The Garden will be different this season – no fans, little media, no James Dolan in his customary baseline seat – a few yards from the Knicks bench.
It starts Saturday night vs. the Sixers under the pinwheeled ceiling that has gone unchanged. The Knicks’ pandemic 36-game home schedule is set to get underway the day after Christmas.
Will no Knicks fans in the building be better? Knicks second-year stud RJ Barrett actually thinks a fan-less Garden could foster more winning than a packed house on Broadway.
“Actually having no fans might be an advantage,’’ Barrett said after the Knicks’ morning shootaround at the Garden Saturday. “I know if I was a competitor, coming into the Garden, with all those fans, I’d want to have a great game. So coming in there with no fans actually probably gives us an advantage that way too.”
Barrett’s is a theory former Knicks coaches Mike D’Antoni and David Fizdale embraced privately, too. D’Antoni actually aired it publicly.
Opponents relish the Garden and bring their A-plus game, D’Antoni used to say. The current Nets assistant also thought the fear of boos in the early going if the club fell behind was a bummer to team morale.
It’s such an interesting concept – and you never hear it out in Laker-land about Staples Center. The Knicks may have the most diehard fans in the NBA – sticking with a club that has mostly lost this century. Seven straight seasons out of the playoffs, their home record has been below .500 in each season, 11-22 in the last campaign. Dolan has seen a lot of losing up close.
Whether the owner will show up, in a suite, is unknown but he certainly isn’t permitted on the baseline under NBA safety protocols. MSG broadcasters Mike Breen, Walt Frazier and sideline reporter Rebecca Haarlow aren’t permitted on-court either.
Dolan’s presence right by the bench has always been curious. Dolan, who already has fought off COVID-19, is not demonstrative. But when the club is losing, his body language changes. It’s a much different look than when he’s been up on stage, with his blues band, playing guitar and singing in pre-pandemic days. In fact, The Post has learned a few years ago some Garden suits talked internally about asking whether Dolan sitting in the baseline seat was a distraction to the players.
There was talk about Dolan sitting in the suites to see how the club reacts. The idea never got off the ground. In Harvey Araton’s new book through the eyes of late longtime season-ticket holder Michelle Musser, she mused about Dolan’s posture. Musser sat behind the Knicks bench. “Why won’t he put on a happier face? she wondered. “Why did he slump in his seat, arms folded across his chest…’’
The Knicks will see how a Dolan-free zone manifests itself this season. Theo Pinson, now with the Knicks but formerly with the Nets, realizes the fan base is a lot larger on the west side of the East River. The Nets may win the Eastern Conference but the Knicks still win the electoral college vote.
“It’s New York,’ Pinson said. “The New York market loves basketball. But there’s Knicks fans all over the world. Brooklyn just became a team just recntly, There’s Knicks fans all over the world. The following is unbelievable so it’s been good.”
The Knicks still won’t be on network TV more than once this season – against the Nets on Jan. 13th. They don’t have the stars like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, even Caris LeVert. But they do have Barrett, a credible coach in Tom Thibodeau and the hope that team unity will carry them to respectability. “I think team camaraderie is the most important thing actually,’’ said Pinson. “I think the more you like each other off the court it helps on the court, especially with a young team. You go out there and you just start playing selflessly, you just want to play for each other. You want to see the other person succeed and that’s when everybody eats. We’re already a tight-knit group.”
A lot of losing often fractures a team.
“Even after the loss in Indiana, we already started talking to each other, what we saw on the court, what we can do better, how we can get each other better shots on the court, how we can finish games,’’ Pinson added. “So for us to react to a loss like that early is big time in my opinion.’’
There hasn’t been an official Knicks game at the Garden since early March – when the arena started buzzing with “Sell The Team’’ chants.
There’s no guarantees the Knicks will be honorable at home this season but I can guarantee one thing. The derogatory Dolan chant and boos won’t rain from the rafters in 2020-21.
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