning in 1949 and the latter winning 11 championships within a 13-year period starting from 1957 through 1969. The ‘70s saw the NBA include several American Basketball Association (ABA) teams; the 80s witnessed a renewal of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry lead by Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson; the 90s saw Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls win 6 championships in 8 years; the 2000s featured a Lakers three-peat with the duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and thus, far the 2010s have been dominated by Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, who are seeking their third consecutive title in 2014.
History of the New York Knicks
Having provided an overview of the history of professional basketball, the discussion will now turn to the New York Knicks. The franchise, officially known as the New York Knickerbockers, was officially started on June 6, 1946 as a charter member of the BAA. They won their inaugural game 68-66 over the Toronto Huskies. Their first starting lineup consisted of Ossie Schectman, Stan Stutz, Jake Weber, Ralph Kaplowitz, and Leo Gottlieb and their coach was Ned Irish (“The Knickerbockers story” 2014). The Knicks had some initial success after joining the NBA, making it to the NBA Finals in 1951, 1952 and 1953, but falling short each time. The franchise went through hard times at the end of the 50s and the mid-60s, but finally captured their first title during the 1969-70 season, led by future Hall-of-Famers Willis Reed and Walt Frazier and coached by the legendary Red Holzman. The Knicks won it again in 1972-73 with Reed, Frazier, and Jerry Lucas leading the way. It remains their last championship to date. After several years of mediocrity, the Knicks emerged in the mid ‘80s as a contender again after winning the first pick of the inaugural NBA Lottery, which they used to draft star center Patrick Ewing. Although, the Knicks won a string of division titles in the late 80s and early 90s, they were thwarted by teams that ultimately had better talent, including Jordan’s Bulls on several occasions. During Jordan’s brief retirement, the Knicks finally made it back to the NBA Finals but lost to the Houston Rockets in 7 games, a large part of this is assigned to Ewing’s center counterpart Hakeem Olajuwon. The late ‘90s featured lively playoff series against the Pacers and Heat, but it was not until Jordan’s second retirement before the strike-shortened 1999 season that the Knicks, playing as the first 8th seed to ever make it to the NBA Finals, only to lose to the San Antonio Spurs in 5 games. Following the retirement of Ewing in 2000 and the ill-conceived hiring of Isiah Thomas as team president, who many regarded as running the worst operation in all of professional sports (“New York Knicks”, 2014), the Knicks suffered from some very disappointing seasons. Although, they made the playoffs in 2004, it would be their last trip until Carmelo Anthony led them back in 2010-11. Although they won the Atlantic Division title in 2012-13, the following year turned out to be a disaster in spite of high expectations. The Knicks finished 37-45 and missed the playoffs. This ultimately lead to front office changes, with Phil Jackson, owner of 9 NBA coaching titles, being hired as the next team president in April 2014.
History of Madison Square Garden
Current report also focuses on Madison Square Garden, the venue where the basketball game that is the subject of this project took place. There have actually been four major reconstructions of this arena. The first, which opened on April 27, 1874, was built on the current site of the New York Life building and hosted various events such as circuses, political rallies, and the predecessor to the Westminster Dog Show held to this day in the current MSG. The building was demolished and a new Garden was built on the site in 1920 and could seat 8,000 spectators. Not long after, in 1925, the third MSG was built, but this time in a different location; near the current Worldwide Plaza. Aside from hosting the Knicks and the NHL’s New York Rangers, it hosted skating events, rodeos, a presidential rally for then-candidate Franklin Roosevelt, and was the site of the famous 1957 bout in which Sugar Ray Robinson beat Jake LaMotta. The fourth and current MSG, which opened on February 11, 1968, was built between 31st and 33rd Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Aside from hosting the Knicks and Rangers, it has also hosted presidential conventions of both of the major parties, and the concerts of virtually every musician and band of note (Weiss, 2013). The current Garden went through one renovation in 1991 (“Madison Square Garden” n.d.) and a second $1 billion upgrade during three offseasons from 2010 through 2013. This included making improvements to the locker rooms, the roof, scoreboard, and even two walkways situated above the court that allows fans a unique view of the action.
For the most part, the fans could be separated into two major categories: those who were clearly diehards who were in attendance strictly to root for the Knicks and those who had come for the overall experience of taking in a professional sports event. Symbolic internation, where the decisions we make are based on how we define our interactions in certain situations, could definitely be observed (Brown, 2001). Almost all of the former were dressed in blue, orange and black team colors of the Knicks. Their choice of clothing and their ritualistic behavior signified that they did not see this as a mere basketball game; for them, it was a truly a sense of belonging. The Knicks represent their family, their city, their life and identity. Nobody captured this feeling that night more than Spike Lee, who I saw on the “live from celebrity row” feature on the Jumbotron screen. From a sociology standpoint, it is interesting how teams featuring grown men dribbling a ball and shooting it into a hoop can generate genuine emotion.
I entered MGS with three friends about 45 minutes before tipoff. Only a small crowd had gathered at that point. It appeared that a lot of them might have been tourists. A lot of them were not wearing Knicks gear. Perhaps, they had arrived early in order to gobble up the experience of visiting Madison Square Garden for the first time. There were lots of advertisements on the large scoreboard screen and there were signs all around the arena, consistent with conflict theory as it relates to commercialism (Brown, 2001). In this case, the message is that the measurement of an individual’s worth is related to his/her amount of consumption. The public service announcer was informing arriving fans about promotions for upcoming games. The arena gradually began to fill up, although, it appeared that at least 2,000 fans did not come in spite of the fact that the game was announced as a sellout. A lot of the no-shows came from the sections closer to the court, most likely season ticket holders. The players came onto the court about 30 minutes before tipoff for their pre-game shoot around. There were cheers when the Knicks came out from the tunnel and boos as the Warriors did the same. After the pregame clock struck zero, it was time to introduce the honorary ball kids; there were two girls and one boy in this particular game. They were greeted with a polite cheer. Then it was time for the national anthem, sung by a young local woman who was from some organization that I was not familiar with. This ritual, of course, is performed before all sporting events. From a sports sociology standpoint, this fits in with sports being an event that espouses community and togetherness. This would be consistent with the theories that portend sport as a means of instilling cultural ideologies and values through nationalism and patriotism (Brown, 2001).
The player introductions began with the announcement of Golden State starting lineup. This was done with the lights on and no music playing. The public address announcer named the players using a matter-of-fact tone that lacked any enthusiasm. Although, this was not disrespectful per se, it was clearly meant to send a message that the Warriors were nothing more than an afterthought and that the Knicks are the real show. There was a smattering of jeers, but there was no vitriol or genuine animosity towards the opponents as far as the crowd was concerned (the likely reasons will be discussed at greater length in perspectives section of the paper). After the five Golden State players were introduced, the lights went off and a brief highlight reel with customized rap music about the Knicks played on the scoreboard. By playing the upbeat music and with the PA announcer speaking with great enthusiasm, the purpose of this ritual was to generate excitement from the crowd. This was our team and the series of dunks, on-the-mark passes and acrobatic flashing across the screen was an indication that the Knicks are an unstoppable force. When starting point guard Raymond Felton was introduced, the reaction from the crowd was mixed. He had recently been charged with felony weapons possession and this was his return game. The message was clear: the fans considered him a key component to the team and viewed his trouble with the law as a needlessly selfish act. Once the startling lineup was announced, it was time for the tipoff. We all stood on our feet and clapped rhythmically and even let out a small groan when the Warrior’s Stephen Curry came on the arena. The Warriors missed their first basket to the delight of the crowd and after Raymond Felton came down with the rebound, he brought it down court and dished it off to Carmelo Anthony, who sank a shot from about 15 feet or so. Golden State played a very fast-paced game of basketball and the Knicks simply could never keep up. Shot selection was bad (Anthony missed a shot that was several feel behind the three point line) and he even committed a sloppy pass. Down 13-6 around halfway through the first quarter, Coach Mike Woodson called a timeout. The Functionalist Theory, supports the belief that sport contributes to maintaining a balance in society because it requires the participants to meet and reach goals collectively (Mooney, et al., 2007), could be seen throughout the game both in general terms and specifically through the course of the Knicks versus Warriors match up. For instance, while the majority of both teams were African-American, there was still diversity and integration of individuals from different backgrounds. The players were working together to achieve victory. There were a variety of emotions in their pursuit of this, including joy, frustration and anger, especially when certain players made careless errors or felt like their teammates were letting them down.
During the first timeout, staff members began shooting t-shirts into the crowd, a standard practice that is seen at all basketball events. Even though it was nothing more than a blue cotton t-shirt with a Knicks’ logo on it, it was amusing to see how genuinely excited the crowd was about the prospect of getting something for free. The shirt gun made its way around the arena and fans were standing up and imploring the guys to shoot it their way. There were enthusiastic high-fives and handclapping in the areas where the lucky fans managed to claim their shirts. The action resumed, but aside from occasional moments – such as when the Knicks managed to hit consecutive three pointers after the timeout – there was not a lot of excitement from the crowd. My friends and I spent a lot of time making wisecracks or finding other things to talk about as a coping mechanism. It would be difficult to classify our behavior as “heart broken.” Had the Knicks been playing well that season and if more had been at stake, I am certain there would have been more tension in the suite and indeed in the entire arena itself.
It was interesting to view contrasting demeanors of Coach Williams and Golden State’s Coach Mark Jackson throughout the game. Coach Williams, for example, was by far the calmer of the two even though his team was struggling. Given what a long, frustrating season it was becoming, this might not be much of a surprise. It could be the case that the Knicks had simply lost the enthusiasm to put on a show. While they were still mathematically in playoff contention (the Eastern Conference was really poor in general), there was no sense that they were playing which much urgency. There were moments when Williams would put his hand on a player’s shoulder and bark something, but it did not appear very effective. It was actually Jackson who demonstrated more anger when his team executed poorly, which did happen even though they were in control throughout the game. The Warriors at that stage were fighting for a more favorable playoff seed, so it is possible that Jackson was using this technique to keep them from letting up not so much because the game was in doubt, but because they would need to play with passion through the course of the rest of the season if they wanted to go deep into the playoffs.
After the first quarter ended, the Knicks City Dancers, the team cheerleading squad, made their first appearance. They were dressed in white, tightly fitting one-piece outfits. While this squad (and indeed every professional cheerleading squad) is intended to provide a certain amount of sex appeal that caters to the predominately male audience, there was something about the women that presented something cheerful and endearing more than anything else. Dancing to some hip-hop song with excellent choreography, the ladies demonstrated that they had real talent and athleticism. I saw it as something positive rather than sexist, so in this case I would not prescribe the conflict theory, but certainly would relate it to functionalism since the ladies worked together to create a routine that was challenging but ultimately fun, creative and performed to perfection.
Down 73-52 at halftime, the crowd booed the Knicks players as they headed towards the locker room. Chats that called for Coach William’s firing permeated at this point. The fans were clearly fed up and assigned him the blame. At this point, my friends and I resigned to the fact that the game was lost and we focused more of our energies on the experience of being in a luxury suite – we had access to an unlimited supply of snacks and soda – and enjoying the company of each other. The halftime show featured children dancing and it was very cute and provided some cheer and relief from the debacle of a game. The crowd was listless during the second half of the game. The Knicks did improve but managed to keep the game even. Unfortunately there was nothing in the rule book that allowed the Knicks to pretend that the first half never happened. Center Tyson Chandler was kicked out of the game halfway through the fourth quarter. Fans typically show anger and disbelief when the referees eject one of the home team’s players, but in this case it was met with a collective “whatever.” As the game ended, the crowd had one last chance to voice their disapproval. I estimate that midway through the 4th quarter at least half the fans had already made the decision to go home early. We spend another 15 minutes after the game had ended. Staff were wiping the court floor, members of the media were putting away their laptops, and the broadcast production crew packing things up. In spite of the outcome, I have no regrets about spending a few evening hours watching the game and developing a fuller appreciation of everything involved it making the event a success.
The three main sociological perspectives, mentioned previously, are functionalist, conflict and symbolic interactionist. From a functionalist perspective, the Knicks organization seeks to nurture and produce a successful team through proper coaching, practicing and fostering comradely. In this sense, it mirrors society as a whole and when done successfully it the return is soon seen. Conflict theory is applicable when sport is used as a vehicle in order to promote athletes as celebrities and creating wealth for a few rich people. Based on this argument, the point of e existence of the Knicks (and professional sport in general) is not to promote fun or fitness, but to make money for the elite (Coakley, 2004). For the symbolic interactionist perspective, we will consider the Knicks and their relationship with the Warriors. It is worth keeping in mind that the two teams have neither an established rivalry based on geography (the Warriors are located in Oakland, California) nor tradition. Having been to a Knicks game when they hosted the Boston Celtics a few years ago, there was a significant difference in the way the Knick fans (and players) were reacting to the opponent as compared to Golden State. For instance, there was never any jeering towards any Warrior players aside from the forced boos that seemed to be done for the sake of doing them, not because there was any real animosity towards the Warriors. As a matter of fact, at one point during the third quarter one of the Warriors managed a killer crosser move that sent the Knicks defender stumbling backwards. That play, which ended with the Warrior dishing off to a teammate who laid the ball in, resulted in a collective awe of appreciation, showing respect for the talent of the opponent. It appears unlikely that the fans would have responded in equal fashion had this place been accomplished by a Celtic, Los Angeles Laker or Miami Heat player, three teams that Knick fans loath for a variety of reasons. It is a sociological phenomenon that fits into social identity theory in which social context affects intergroup relations (Hornsey, 2008). It can also be applied to symbolic interactionism making no difference that Laker and Warrior players are made from the same DNA; the fact that the Laker has the purple and gold jersey and far more titles than the Knicks is enough to make a difference in attitudes (Brown, 2001).. That kind of “us versus them” mentality is far more potent than what the Warrior fans faced that night at the Garden.