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First taste of College basketball at Madison Square Garden

I recently had the chance to watch a game in the States, in NY precisely. I had to make choices between the type of sport (American football, hockey, baseball and basketball) and the sports venue. Many teams were not playing home games or at that time of the year. The MetLife Stadium of the New York Giants and Jets, located in New Jersey seemed too far away. I would have liked watching an NBA game at the mythical Madison Square Garden (MSG), but I was discouraged by the price: $277  at best for the NY Knicks playing Oklahoma City Thunder. The last option remaining was that strange “Gotham Classic”, Louisville vs. Memphis,  at MSG, 16th December 2017 – 12 :00 pm.

College basketball? I know nothing about College basketball except that it is maybe as popular as its NBA counterpart. So, why not give it a chance? I got two tickets on the web and went to the game for two reasons 1/  to discover the MSG, supposedly the best arena in the world, and 2/  to understand the ambiance of a college game. I purposely did not spend time on the internet to get a better understanding of the College basketball system so as to see it with fresh eyes. I was soon captivated by the game itself and its rituals rather than by the perfected, oiled machine of MSG. So I wrote this article to tell about my experience of the game, to raise some (weird, stupid, clever?) questions and to hope for some comments from American experts or fans of College basketball


Ticketing and wondering
Through a website, I buy easily and at a reasonably cheap price ($ 11 plus $ 1.98 for fee service and $7.95 for delivery… by email!!!) a ticket for floor 8, row 16, seat 5. Good location, in the lower part of the stands. Obviously College basketball is more affordable than the NBA… Madison Square Garden is clearly over-sized for the event, with just the lower part being occupied, and even so, a lot of seats remain unoccupied.

I did not come with local fans as I often try to do. It left me with many unanswered questions. I do not understand why such a game, opposing two universities from the South, Louisville vs. Memphis, is located in New York? Is it for the neutrality of the venue? Where did the fans come from? Did they travel all along from the Southern states? Do they have a lot of fans living nearby that seize the opportunity to see their home university playing in the Big Apple?

Car park nearby the MSG

If people really came from the South, did they travel by plane or train, with their own cars, or by coaches? How did they travel to the MSG? Did they park their car around the venue? To come by car seems to be a luxury considering the car park fees around: $18  per hour (four hours min.). Did they park outside the city and take a subway train? When I arrive by foot I could not spot any fans reaching the venue. Maybe people were hiding their colors in the street for safety reasons.

Do the fans gather somewhere in the city before/after the game, as a meeting point? Is there something like a square or a pub in a neighbourhood affiliated with their home city or state: the « Memphis diner » where you can eat the best Mississippi’s burger or a Kentucky migrants’ street?

Allocation of seats and late arrivals
I could not spot an organized group of fans, such as ultra or socios in Europe, not even an official group from the University. It seemed that the people located on the floor, nearby the playing field, are kind of official fans, families or members of the universities though.

The fans are not located in the stands according to the team they support. We can observe that the ground seating is roughly divided in two parts, one being dedicated to Memphis tigers and the other to Louisville Cardinals. Apart from that, fans are mixed. Everyone can buy a ticket everywhere in the stands. Fans are sitting nearby, respectfully. They do not interfere with the other fans in any manner: gentle discussion, chanting, mockery, insult, etc. Are there any fights in basketball? People seem to support their team regardless of other people standing nearby. It sounds clever.

Are there any records of the previous games between the two universities, some memories of a lost final in the 60’s or 70’s? It seems that history does not play its part in the game. In Europe, sport and geopolitics are never too far away. Nationalism and capanilism1 are very strong. We often have invaded or have been invaded by the neighboring village, city or country. It creates some history to recall during the game… and some people think that a victory in rugby or football (sorry, soccer) can ease the old wounds…

Families, couples and bands of friends.

At MSG, people are coming to the game in groups or with their families, more or less extended (father and children, parents and the kids, groups of friend, etc.). There is no special location dedicated to a specific public like the “kids club” or the “family stand”.

Being late does not seem to be a problem. Some people only arrived five minutes from the half time. Traffic jams, security checks, boredom? I personally missed the tip-off for having brought a camera that seems a bit too professional and a backpack that seems odd for the security. Did they have a pre-game event organized by fans or by MSG such as a European or Brazilian tifo? The late arrivals of spectators disturb the viewing. The stands being far from being full, people did not sit exactly on the correct seat and late incomers claim their right. An old suited steward  is busy trying to seat everyone.

Pizza time, all the time…

Some people are watching the game, eating pizza or popcorn in big boxes or discussing everything but basketball like these two ladies behind me, more concerned by this story of sexual harassment in a company than by the game… “I beg your pardon Madams but I am trying to get the spirit of College basketball, right now!”

Fans’ outfit and decorum
People are wearing t-shirts and hoodies (sweat-shirts in French…) of the team or university, sometimes a cap. They have no scarf. They wave no flag nor show a banner. Is there a ban on banners? They could wear a scarf as the venue is air-conditioned, even in the middle of December with  record-low temperatures outside !

Memphis University’s players, mascot and cheerleaders.

Memphis seems to be much more organized. They have fans dressed in blue, a band, some cheerleaders (you do not say anymore pom-pom girls, do you?) and a Tiger mascot that reminds me of some cornflakes marketing or Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. Memphis’ Tigers have even a superhero that looks like a smurf (schtroumpf for the French readership) without his white cap. He seems to be sad not to compete with an equivalent from Kentucky. A superhero needs also some competition for emulation; otherwise, they get some drinks…

Cardinals have just brought some fans and a band. No mascot, no cheerleader, no superhero. Were they saving energy for the next game? Were they short of cheerleaders and superheros? Did they have some? Did they no longer believe in superheros? Did Louisville University ban cheerleading for some gender issues? Their bird looks like one of these “angry birds” from the app. They have a great basis for superheros.

There is a profusion of bands. One from each university is playing at the beginning of the game. They are located on the ground, behind the basket. They wear the university’s colours. Bands are composed of brass and drum sections. They only play at timeouts. They seem to play only when requested. Cannot they respond to each other, trying to play louder or better than the other?

Memphis’ band playing at time out.

A third band arrives in the middle of the game: the Englewood’s band. It is located on the upper part of the terraces. The band is much bigger than the two official ones, maybe 70 to 80 musicians and it has some weird cheerleaders wearing jeans and hoodies. Clearly this band insists more on the music than on cheerleading. What is it doing here?

People seem to know basketball. They are connoisseurs. They appreciate a good defense and are keen to accept a missing shot if the team’s movement was well-executed. On each attack, we can hear yelling and encouragement in a crescendo under the basket or when the seconds are running out.

The fans stand up and cheer at the end of a fine movement such as a counterattack concluded by a tricky pass and a dunk on the buzzer. It seems they prefer a collective and efficient basketball game to the show that we can see in the NBA. This is much appreciated.

Big screen, timeouts and challenges
The game appears to us as very jerky, constantly interrupted by timeouts and half time. We realize that many people are watching the game on the big screen rather than directly. The vision is indeed much better. Why do the screens never show a replay? Is it to avoid bitterness from the deceived fans?

Timeouts are, in fact, one of the interests of the game. On each timeout, a new challenge is proposed: two players are trying to make two point shots for winning a ball, adults are trying one or three point shots, etc. Two teams of kids are playing a little game at half time. They are all – what you call “Caucasian” or Asian – contrasting with the university teams. A fan, Brian, is asked to shoot as many balls as he can. It is clearly a disaster. He, nevertheless, gets a diploma. Do students get their diploma in the same way?

Oh my god, we are on the big screen!

Fans tried to attract attention from the camera on them. In Europe, fans are sometimes the main attraction of the game. TV shoots them being a mass of fans, producing its own kind of spectacle. Here, people hope they will be spotted by the camera and shown on the big screen moving their body in a funny way. It exists in European international rugby games, but less than here. Hopefully, I am not spotted furiously scribbling my impressions about the game in a book, like a nerd…

Second half
There are now a bit more fans in the stands (far from being full), clearly more in the main stand facing the TV cameras… TV viewers must believe that MSG is packed with thousand of fans.

The stand opposite the cameras (up) and the other one (down)

Step by step, fans are getting into the game. There are a bit more yelling, some spontaneous but very brief chants: “Let’s go Tigers!” and “Cardinals, Cardinals!”. Nothing really organized. Some kids are sleeping peacefully in their mothers’ arms. Well, there is no suspense at all and nobody seems to be surprised by the victory of Cardinals: 81-72.

End of the game
Players and fans do not look either  really happy or disappointed by the result. The “player of the game” politely accepts his award and leaves shortly after. There is no specific communication between fans and players. Was it an official game? Was Memphis eliminated? Is this a kind of play-off game? It seems to me that the two teams were in some kind of play-off after a regular phase in their local conference. Are these teams playing in a closed league, like in the NBA or MLS, without any promotion or relegation at the end of the year? If so, how do people select universities that will be playing in such a league? They are plenty of universities in the States. How do their basketball teams reach the elite?

Too many questions left unanswered at the end of a great first experience… So, please, dear American fans and experts of College basketball, leave a message!

Cite this article as: Jean-Michel ROUX, First taste of College basketball at Madison Square Garden, in Au stade des villes, 22/12/2017,, ISSN format électronique 2556-6563.

This text was corrected and much upgraded by Justin, an American student at the Institute of Planning and Alpine Geography. Many thanks.

  1. Campanilism is a term referring to ancient Italy. It means an exclusive attachment to his/her own city, from the word “campanile”, the bell tower []