Wagner: Can MSG’s In-Game Entertainment Trial Help Improve the NBA Experience?

As someone who’s said for years that the artificially created noise in NBA arenas normally serves as annoying overkill, and that I had often wished the league let its great game breathe a little more, I greatly appreciated Madison Square Garden’s first-half experiment as the New York Knicks hosted the Golden State Warriors on Sunday.

In a surprise move, the main Garden scoreboard above midcourt announced during pregame warmups that until halftime, there would be none of the usual music, video or other in-game entertainment provided, so the purest form of the game could be enjoyed.

Seeing feedback like one fan saying, “I hope they consider this regularly,” and that of many other fans and media members seemed to agree with my own praise of the idea, I figured the notion was even more widely embraced across the basketball community.

That was until I heard the thoughts of another basketball faction of those whom the silent trial seemed to affect most — the players, who weren’t keen on having to find their own rhythm amongst only the regular, organic sounds of the game.

Although I valued going back to basics — with the NBA, for once, not trying too hard with ugly, alternative uniforms which sometimes don’t even match a team’s franchise colors (in place of the clean-looking, normal road blues and regular whites that the Warriors and Knicks respectively donned on Sunday), and being able to hear the natural squeaking of sneakers, coaches bellowing out instructions, players vocally communicating, the swish of the net after a smooth jumper the referees’ whistles, and fans initiating cheers on their own without being prompted by scoreboard messages or organ cues — many of us underestimated what removing those things from the game meant to the players.

“I didn’t like it,” Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis said.

His teammate, forward Lance Thomas, agreed. “We’re just so used to the Garden being so active and loud,” Thomas said. “It reminded me of a high school, They didn’t dim the lights [as usual, for pre-game player introductions], we didn’t have music. You really had to create your own energy out there, you had to create your own zone to, I guess, counteract that. We did alright in the first half but it was weird, nonetheless.”

Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr, said, “You sort of take it for granted because every NBA game, you got all this stuff going on, music in the background. You don’t even think about it until it’s not there. It felt like church. It was very quiet… it was strange. I kind of liked it better in the second half. It felt more normal with the music.”

Kerr’s star point guard, Stephen Curry added, “It was, like, back in middle school warm-up games, where it’s just you and the teammates… [and] there’s no music or entertainment whatsoever, so it was definitely different. I read the sign on the scoreboard, and they wanted to see fans enjoying the game in its purest form. That’s a great way to put it.”

Curry’s sarcastic tone at the end of that statement was far more subtle than the comments of his teammate, forward Draymond Green, who openly bashed the Garden’s efforts to turn back the clock to a much simpler time.

“That was pathetic,” Green said. “It was ridiculous. It changed the flow of the game. It changed everything. You get so used to playing the game a certain way. It completely changed that. I think it was disrespectful to everyone from [NBA executive] Michael Levine to [Warriors president] Rick Welts, and all these people who have done these things to change the game from an entertainment perspective and give the game a great vibe. That’s complete disrespect.

“You advance things in the world to make [them] better. You don’t go back to what was bad. It’s like, computers can do anything for us. It’s like going back to paper. Like, why would you do that? So, it was ridiculous… it changed everything.”

Green didn’t believe the Knicks were trying to throw the Warriors off. Instead, he felt the effect was negative all the way around.
“No, I don’t think they were trying to change us, because I think it changed their players, too,” he said. “Did you see that first half? It was just bad, sloppy, all over the place. There was no rhythm to the game. All of that stuff makes a difference, believe it or not… that’s why when guys go in and work out at night, [we] turn on music. It helps [us] get into a certain area, it takes [us] to a certain place. I don’t think they were trying to do it to throw us off, but it definitely threw the entire game off… they need to trash that because that’s exactly what that was.”
Many, including myself, thought Green’s remarks were a little overboard. But the game is ultimately about the players. If they’re not as comfortable as they can be on the floor, it affects the product for the fans.

So while I still feel that NBA games are an unnecessary assault on the senses, and that it was nice during the first half on Sunday to be able to “hear” myself think and to be able to talk — instead of yell — with fellow reporters during timeouts, it makes sense to find a happy medium somewhere in the middle that the player can live with as well.

Performances from the Knicks City Dancers, Knicks City Kids, launching free gifts into the crowd with t-shirt cannons also add to the overall experience at the Garden, and I personally take no issue with the usual sights and sounds during time outs. Where I part company with the players is having live music being played during live game action. That’s where the game should be enough to sell itself.

Ideally, a college basketball atmosphere — with live music being played by team bands and lively fans akin to student sections behind the basket, in lieu of the contrived and manufactured atmosphere the NBA creates — while watching basketball being played at the highest level in the world would be the best environment of all.

But while we won’t wait around and expect that to ever happen, perhaps there is a perfect blend of silence and noise that the NBA could move towards, inspired somewhat by what the Garden gave us on Sunday. And then maybe the league could make everyone happy with an environment that keeps the players in rhythm while still allowing the experience to be less about creating a show and more about what many of us feel is the best sport on earth.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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