Madison Square Garden: A Storied History

“Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena!” This phrase has come to signify the start of a New York Knicks basketball game for fans around the world. Despite the Knicks’ struggles over the years, their beloved arena, Madison Square Garden, continues to captivate fans and players from around the world. I have only been to The Garden twice, but whether I was watching the basketball game, the halftime show, or simply observing the melting pot of New York citizens, the Garden captivated me. I remember these visits as two of the highlights of my childhood. However, this arena has an illustrious history that goes beyond sports; it has woven itself into the culture of one of the greatest cities in the world.

The first venue to bear the name “Madison Square Garden” was built in Manhattan in 1879, and the current building is the fourth arena to hold that name. MSG has been the venue for great sporting events outside of basketball and hockey, including famed boxing events such as the 1974 Ali-Frazier fight, but it also has significance in the worlds of music, politics, and cultural phenomena.

Madison Square Garden today. Photo credit: msg.com.

The first Madison Square Garden opened its doors in 1879 on East 26th street and Madison Avenue. Originally built as a converted railroad station, The Garden was later transformed in 1925 into a venue suitable for basketball, hockey, and other sports. The arena standing today was opened in 1968 over Penn Station. MSG is owned by the Madison Square Garden Company, whose chairman is James Dolan, who inherited the company from his father Charles Dolan.

Madison Square Garden from 1925-1968. Photo credit: stadium185.com.

A banner is hung in MSG commemorating Phish’s “Baker’s Dozen.” Photo credit: Steven Lacy.

The American musical culture has been a staple in the walls and seats of The Garden. The legendary rock jam band Phish has performed upwards of 40 times at MSG and continues to draw in massive crowds. This summer, between July 21 and August 6, Phish played thirteen shows in only seventeen nights at The Garden. This run became known as the “The Baker’s Dozen,” and, remarkably, the band did not repeat a single song. Match writer and Phish phan William Fallon (’19) reflected on the concerts by saying,“The history and beauty behind the Garden fits the situation perfectly. Phish has an awesome history in MSG, and it’s a really cool venue that welcomes the concert. The fact that they were able to sell out 13 nights in a row at MSG is unbelievable, and I think the Phish fan base really respects MSG.” Phish is playing there again for one of their traditional New Year’s Eve runs this December 28-31.

 

Phish at The Garden. Photo credit: Daniel Oppenheimer.

In addition to Phish, artists such as Elton John, Billy Joel, and even names like Drake sell out the venue. Joel even had a banner raised for his record number of performances in 2015. Collegiate Upper School English teacher and Match advisor Vlastik Svab said, “I saw my first rock concert there in October 1989: Elton John. He played impressively for four hours!” Another demonstration of The Garden’s close ties with music is Michael Jackson’s 30th anniversary concerts on September 7th and 10th, 2001, which sold out in just under five hours. While Madison Square Garden has only sold out for comedians nine times, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, and Eddie Murphy highlight the list of comedians that New Yorkers file into the doors of the Garden to see.

Billy Joel gets a banner at MSG. Photo credit: Debra L. Rothenberg.

After the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks, Paul McCartney organized several groups, including The Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Billy Joel, and The Who to play at The Garden. This event was called “The Concert for New York City” and provided a distraction from the horror that the city has endured. The Who’s performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is said to have “sounded just as good as it did in ‘71, except this time it was fueled by the energy of the greatest city on our planet.”

Madison Square Garden has housed several events of political significance since the 20th century. The Garden hosted the Democratic National Conventions in 1924, 1976, 1980, and 1992. It was also home to the Republican National Convention in 2004. Candidates such George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton were all involved in conventions at The Garden.

One of the most impactful events in the history of American boxing took place at Madison Square Garden. On January 28th, 1974, heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali defeated Joe Frazier in one of the most famous boxing fights in the history of the sport. This twelve round fight in front of over 20,000 people resulted in a unanimous victory for Ali.

Ali-Frazier fight. Photo credit: Larry Morris.

Despite all of the positive impacts that sports and music have, the Garden does have a dark side. The American Nazi party held a rally at Madison Square Garden on February 29th, 1939. These 22,000 people referred to themselves as part of a group known as the German-American Bund. The group was started by a German-American engineer named Fritz Kuhn, who fought for the Kaiser in World War I. Kuhn’s followers were Americans who were crushed by the Great Depression. The rally demonized Jewish Americans and was lead by the slogan “Stop the Jewish Domination of Christian Americans.” The next day, there were a reported 50,000 anti-Bund protesters, and The Chicago Tribune reported that there were over 1,700 police officers on duty in New York.

MSG is also known for being home to some of the greatest moments in the history of basketball. The home of the New York Knicks for over 70 years, the “Mecca of basketball” has been home to some of the sport’s most memorable moments. On May 8th, 1970, former MVP Willis Reed, despite battling a torn left thigh muscle, came out of the locker room to help energize the Knicks to their first championship in a game seven win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Additionally, Madison Square Garden seems to elevate great players to even higher levels. Legends such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had some of the most electrifying performances of their careers at the Garden.

Porzingis dunks. Photo credit: Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images.

Today, New Yorkers file into Madison Square Garden to watch Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis, a 22 year-old who stands seven feet, three inches tall. After being booed on draft day, Porzingis has become the face of New York sports, demonstrating one of the most diverse skill sets the NBA has seen.

When walking through Madison Square Garden, it is easy to be captivated solely by the event of a specific night. However, The Garden is a special place that has been the venue for some of the most memorable moments in the history of sports and entertainment, as well as boasting a rich political and societal impact.

About the author

Jordan Leibowitz is a junior at Collegiate.