The Circus Was In Town

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From the late 1960s through the mid 1970s there was a palpable excitement walking into Madison Square Garden to watch a New York Knicks basketball game. My dad was the general manager for a manufacturing business and the company bought season tickets for the Knicks. While a good number of the game tickets were used to entertain clients, my dad always found a way to take me and my sister Lisa to at least three or four games per season.

We watched the 1969 and 1973 Knicks teams defeat the Los Angeles Lakers for their two most recent championships. It is hard to believe that its 44 years ago that a championship banner was last raised to the Garden’s rafters.

We watched so many great players come into the Garden. For me, none more memorable than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor). I watched him dominate collegiately during his four years at UCLA. He came into the NBA as the first overall draft pick in 1969, chosen by the perennial doormat Milwaukee Bucks franchise. At 7’2”, Alcindor was almost a foot taller than the Knicks center and captain, Willis Reed.

My dad’s seats were in the second section up from the floor and prior to the game, we could walk down towards the court and watch the players warm up. Gaining that up close perspective of just how huge the players were was an adolescent thrill I’ll never forget.
While we stood in rapt silence at court-side watching the players warm up, the occasional fan would shout a encouraging remark to one of the players. Now and again the player would acknowledge the fan with a wink of an eye or a slight nod of his head.

Once the games started nothing was quiet. The Garden became a two-hour cacophony of shouts, pleads, cries and screams, all mirroring the ups and downs of the Knicks performance. They poured their sweat and blood to defeat arch rivals such as the Boston Celtics, Washington Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers. Of course in the playoff finals the hated Western Conference opponent, Los Angeles Lakers were our foe.

My 40-year-old dad and I would leave the Garden joyful or downtrodden depending on the final score, but always barely able to speak from shouting so long and loudly for our Knicks. We were ridiculously passionate, the epitome of fanatical.

However, we were never asked by anyone working at the Garden to vacate the building based upon our outlandish behavior. For that matter, I remember only the most infrequent occasion when a fellow fan was asked to leave the premises based upon their overly boisterous actions.

During the years I’m describing, the Knicks playoff series would span four or six weeks in April and May, depending on how far the team got. If you were fortunate enough to attend any of these series you will recall seeing and smelling evidence of Knicks’ co-tenants during that time, Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus. Trapeze ropes and assorted other circus apparatus were tied up from the Garden’s ceiling, occasionally blocking a view of the center court scoreboard.

You didn’t really need to see the equipment to know that the Knicks were sharing the building. The smell of sawdust, elephants, lions and horses wafted throughout the Garden. The aroma permeated your nostrils and made you realize two of the world’s greatest performances were taking place in this same hallowed building.

Every year, my parents took us to a performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. My wife Audrey and I followed that tradition with our children, Zachary and Jessica. Our trips were usually to the one-time mecca for Islanders hockey, the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Awestruck, mesmerized, frightened, captivated—adjectives describing reactions Zachary, Jessica, my siblings and I had watching the circus in three performance rings. We walked the sideshow menagerie prior to the main performance. Awkwardly gawking, staring at contrived or true physical oddities displayed by the circus for our amusement—even then, it was a cringe-worthy element to the circus’ “persona.”

But alas, Barnum and Bailey is all but gone. The last of the company’s two performances will be shown this year. One of these shows is at our renovated Coliseum in Uniondale on May 21. Perhaps it is our greater cultural awareness and civility that has brought the curtain down on the circus?

Wait, wait just a minute—the circus is not dead. The circus is still very much alive. You can take your family to a Knicks game and see an iconic player physically dragged from his seat for allegedly shouting obscenities at the owner of the building and team.

Yes, the circus is soon to be gone, but the smell may linger long after its departure from both the Garden and Coliseum.

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Jack Young is a columnist for Plainview Old Bethpage Herald.

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