James World, Vol. 9: Playing in basketball’s Mecca

You may spot the occasional rat scurrying out from under a popcorn machine, but there's still a special aura at MSG (Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty)

Playing in Madison Square Garden is always a special experience for NBA Players. But when you’re a New Yorker who grew up watching the Knicks battle Michael Jordan and the Bulls, it means that much more to suit up and play in the legendary building.

Mike James and his Chicago Bulls were in New York to play the Knicks on Wednesday night. In this week’s column, James shares just what makes MSG so special, why he rooted for the Bulls as a kid and the story of the first time he faced Michael Jordan.

Every kid who grew up in New York feels a certain way when they come to Madison Square Garden to play—I mean, this is the Mecca!

It’s like being on Broadway. The lights are dimmed on the crowd and bright on the court, so it almost feels like performing in a stage show. From my rookie year until today, I’ve had some of the best games of my career playing in the Garden. There’s just something about it. I love it.

I never played there until I got to the League, but I don’t think you would get the same feeling playing there in a high school or college game. In the NBA, you’re on the biggest basketball stage in the world, so you’re playing against the best athletes in the world in this legendary building.

The first time I played there was unreal—the orange and blue, the aura in the building. You’ll see some of the greats who played with the Knicks in the past walking around. And there’s something about those rims, they’re really soft and bounce friendly.

You may see a rat running out from under the popcorn machines, and the locker rooms are really small and cramped, but it’s not even about the arena itself. There’s just something about that 94-by-50 that is amazing.

I almost signed with New York mid-season two years ago, but then, overnight, Linsanity happened. I saw that first game and thought ‘Okay, that was a good game for him but let’s wait one more game and see what he does.’ He kept it up—playing some of the best basketball he could possibly play—and they were like, ‘Hold off on that, we’d rather stick with Jeremy Lin.’ So I was almost a Knick. Close, but no cigar.

I had been to the Garden as a kid with my family, and I can remember going to a game once when I was really young where Chicago was playing New York. At a break in the game, Michael Jordan looked toward the stands and winked at us. I could have sworn he winked right at me, and I joke that I got my ability from MJ winking at me.

I grew up in Amityville, NY, as a Bulls fan. I was a huge Michael Jordan fan in the era where you either hated the Chicago Bulls or you hated the New York Knicks. My whole family loved the Knicks, and even though I enjoyed watching them I was always more of an MJ fan.

I played against Mike once. It was my rookie year and his last in the NBA. I remember I got checked into the game and he was like, “Yeah, bring your little self over here.” And I had to guard him. I went up to him and flexed my arm, as if to say, “I’m little, but I’m strong.” And he said, “You may be strong but you’re this big to me”, and he put his thumb and index finger together as if to say I was a midget. Even though he wasn’t in his prime anymore, his mouth still was.

Reader Questions:

Q: There are some teams out West doing way better than most people thought they would heading into the season. Who are you most surprised by? Portland, Phoenix or Dallas? —Nick, Burnaby, BC

Portland and Phoenix really stand out to me. Dallas kept their core from last year and brought in some key pieces this season that would make them a better team. But definitely Portland and Phoenix are surprising people. With Phoenix, you look at what they’ve been able to do with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. We didn’t know how that would work, but the Suns are making good use of both of those guards. Portland is just playing really consistent basketball. I think Damian Lillard is coming into his own, becoming a household name in the NBA. It’s still early, but they’ve given themselves enough of a cushion so that, if they do go on a losing streak, they can still gather themselves enough to make the playoffs.

But it’s not about how you’re playing in November or December. It’s about how you’re playing after the All-Star break. That’s when it becomes serious. That’s when you really get to learn what a team is made of. Are they really trying to stay in the playoff hunt? Or make a championship run? Or are they just trying to punt their season to get a draft pick?

Q: What was the first thing you bought with your first NBA paycheque? —Sara, Newmarket, ON

When I signed my first contract I was driving a Jeep Liberty. I never really got caught up in the lifestyle where its about the cars, the jewelry, the fashion. I won’t say I didn’t indulge in a few things, but I never splurged. I always try to be as conservative as possible from that perspective and think about my future. Even back then, I didn’t go crazy over my first cheque.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.