Maccabi Tel Aviv 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The New York Knicks have certainly had their share of offseason news stories, but they hope to stay out of the headlines when they play host to Maccabi Tel Aviv at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
The Knicks will be playing their second preseason exhibition after a tumultuous September that saw a jury find head coach Isiah Thomas guilty of sexual harassment. If that's not enough distraction, the Knickerbockers may be surprised when they trot out for warm-ups to a raucous yellow-and-blue crowd. It will be a rare moment in New York sports history when the home team will not have home-court advantage on its side.
"I'm rooting for Maccabi," said Jonathan Jager-Hyman, a financial analyst in Manhattan. "I've been a Knicks fan since 1984, since the day I was born, but I love [Maccabi]. The decision was easier, especially for a preseason game where it doesn't really matter."
The same phenomenon ambushed the Toronto Raptors in a preseason exhibition with Maccabi in 2005. Despite sticking with their starters for almost the entire game, the Raptors found themselves locked in a back-and-forth battle, as they lost the fans' support and eventually the game, 105-103, on an Anthony Parker baseline jumper with seconds to play.
If the Knicks win, life will go on as normal in New York, where an NBA team is expected to trounce a European team. But if the Knicks suffer the same fate as the Raptors, expect to see the New York press up in arms with a disappointing loss that will put an ugly - but fitting - cap on the past two weeks, during which the Mets and Yankees players phoned their caddies much earlier than expected.
"There's a lot of talent overseas, a lot of people don't realize that," Maccabi Tel Aviv power forward Marcus Fizer said after practice at Baruch College in New York on Wednesday. "I want to continue with the Maccabi winning tradition. It's very important for us to win this game."
According to a Knicks representative, only 815 tickets remained unsold, and that figure kept declining as the game drew closer. The other preseason home games still have thousands of unsold seats. MSG seats 19,763 people.
Many of those fans in attendance will be coming in groups from synagogues and private Jewish day schools in the area. Solomon Schechter of Westchester bought 500 seats for the entire middle school and high school and will be closing early for the game. Temple Shaare Tefilah, in Manhattan's Upper East Side, bought 200 tickets to bring 100 pairs of fathers and sons to MSG.
Elichai Foger, 17, a senior at the Ramaz school in New York, estimated that anywhere from 150 to 250 students in his high school would be at the game. He, like many others from the area, faced a critical dilemma: whether his loyalties lie more with the Knicks or with Israel.
"I'm a Knicks fan," said Foger. "It took me a while to decide who I'll root for, but I finally picked the Knicks. It was a tough choice, because they're playing Israel - home of the Jews.
"But I can't bear to see them embarrassed again. Plus, you want to see them going into the season with confidence. If [Maccabi's] players were all Israeli I might be pulling for them more, but they're not. It's Israel, but in a sense, it's not really."
This year's Maccabi squad features American imports Will Bynum, Vonteego Cummings, Marcus Fizer, Terence Morris and David Bluthenthal, who, as a Jew, has received Israeli citizenship. Center Nikola Vujcic, arguably the most talented big man in Europe, is Croatian, and team captain Derrick Sharp, from Florida, is also an Israeli citizen.
As for indigenous Israelis, young stars Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin, selected in the 2006 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets and the Seattle Supersonics, respectively, will show the New York crowd whether they're ready to play in the NBA.
The Knicks, who have added power forward Zach Randolph to their roster, will be without the team's leading scorer, Eddy Curry, who has a labral tear in his right shoulder.
Fan-favorite David Lee will be expected to fill the void, as he did in New York's 101-92 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the preseason opener. .
The Knicks hope to get back to basketball basics and put the Isiah Thomas affair behind them.
Thomas was one of the main impetuses for bringing Maccabi to New York when he found out that the game would benefit the children of Migdal Ohr, Israel's largest youth village, which provides support for more than 6,500 abused, orphaned, underprivileged and new immigrant children in Israel.
"I'm from a family of nine," said Thomas, "and I was one of those kids at risk."
Brian Fettner contributed to this report.