There was a loud commotion near a hot dog vendor inside Madison Square Garden moments before a playoff game between the Knicks and the Miami Heat on Sunday. A group of Knicks fans spotted another Knicks fan and started cursing. Other people turned their heads, cautiously moving away from the group; a fight seemed to be brewing.
But as the fans walked toward each other, locked arms and began jumping around, it became clear that this was not about to be a brawl. At the center was Darryl Thompson, in a blue custom-made Knicks shirt with a four-letter word in orange and the name of the Heat’s best player: Jimmy Butler. All of the cursing? That was just the fans, uh, reading the shirt’s message out loud.
“I made it,” Thompson, 37, said proudly. “It took about 30 minutes. I came up with an idea instantly and all that. I called some personal people to get it pressed up for me. We just made one. We don’t want this floating around.”
Moments like that filled Sunday’s Game 1 between the Knicks and the Heat, the first second-round playoff game at the Garden in a decade. During the Knicks’ first-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Knicks fans stormed Seventh Avenue outside the arena, climbed poles, danced and drank after victories.
But on Sunday, the Knicks lost at home for the first time this postseason, 108-101, after being up by as much as 12 points during the first half. Seventh Avenue was desolate afterward, lined with police officers who were prepared for a raucous crowd but instead watched fans jump through puddles in the pouring rain as they headed for trains home. Game 2 is Tuesday at the Garden.
Here’s a look at some of the fans from Sunday.
Greg Dell, 48
Underneath Greg Dell’s Knicks hat is his hairless head, which he uses to show people how long he has been a fan of the team. “Since 12 years old,” he yelled, “back when I had hair.” The Knicks’ shortcomings over his 36 years of fandom have likely contributed to some of the hair loss, but he wouldn’t trade it for anything else, he said. And once you turn 12 years old, he added, you can’t change your team unless you move to a new city.
Dell said this has been the most exciting Knicks season he can remember since the team went to the 1999 N.B.A. finals because they finally feel like a legitimate contender. He said he was “throwing away” the Game 1 loss and predicted that the Knicks would wrap the series up in six games.
“It’s like dating,” he said. “If you want to find a loyal person — your spouse, your girlfriend — ask them their favorite team. If they say the Knicks, they’re loyal. They’re not cheating on you. They’re not leaving you. That’s us.”
Miguel Garcia, 45
Miguel Garcia and his two brothers, Danny and John, grew up in the long shadow of the Garden at 43rd Street and Ninth Avenue, close enough to hear some of the noise from around the arena on game days.
Their first Knicks memory was from Game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference finals when forward Larry Johnson was fouled as he made a 3-point shot and then swished the ensuing free throw to give the Knicks a 92-91 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
On Sunday, they entered the Garden clad in different colored wigs they purchased from Party City because they “had to go crazy” for the special day.
“You know, I have no hair, so I needed to put something on,” Garcia said.
Francis Vasquez stopped others nearby from talking, seemingly so they could understand the importance of what he was about to say. Vasquez lifted one hand as they watched: This one was for God, he said, before lifting his other hand just slightly beneath that one, which, he said, was for the Knicks.
Greg Dell and Vasquez met on Sunday after the game at a bar, and Vasquez said their relationship was reflective of what he loved about Knicks fandom.
“I could feel his energy, and he could feel my energy,” he said, “so that just builds a connection.”
Vasquez grew up in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, where he built an unrelenting support for a team that has never rewarded him for it with a title. Still, Vasquez said, he would “die for his Knicks.”
“Don’t let us win the championship; it’s going to be a riot that day,” he said. “I’ll probably get locked up that day.”
The Romito Family
Leah Romito had never been interested in basketball. But over the last two seasons, her 8-year-old son, Axel, has fallen in love with Knicks forward Julius Randle and guard Jalen Brunson, turning her into a fan, too. On Sunday, she followed her son’s directions, yelling and cheering as if she had been born into Knicks fandom like many of the others in the Garden.
It was the first game she had been to with Axel. Brunson scored 25 points, but Randle sat out because of an ankle injury. “It’s sad,” Axel said. “Very sad.”
Lakeisha Reid paid $1,500 to go to the game with her girlfriend. She said she has been a Knicks fan since she was a teenager, drawn to the excitement that the former star center Patrick Ewing, who attended Sunday’s game, brought her father and to people across New Jersey, where she grew up.
Sunday was her first-ever Knicks game, so she planned an eye-popping outfit for the occasion that featured shiny blue pompoms. “You only live once,” she said, “and I was like, ‘We want to do it right.’”
Reid said she was most surprised by the friendliness of the crowd, which she described as “crazy but polite.” Reid remembered fans yelling for others to sit down and people listening without debate. One fan switched seats with her girlfriend to make her more comfortable.
“Up north we’re known for being a little hard, and sometimes we could be a little loud, but at the game it was just the up-north love, the vibe,” she said. “It was just no drama. It was beautiful.”
Satchel Aviram grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., loving the Knicks for as long as he can remember. He appreciates the fan base primarily because Knicks fans are loyal through the few ups and the innumerable downs, unlike Nets fans, he said.
“The second the Nets lose, they know it’s over. When the Knicks lose, we know we’re going to fight,” Aviram said. “The team is behind the Knicks always, and the city is behind the Knicks.”
Aviram said the rain and gray skies could have been reflected in a gloomy feeling among fans after the loss, but instead he said he felt a positive “electricity” in most fans looking forward to Game 2.
“We’ve been down for so long that it’s meant so much for the city that we’re finally battling,” Aviram said, “and it seems like we finally have it figured out that we can go forward.”