NEW YORK – Air Force’s basketball team sat in silence on the team bus, locked in total concentration.
Good luck with that in this city.
Before the bus pulled away for Madison Square Garden, a near car vs. bicycle accident just a few feet away set off a loud and profanity-laced shouting match between the involved parties that fit right in with the rest of the horn-honking commotion of this Sunday morning.
Then came the ride itself, a very New Yorkish 12-minute voyage that took the team less than a mile.
If there were any attempts to escape the enormity of the venue, which rightfully touts itself as “The Worlds Most Famous Arena,” well, you can forget those too. Along the exterior of the massive structure are posters of some of the icons who have performed there. Elton John, Wayne Gretzky, Roger Federer, Evander Holyfield and Taylor Swift are among the faces looking at you, along with messages of how they hold MSG in esteem.
The team then had to make its way up a long, circular ramp that led to the bowels of the structure. The smell of the ramp reveals its other purpose – this is where the livestock is unloaded for an annual bull riding competition held here, creating a miniature version of the running of the bulls.
Once on the floor, a glance at the rafters brings to attention not only the host of retired jerseys from New York Knicks and Rangers – Mark Messier, Walt Frazier and Patrick Ewing among them – but also banners recognizing Billy Joel for his most performances (92) and Phish for a record 13 consecutive days of shows.
And, lest any of the basketball history of the building escape anyone, a pregame video trumpets all of it. The only thing missing was Spike Lee sitting in the first row.
For a follower of basketball, or pop culture in general, it was overwhelming.
“First time stepping on the floor it was definitely a cool experience,” Air Force’s Jacob Van said. “There’s a lot of history in this building, so it was cool to be a part of it. But it would been a lot better getting the ‘W.’”
Yes, that was the catch on Sunday. Air Force was routed 79-54 by Army, leaving a “sour taste” in the mouth of Falcons guard Trevor Lyons.
“We have one game at MSG and took an ‘L,’” Lyons said after scoring a game-high 18 points.
This was a special experience for Army, too. Though West Point is only 52 miles away, no one on Army’s roster had ever played at MSG.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Black Knights guard Jordan Fox said. “But once you start playing it’s just like any other game.”
Many Air Force players had never been to New York before, nor had many of their families. Parents congregated in the team hotel lobby before the game, some noting that this was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that they weren’t going to miss.
Others connected to the program showed up as well. In one row sat three Air Force superintendents as Gen. Michael Gould, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson and current leader Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria watched the game together.
The Falcons were staying in New York one extra day to sight-see, building an itinerary that was to include a trip to Ground Zero. Forward Ryan Manning was determined to take in a Broadway performance, with “The Lion King” his show of preference.
Even in defeat, coach Dave Pilipovich saw the value in bringing his team to this unique setting.
“This was a good opportunity for our program to be here and play,” said Pilipovich, who for the occasion broke out a sports coat with a patriotic red-white-and-blue interior purchased via silent auction at a fundraiser. “It’s something they’ll remember for the rest of their life.
“I’d like to do this again and I hope down the road we can make this happen again.”