Losing Courtside Camaraderie in the Covid Era

On that fateful February night in 2017, after Charles Oakley was dragged out of Madison Square Garden and arrested on the accusation of causing a ruckus involving the Knicks’ owner, I made my way down from the press box high atop the court to consult with my source of four decades in the first row behind the Knicks’ bench.

My source, Michelle Musler, knew Oakley well, often chatting with him before games going back to his time as the power forward pillar of the Knicks’ 1990s title contenders. That night, she said, she had spotted his familiar head of gray hair, followed him as he made his way down to a nearby baseline seat behind the thin-skinned Knicks owner, James L. Dolan, and unequivocally declared Oakley innocent of harassing him.

“I know what I saw,” she said.

For the majority of her years as a season-ticket holder, Musler’s seat came with peekaboo privileges into the Knicks’ huddle. After her death, in June 2018, Oakley told me he considered her to be “the Oak Man of Knicks fans.”

The broadcaster Mike Breen, another regular pregame visitor to Musler’s seat, said this about Musler, a businesswoman who commuted to the Garden from the Connecticut suburbs: “She loved it so much, and I always said it was people like Michelle who make the N.BA. so great, who give an arena its character, more so than in any other sport. Because they’re so close, they can literally reach out and touch you and create that special bond.”

To that end, Jeff Van Gundy recalled how Musler would occasionally step forward to fix his sport coat collar when he, while coaching the Knicks, appeared for a game in his routinely rumpled state.

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Seated directly across the court from Spike Lee, the indisputable face of Knicks fans, Musler, a divorced mother of five, rebuilt her social life around courtside relationships — players, coaches, trainers, public-relations executives and media folks alike. But now it’s fair to wonder when and how the N.B.A. will replace the virtual faces so prominent in the courtside of the bubble with its usual affluent audience of living, breathing benefactors normally seated there?

What, exactly, will the future of N.B.A. courtside be in the age of Covid-19?

Lee, the rare luminary who, rather than get them from corporate benefactors, actually pays for his seats in the so-called celebrity row at the Garden, would not venture a guess.

“I’m not going to predict the future — taking it day by day,” he said in a text message. “I have to see where we are in the world when the next N.B.A. season starts.”

ImageSpike Lee, pictured at a Knicks-Heat game in 2014, said he was taking the pandemic day by day.
Barton Silverman/The New York Times

No details of the start of next season have been announced, though the Knicks recently required a deposit for season-ticket holders, subject to refund or an account credit should fan attendance not resume. (Courtside seats are at least $1,000 at the Garden, and often much more.) But what if medical science can only provide partial protection through a vaccine? What if the virus is merely controlled, not eradicated? What if on-site rapid testing cannot assure a definitive result?

How many of the high-earning courtside patrons, many of them at advanced ages vulnerable to the virus, would eagerly return to a jam-packed environment, where every inch of space has been maximized for profit, all in close indoor proximity to sweaty young athletes?

Would mask requirements and social distancing dilute the frenzy of the dense courtside experience and make it less attractive at the premium price level?

David Carter, a sports business educator at the University of Southern California and consultant with an N.B.A. client, said in a telephone interview: “One year ago, if you were invited to sit courtside, it would be, ‘I can’t wait.’ In the new normal, it may be, ‘Do you not like me?’ I don’t think sitting courtside at Staples Center or the Garden is going to look like it did — and if we do go back, it may not be for a very long time.”

He added, “The second part, of course, is the consumer piece, the business side.”

Wynn Plaut, a financial entrepreneur who underwrote and shared Musler’s seats for several years after she could no longer afford them, said wealthy people and especially corporations may still have interest in what he called “the necessary diversion” of high-end sports.

But affordability is one issue, optics yet another.

“I would be embarrassed to pay that money for a basketball game given what’s going on in the country,” he said. “It would feel unseemly, tone deaf. This is the single-worst event since I’ve been alive — I was born in 1952 — and it’s still unfolding.”

Before reporters were moved upstairs at the Garden to make room for more courtside seats, one of the simple pleasures of covering the N.B.A. was the exposure to fans like Musler, hearing their tales of charmed interaction.

Among others for me were Stan Asofsky, who as far back as the early 1970s shot baskets in Manhattan gyms with Cazzie Russell and others from the Knicks championship teams; the late Fred Klein, who, alongside Asofsky, heckled opponents and referees from their front-row baseline seats and fed many a player at his Carnegie Deli; Steve Diamond, a young tennis instructor whose family season tickets led to shaping the groundstrokes of Paul Westphal, Truck Robinson and Bill Cartwright, and an enduring friendship with the team’s former coach Hubie Brown.

Lewis Dorf, a 1960s Knicks ball boy who once had Willis Reed to his family’s Manhattan apartment for dinner, inherited his father’s seats right behind Woody Allen. “It was always a scene, and I pretty much knew everybody,” he said, though he was referring to a time before the ever-escalating courtside costs forced him to sell off most games.

Corporations ultimately gentrified the neighborhood. Tickets increasingly changed hands game by game on online exchanges. Pre-pandemic, there already were far fewer lifers like Michelle Musler. Now those virtual bubble fans — described recently by the writer Sam Anderson in The New York Times Magazine as “the world’s least necessary Zoom meeting” — may be, for the foreseeable future, at least, as up close and personal as it gets.

Harvey Araton is a former Sports of The Times columnist and the author of a new book, “Our Last Season: A Writer, a Fan, a Friendship,” published by Penguin Press.

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