High-flying Blake Griffin of the Clippers goes airborne in a game against the Miami Heat in Los Angeles on Jan. 12.
Through the first half of his rookie season with the Los Angeles Clippers, Blake Griffin has done just about everything anyone can do on a basketball court short of mopping it.
He has dunked on 7-foot Russian centers and has elevated 360-degree layups into high art. A Western Conference All-Star and one-man marketing campaign, Mr. Griffin has somehow managed to make attending Clippers games not just palatable but fashionable—perhaps his greatest achievement yet.
But any provincial, self-aggrandizing New Yorker would tell you that there remains a serious gap on his résumé, a rite of passage for any NBA player who has aspirations of true greatness: He must play amid the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. On Wednesday night, Mr. Griffin will fulfill that obligation when the Clippers visit the Knicks. The marquee will be his.
The legacy of young players who have stepped into the Garden for their star turns stretches back to Nov. 1, 1969, a year and a half after the new arena opened. The Milwaukee Bucks arrived to take on the first-place Knicks, and it was a homecoming of sorts for Lew Alcindor, the Bucks’ rookie center. Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had grown up in Manhattan before playing on three national championship teams at UCLA.
And now, just 10 games into his NBA career, he was being celebrated by the city’s sportswriters as a hybrid of the game’s two greatest centers. He was believed to possess Wilt Chamberlain’s offensive skills and Bill Russell’s defensive acumen, the combination of which made “strong men weep and tall men cringe,” according to the Daily News’s Phil Pepe. The headline in that morning’s paper raised an important question: “Can Alcindor Be All Good? Knicks to Find Out Tonight.”
Here’s a list of eight memorable debuts at the Garden.
- Nov. 1, 1969: Lew Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, scores 36 points and grabs 27 rebounds for the Milwaukee Bucks, but the Knicks come away with a 112-108 victory.
- Dec. 25, 1976: Dr. J takes the NBA’s grandest stage after spending five seasons in the American Basketball Association and scores 16 points in the Philadelphia 76ers’ 105-104 win.
- Feb. 5, 1980: The rookie point guard records a triple-double, finishing with 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds as the Los Angeles Lakers run past the Knicks, 116-105.
- Nov. 8, 1984: Dubbed “Flash Jordan” by the New York Post, Jordan makes himself right at home in his Garden debut, scoring 33 points as the Chicago Bulls clobber the Knicks, 121-106.Associated Press
- Oct. 26, 1985: Ewing makes his Knicks debut at home and finishes with 18 points and six rebounds in a 99-89 loss to the 76ers—the first of eight straight losses to start his rookie season.
- Nov. 5, 1996: The best is yet to come for Bryant, who plays just three minutes and misses his only field-goal attempt in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 98-92 win over the Knicks.
- Nov. 12, 1996: Already familiar with the Garden from his days starring at Georgetown, Iverson wows the crowd once again, scoring 35 points in a win for the 76ers.
- Feb. 22, 2004: Long before The Chosen One departs for South Beach, he makes his Garden debut as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers and scores 22 points in a 92-86 victory.
He was mostly good, definitely prolific. Willis Reed picked up three fouls in the first quarter trying to defend Alcindor, who finished with 36 points and 27 rebounds. But he also shot 15 of 35 from the field, and the Knicks held on for a 112-108 victory.
The atmosphere was just as electric on Dec. 25, 1976, when the Philadelphia 76ers arrived for a Christmas Day showdown with the Knicks. The 76ers had acquired Julius Erving over the offseason for $6 million—$3 million to buy his rights from the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association, and $3 million to sign him—and the basketball intelligentsia was anxious to inspect him at the Garden. Scalpers outside were asking as much as $50 for $12 seats.
“Keep in mind, Julius was a mystery man,” said Pat Williams, the former general manager of the 76ers. “Most basketball fans had never seen him. There was no television in the other league, and Julius was all but invisible. He was the most unseen superstar ever.”
Adding to the drama was some well-chronicled strife between the 76ers and the Knicks, who had squabbled over the rights to star forward George McGinnis. He eventually signed with the 76ers, whose roster that season was stacked with talent and burdened by expectations.
“We were the Miami Heat 30 years in advance,” said Mr. Williams, now the senior vice president of the Orlando Magic.
The New York Times was offended by the 76ers’ grand experiment, noting how the team was leading the league in “attendance, playground offense and dunking in warm-up drills.”
Against the Knicks, the 76ers found the right mix of chemistry. Mr. McGinnis nailed a 15-foot jumper to seal a 105-104 win. His 25 points helped to compensate for a spotty effort by Mr. Erving, who labored through foul trouble to score 16 points and grab five rebounds.
On Feb. 5, 1980, fans again packed the Garden to get their first look at an effervescent point guard named Earvin ”Magic” Johnson, a player tailor-made for stardom with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was a triple-double threat every time he stepped on the court, and this occasion was no different.
He finished with 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in a 116-105 victory over the Knicks. He also displayed some toughness in the second quarter when the Knicks’ Toby Knight lodged one of his teeth in the side of Mr. Johnson’s head. Mr. Knight was whistled for a foul. Mr. Johnson got three stitches.
The Knicks could contain neither Mr. Johnson nor Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, their old nemesis, who had 22 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists.
Any talk of Garden debuts would be remiss without reference to Michael Jordan, who made himself at home in Manhattan on Nov. 8, 1984, and did something he would make a habit of doing throughout his career: embarrass the Knicks.
By the time he stole the ball from Ernie Grunfeld and raced in for a dunk to punctuate the third quarter, the Bulls’ 121-106 romp before a crowd of 19,252 was in full flight—and the city’s tabloids were in red-alert mode.
The headline in the following morning’s edition of the New York Post could have been splashed across the page in neon lights: “Flash Jordan goes into orbit.” That particular nickname failed to stick, though the Post was on the right track.
Mr. Jordan cluttered up the box score: 33 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocked shots. Writers were breathless in their assessment of the rookie phenom. “Jordan left the crowd aghast,” Roy S. Johnson wrote, adding that it was a “disco atmosphere.”
Some debuts have been better than others. Kobe Bryant played just three minutes and missed his only field-goal attempt in his maiden trip to the Garden with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996. Fellow rookie Allen Iverson scored 35 points for the 76ers exactly one week later.
Mr. Griffin, a 6-foot-10 forward, was averaging 22.9 points, 12.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game through Monday. He said he expects some added buzz tonight “now that the Knicks are doing so well.”
Still, he does not expect his pro debut at the Garden to be nearly as scary as playing at, say, the University of Kansas.
“That’s the most intimidating place—the fans are right on top of you,” he said.
—Hannah Karp contributed to this article.
Write to Scott Cacciola at email@example.com