Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for BT PRAll Eyes on That StageFrom the outside, the cylindrical bulk of Madison Square Garden — somehow squat and colossal, at once — is hardly the most notable building in New York City. But inside the Garden — on the hardwood, on the ice, onstage — legends are born. Dreams come true. Careers end (and, once in a while, are resurrected). Over the past 50 years, from its opening in February 1968, no arena on earth has witnessed as much drama, as many hair-raising sports thrills, or anything to match the legendary music performances that have unfolded here. Every time the Garden lights go down, the heart of the city races a bit faster. (Pictured: Moments before the start of Adele's first-ever show at Madison Square Garden, September 19, 2016.)
Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesWhere It Matters MostWhether it's the Knicks playing the Celtics, an NHL playoff game, or a Mass for 20,000 conducted by the Pope himself, if it happens at the Garden, it matters. It's remembered. Above: In the "Fight of the Century" in March 1971, the two greatest heavyweights of their time fought toe-to-toe for 14 unforgettable rounds, until Joe Frazier felled Muhammad Ali in the 15th with a titanic left hook to retain his crown. Ali famously won two rematches with Frazier — including another at the Garden in 1974.
Fox Photos/Getty ImagesThe Fight for GloryThe bones of the building, so evident in a photo taken during construction in 1966, bring the Roman Colosseum and gladiators to mind. And that's fitting. After all, the men and women who have always been most celebrated at the Garden are fighters ― not just boxers, but athletes, entertainers, and even politicians not cowed by the lights, the history, the sight of 20,000 people rising, tier upon tier, to the rafters. In the premier venue in the cultural and financial capital of the U.S. (and, for most of the past century, the capital of the world) only those who give their all earn the lasting esteem of Garden crowds.
Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesTrue GritCoach Jeff Van Gundy, who helmed the Knicks from 1996 until 2001 and was an assistant coach for years before that, knows what it takes to measure up in New York. "Some towns are about the star players," Van Gundy told Foto. "The fans at the Garden just want to know you're giving everything you have. They want to know you're battling all the way." Van Gundy speaks from hard-won experience. He coached some of the best-loved players in franchise history ― players embraced by fans not because they were superstars or locks for the Hall of Fame, but because they worked their tails off and scrapped for every point, rebound, and loose ball.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesWorking for a Living"When you talk about attitude and talent," Van Gundy told Foto, "I think of players like Charlie Ward, Derek Harper, John Starks, Allan Houston, Ewing. And Charles Oakley (pictured, above). Knicks fans loved Oakley. They were all gamers ― the toughest competitors a coach could hope for. Whether the team was winning or losing, the fans rooted for players who didn't phone it in. They work hard and pay good money for those tickets. They want players to work hard, too." And while the tunnel that, for decades, led the Knicks and Rangers on to the Garden floor is long gone ― replaced by seating for the richer fans ― Van Gundy recalls the scene as if he walked the tunnel just yesterday. "It never, ever got old. Every time I walked out of that tunnel and into the roar of the Garden, it gave me chills. Every single time."
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe DunkAs if to underscore Van Gundy's point that New York is not necessarily a place where the biggest sports stars make the biggest splash, witness The Dunk. On May 23, 1993, in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden, the 6' 2" John Starks made an explosive move to the hoop. Soaring over the Bulls' Horace Grant and Michael Jordan, Starks slammed home a rim-rattling jam that's widely considered one of a small handful of the greatest plays in Knicks history. Today it's remembered as, simply, The Dunk. "This is the place where legends are made," Starks once said of the Garden. He might have been speaking of himself.
Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesWhere the Benefit BeganLandmark concerts by music's biggest names are a Garden staple. But on August 1, 1971, George Harrison and a few of his friends (Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, the band Badfinger, the Indian music Ravi Shankar, and more) played the Garden in what is now recognized as the first-ever star-studded benefit rock concert. The Concert For Bangladesh —actually two sold-out shows, a matinee and evening concert, before 40,000 fans — raised money and awareness for refugees in the South Asian country torn by war and wracked by famine.
Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty ImagesMessier Makes GoodWhen Rangers captain Mark Messier guaranteed a Game 6 win over the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, and then scored a hat trick to ensure it happened, comparisons with other famed New York sports prognosticators like Joe Namath and Babe "The Called Shot" Ruth were inevitable. But when Messier scored the winning goal in Game 7 of the '94 Finals at Madison Square Garden, giving the Rangers the team's first Stanley Cup in 54 years (above) ― well, even Namath and the Babe might have to bow to skill and audacity on that scale.
Lou Capozzola/Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesGoodbye, Great OneWayne Gretzky, a player of such astonishing gifts and a setter of so many records that his number 99 has been retired by every team in the NHL, played the last game of his career at Madison Square Garden. The Great One never won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers (he won a bunch with the Oilers), but the long, long ovation that accompanied his last skate around the ice in New York on April 18, 1999, served as a kind of universal "Thank you" from grateful fans everywhere. "My last game in New York was my greatest day in hockey," Gretzky later said. "Everything you enjoy about the sport of hockey as a kid, driving to practice with mom and dad, driving to the game with mom and dad, looking in the stands and seeing your mom and dad and your friends, that all came together in that last game in New York."
Ebet Roberts/RedfernsForever Grateful"There were a few places we used to look forward to playing. This place was horrifying," the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir said of the Garden, "but at the same time titillating.” Or as Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann put it when the Dead were inducted into the MSG Walk of Fame in 2015: "Out of about 2,300 shows that the Dead played, the 52 we played [at the Garden] were nothing short of amazing." (Pictured: The Dead at the Garden in September 1998.)
Mario Tama/Getty ImagesSimply the BestNew York City has hosted the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show since 1877, and Madison Square Garden (in various incarnations) has long been home to the high-profile group and Best in Show competitions. Westminster is the most prestigious dog show in North America, and arguably in the world. (Pictured: Carlee, a regal, 5-year-old German shorthaired pointer, the Westminster Kennel Club's Best In Show in 2005.)
Pool/Getty ImagesMadison Square MassIn September 2015, while on a six-day tour of the U.S., Pope Francis stopped in NYC to celebrate Mass at — where else? — Madison Square Garden. Note: The Garden's signature paneled ceiling is the only large arena ceiling in the world that's concave, rather than convex. That unique feature, along with the ceiling's artful acoustic insulation, provides extraordinary sound quality for a venue so large.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveCenter of the CityMadison Square Garden is not just a huge, world-famous arena: it's a huge, world-famous arena located smack in the middle of one of the busiest (and for years, among the grittiest) neighborhoods on the globe. Penn Station, through which 600, 000 commuters and Amtrak riders pass every day, hums right beneath. Traffic surges, stops, surges again. Cops, tourists, pickpockets, construction workers, businessmen, homeless veterans, food vendors, drunks, street artists ― the city swirls around the Garden every minute of every day, as it always has. (Pictured: Ticket-holders before a Rolling Stones concert, 1981.)
New York Times Co./Larry C. Morris/Getty ImagesLennon's LastJohn Lennon's last major public performance anywhere was on the stage at the Garden, when he joined Elton John for a few songs (including "I Saw Her Standing There") on Thanksgiving night in 1974 (pictured). Lennon never played the Garden with the Beatles, of course, as they stopped touring long before today's Garden was built. But having settled in New York City in the early 1970s, he played MSG a number of times.
Tom McGuire/BIG EAST Conference/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesBeasts of the EastWhen it comes to hoops, the Garden has never been just about the pros. Since 1983, the Big East Men's Basketball Tournament has been held at Madison Square Garden, making it the longest running conference tournament at one site in college basketball. On March 12, 1983, at the inaugural Garden tourney, local heroes St. John's beat Boston College, 85-77, to take the Big East title. (Pictured: Coach Lou Carnesecca and tournament MVP and future NBA star Chris Mullin, left, soak in the win.)
Bettmann ArchiveUp for a FightWhen the World Wrestling Federation staged its inaugural WrestleMania event at Madison Square Garden in March 1985, it not only pulled the largest audience (a million viewers) for any closed-circuit TV event ever in the U.S, it also kicked off the massive professional wrestling renaissance that is still in full, crazy flower today. In the evening's main event, Hulk Hogan (right) and Mr. T defeated Paul Orndorff and Roddy Piper (on Mr. T's shoulders).
Ron Pownall Photography/Corbis via Getty ImagesBar None"This is without doubt the most exciting venue in the world, bar none, to play," Elton John once said of the Garden. "It’s a magical place." (Pictured: A subdued Elton John, Madison Square Garden, August 1976.)
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/UIG via Getty ImagesA Place Called HopeAmerican political parties have held plenty of conventions at Madison Square Garden, but none still resonate quite like the Democratic National Convention in July 1992. There, before a huge crowd in the arena and millions of TV viewers who knew virtually nothing about him, the party nominee Bill Clinton gave the speech of his life ("I still believe in a place called Hope," he said at the end, cementing the phrase in the country's annals) and turbocharged a campaign that would see him and running mate Al Gore win the White House handily in November.
Dan Farrell/NY Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesIf You Can Make It There. . .Frank Sinatra was, of course, always strongly identified with New York, and one of his Madison Square Garden concerts, in October 1974 — recorded and later released as the live album, "The Main Event" — is widely recognized as a signature night in his long career. Here, Sinatra works ringside during the first Ali-Frazier bout, which he covered as a guest photographer for LIFE magazine; Norman Mailer wrote the accompanying story. Ali. Frazier. Sinatra. Mailer. Manhattan. The Garden. LIFE. It just doesn't get much more mid-20th century iconic than that.
David Redfern/RedfernsHammer of the GodsBy the time Led Zeppelin embarked on a tour of North America in 1973 in support of their fifth album, "Houses of the Holy," the quartet was well on its way to becoming, in Rolling Stone magazine's words, "the biggest band of the Seventies." Three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden at tour's end were captured on film, and footage made its way into the 1976 movie, "The Song Remains the Same." Bloated and pretentious, the film nevertheless offers an at-times remarkably entertaining glimpse into the behavior of certified rock gods at the height of their popularity. (Pictured: Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden, July 1973.)
Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesRock the House"I love Madison Square Garden. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. It’s where I saw Run-DMC, Prince ... I finally got to headline my own show there, and it was just magical." ― Chris Rock, seen here with Knicks superfan Spike Lee on the floor at the Garden. Lee, usually dressed head to toe in Knickerbocker orange and blue, has been a court-side fixture at the Garden for decades. Vocal, animated, opinionated, and informed, he is as much a part the Garden culture as the Knicks themselves.
The Estate of David Gahr/Getty ImagesOne With the Garden"Madison Square Garden is probably the best sounding room with the most enthusiastic audience," Billy Joel once said. "It doesn’t get much better than that.” He should know. If there is one performer who, after five decades of playing there, is inextricably linked with the Garden, it's the kid from Long Island (born in da Bronx), pictured here in 1978. In July 2018, Joel will play his 100th show at MSG. No other act has come close to that number.
Cindy Ord/Getty ImagesA Whole Lotta BullYes, boxers and MMA fighters are tough. Sure, NBA players knock each other around. But no regular performers at the Garden ever tackle meaner, nastier, bigger opponents than the battle-scarred cowboys of the Professional Bull Riders league who, every year, kick off the season riding 1,500 pounds of bucking, snorting rage. (Pictured: Emilio Resende rides Smooth Highway at Madison Square Garden on January 6, 2018.)
Frank Micelotta Archive/Getty ImagesFrom Britain, With Love (and Volume)On October 20, 2001, scores of actors, comedians, musicians, and others took part in the Concert for New York City, to benefit victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack and, especially, to honor first responders -- cops, firefighters, nurses, EMTs -- and their families. The show was rolling along, almost somber in its way, until the Who took the stage and, in typical Who fashion, blew everyone away. Their fiery versions of "Who Are You," "Baba O'Riley," and "Won't Get Fooled Again" seemed to give the crowd license to actually treat the show like a collective fit of catharsis, rather than a memorial -- and the fans responded with roars that drowned out even the famously loud British rockers.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagicThis Is the JamVermont rockers Phish played 13 consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden in the summer of 2017 (“The Baker’s Dozen”). During that epic, unprecedented two-week run, they played close to 240 songs ― and did not repeat a single one. “It’s a classic venue of course. It’s round and I have a special affinity for round rooms. It has a playground feel like being on a big trampoline.” ― Mike Gordon, Phish bassist and singer
Dan Farrell/NY Daily News via Getty ImagesPlaying Through PainIt's a dangerous business, trying to pinpoint one moment that distills what "the world's most famous arena" is all about: its toughness and romance; its legacy of unforgettable gestures. But across five decades, the benchmark for a particular, heart-stopping kind of grit remains Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, when Knicks center Willis Reed ― who missed Game 6 with a bad thigh injury ― walked, stiffly, from the old tunnel to warm up before the game. The Garden erupted. "Reed’s appearance," New York Times sports reporter Harvey Araton once wrote, "is considered the seminal moment in Knicks history, and an act that has come to define playing with pain." Reed scored the Knicks' first four points of the night and somehow, on one good leg, stifled the Lakers' Wilt Chamberlain on defense before leaving the game after the first half. The Knicks won. Reed entered sports lore. And it all happened, as if destined, under the lights at Madison Square Garden.