Pope Francis’ celebration of Mass at Madison Square Garden tonight prompted my friend, sports publicist and blogger John Cirillo, to email me a post on his favorite Garden moments, which got me thinking about my own.
But first, a little history. The Garden, named for President James Madison, really was once a garden – a rooftop garden that was part of an elaborate Moorish-style complex designed by architect Stanford White, who was shot there in 1906 by a crazed Harry Thaw over Thaw’s wife (and White’s former mistress) chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit. (She figures in both E.L. Doctorow’s novel “Ragtime” and the movie “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.”)
As I said, all of that happened long before the present Garden and I became acquainted, in the 1970s. It might’ve been a terrible moment for fashion, hairstyles and, arguably, music, but for sports, it was magic, what with championship Yankees’ teams, three Triple Crown winners and, yes, the New York Knicks.
In the early 1970s few basketball teams were better as they won two championships under legendary coach Red Holtzman. Willis Reed, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, “Dollar Bill” Bradley, and Dave DeBusschere, whom I saw all the time at Yankee Stadium, thanks to my family’s box seats, were like the fingers of an agile hand – each distinctive and yet working as one unit. In an era of racial tension – Sadly, has there ever been an era free of racial tension in this country? – three black men and two white men played with class and chemistry. Today’s athletes should study them or at least read Harvey Araton’s “When The Garden Was Eden” (and see the subsequent documentary).
Fast forward to the 1980s, and Aunt Mary and I are in Garden press seats for Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love Express Tour. I am greatly enamored of the Boss, so much so that I don’t mind that he has arrived onstage so late that later Aunt Mary and I will just make it to the parking garage before it closes at midnight. I also, unlike the intuitive Aunt Mary, am oblivious to the subtext emanating from the stage.
“He’s having an affair with her,” Aunt Mary says of Bruce and E Street Band member Patti Scialfa. And, sure enough, not long after, Springsteen divorces his first wife Julianne Phillips and marries Scialfa.
Now fast forward to 2014 and World Tennis Day. The McEnroes versus the Bryans. And then the main event – Novak Djokovic versus Andy Murray. It occurs to me then that tennis is a prizefight plus chess – an elegant boing match. Nole and Andy may be slugging baseliners, but that belies their ability – along with Rafael Nadal’s – to change pace and direction, sometimes changing pace as they change direction.
My sister Gina buys me a Diet Pepsi and a lobster roll. I buy a program. Heaven. So much so that I have given a similar experience to Quinn Novak and Tam Tarquin – the star quarterbacks at the heart of my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding,” the second in my series “The Games Men Play.”
About a month later, I persuade a Metro North conductor to give me one of the many posters of the event still gracing the trains. I frame it and hang it in my home office – yet another reminder of “When the Garden Was Eden.”