When Allan Houston was a kid growing up in Kentucky, he got a chance to come to New York and see a Broadway play. He was impressed by the pageantry of it, which hit him again the first night he played in Madison Square Garden as a member of the New York Knicks.
He was part of the tapestry of New York, of the hype and excitement, and when the ball was tipped, it was as if the curtain was going up on that Broadway show he had seen as a kid.
"You think you'd get used to it, playing in the Garden for 41 games," Houston said. "But every night you're playing on the biggest stage in the world, and I never for a minute took that for granted."
Houston was part of an unmatched era for the Knicks. When he played, publicists pleaded celebrities' cases for front-row seats. Those seats were hard to get, and so were all the others; the Knicks were sold out for 433 consecutive games from 1991 to 2001. Fans could root for a perennial contender during a streak in which the Knicks made the playoffs for 14 straight seasons.
"It's been almost 10 years since they were a serious playoff team," said Dennis D'Agostino, a Knicks historian and author of "Garden Glory."
"Enough time has passed now that you might not understand what was going on in May and June of those years."
Not at the moment, anyway. But as the team has cleared enough space under the salary cap to afford one (or more) of the top free agents on the market, potentially LeBron James, the Garden could soon be the most coveted ticket in town again. James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson can start signing with teams July 1, and if the Knicks can land one, the Garden of the past and the Garden of the future might feel a lot alike.
"This could be a jump-start to the city, not just to the Garden," said Houston, now the Knicks' assistant to the president for basketball operations. "People tell me every day that they're ready."
An informal survey of watering holes reveals that the neighborhood's bartenders may be the most ready for a jolt. "I've been here for three Knicks seasons and the only time there was a crowd in here was when LeBron was in town," said Mike Seaman of Mustang Sally's on Seventh Avenue. "As far as bartending, if he came here it would mean an extra $10,000 for me."
Conor Hayes, a bartender at the Blarney Rock on 33rd Street, is equally eager to welcome King James. "There's only one word -- insane," Hayes said when asked what the atmosphere at the bar would be like if LeBron signed with the Knicks. "He'd not only pack this bar, but he'd pack all the bars. Financially, it would be incredible. When he comes to town now, the bar is full -- it's like a concert when he's here."
The 42-year-old Garden is due for a transformation both inside and and out. A $775 million renovation is underway. Already some offices have temporarily moved across the street, and when construction is finished, in stages with a projected completion date of 2014, there will be a walkway high over the basketball court, floor-level suites and wider concourses with windows overlooking the city.
"Knicks and Rangers fans are going to feel like they're in a new building, but the character is going to be there," said longtime Knicks announcer Al Trautwig.
That character once included a packed house of nearly 20,000 fans for every home game. It included a celebrity row and a private room, Suite 200, for the A-listers to wait for the game to start and then take an elevator directly to their courtside seats. It included a host of worthy villains in Reggie Miller, Alonzo Mourning and Michael Jordan.
Tickets in the days before Craigslist and StubHub were hard to come by -- you had to either know someone or be willing to procure one through an antiquated method called scalping.
The Knicks of the 1990s embodied the city itself in several ways. "They were very much a lunch-pail team," said D'Agostino. "They had a superstar [in Patrick Ewing] and New York loves a superstar. The other thing is when [Pat] Riley came, he brought that glamour aspect."
D'Agostino remembers hopping in a cab to get to the Garden during the 1994 playoffs and seeing the distinctive orange and white "Go New York Go" placards in apartment windows and storefronts throughout the city before he arrived at 33rd Street and Seventh Ave.
Those Knicks came close but never won a championship, unlike the group in the early '70s led by Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Walt Frazier, which brought home championships in '70 and '73.
The group in the '90s was well-loved because there had been such a dry spell. Houston said he couldn't drive out of the Garden, even with tinted car windows, without having fans chase after his car. For today's fans, the dry spell has lasted even longer.
Right now, the Garden is in a state of anticipation. "I think what is getting everyone excited is the possibilities," said D'Agostino. "Not one specific guy or two guys, but it's almost like there's a clean canvas now, in that anything can happen."
Ian Begley contributed to this story.