An Acoustic Throw-Back for the New York Knickerbockers

Madison Square Garden went partly silent Sunday night, and not because the Knicks are terrible.

Derrick Rose (25), a point guard for the New York Knicks, drives against Stephen Curry (30) and Draymond Green (23) of the Golden State Warriors on March 5.
Derrick Rose (25), a point guard for the New York Knicks, drives against Stephen Curry (30) and Draymond Green (23) of the Golden State Warriors on March 5. (Brad Penner / USA TODAY Sports / Reuters)

There was something decidedly unnerving about the atmosphere at Madison Square Garden during the Knicks-Warriors matchup on Sunday night.

“It was weird. It was really weird,” said Steve Kerr, the head coach for the Golden State Warriors, in a postgame interview. “It felt like church.”

Madison Square Garden had announced an unusual experiment, via a message on the arena’s jumbo screen, before the game: “The first half of today’s game will be presented without music, video, or in-game entertainment so you can experience the game in its purest form. Enjoy the sounds of the game.”

Courtesy of Madison Square Garden

It’s not that it was quiet, exactly. You could still hear a roiling crowd in the stands, the bleat of a referee’s whistle, the reliable thud of the ball, and the squeaking of sneakers on polished maple. But to anyone who is accustomed to the pace and sound of a professional game, things were definitely different. One sportswriter described the atmosphere as “incredibly uncomfortable.”

The players certainly noticed. “I didn’t like it,” said Kristaps Porzingis, a center for the Knicks, in a postgame interview. The Knicks lost the game, 112 to 105.

“That was pathetic,” said Draymond Green, a power forward for the Warriors. “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. Why would you do that?”

Spokespeople for Madison Square Garden and the Knicks declined to discuss the genesis for the experiment, or comment further.

The professionalization of basketball has led to, among other things, an unusual convergence of sport and sound. More precisely, though, it is a convergence of basketball and broadcast technology. Broadcast television, in particular, has forever changed the game, such that even the smallest technical details shape people’s expectations about what a basketball game should be.

Technicians have come up with all kinds of workarounds to give TV viewers the sense of atmosphere at the actual game. One of the best, and simplest, is the addition of floor-level microphones aimed at capturing the sweet echo of a ball being dribbled down the court. Backboards are also outfitted with contact mics, to amplify bank shots and swishes. (Television networks have been strategic about their use of this technology. They want viewers at home to hear the ball, but not the trash talk among players.) Today, people take for granted these kinds of auditory enhancements—but they’re part of why revisiting classic basketball footage can make historic games seem even older than they actually are.  (Also, those shorts.)

Then there are the ways that broadcasting bleeds back onto the court.

The rhythms of broadcast television are now built into the very game, most famously in the form of TV timeouts—those mandatory breaks in play so that viewers watching a televised game don’t miss any action during commercials. TV timeouts have changed coaching strategies, and changed the way basketball fans experience the game in-person, too. Major arenas have created new traditions around the necessity of these media pauses—features like kiss-cams, interactive guessing games, Jock Jams style music, and other team-specific rituals that are their own forms of broadcast.

People accept the game as it is now, because it’s what we are used to. But it wasn’t always so. In 1967, in the early days of TV timeouts, the crowd at an NFL game loudly booed in response to a television-prompted pause in play. The episode was described in newspaper accounts the next day.

Basketball games, too, were different back then. Listen to what a basketball game (a very, very exciting one) sounded like in 1962, for example:

If anything, the experiment at Madison Square Garden Sunday night was like a return to an earlier era of broadcast, when fans could listen to games on the radio, but before most games were televised. But the experiment also begs a deeper question: What is basketball in its purest form? Is the sport somehow more authentic when it is not broadcast, or when it is not being played professionally, or when there are no spectators at all? People often describe the purity of college hoops as something tied to the fact that the players are not paid. But there’s a strong argument that the lack of compensation for college players is instead what makes college basketball impure.

As it turns out, the first basketball game ever to be televised in the United States was a college game—and it was played at Madison Square Garden. The year was 1940. The matchup: Fordham vs. Pittsburgh.(Pittsburgh won.) That game didn’t even begin to approach the highly-produced spectacle that pro basketball games have become. It simply couldn’t have, given the technologies available at the time. Besides, it’s unlikely very many people even watched it on television. TV sets in New York City numbered in the hundreds at the time, according to Fordham’s sports information office. It would be another seven years before the World Series was televised. Ditto the first televised State of the Union address. But when television finally took off, it happened quickly and irreversibly. TV has left as deep an imprint in the sporting world as it has in the rest of American culture.

In 1945, nearly one-fifth of people in the United States still didn’t know what a television was, according to a Gallup poll that year. And even among those who’d heard of TV, most people had never seen one in person. Between 1947 and 1957, American television ownership jumped from 10 percent to about 85 percent. By the 1960s, with the emergence of color television there was no turning back. “For color television, basketball is unusually ideal,” The San Mateo Times wrote in 1967. “First of all, the lighting in the usual arena setup is more than adequate, and the short distances involved keep color distortion to a minimum.”

“Just about every sports producer and director we talked with agreed that basketball couldn’t be better for television if it had been created by a television producer,” the Times concluded.

And now, a return to a pre-television aesthetic doesn’t feel authentic or pure, but rather unnatural.

“It was ridiculous,” said Green. But he could have just as easily been talking about the history of broadcast as he went on: “It changed the flow of the game. It changed everything.”