NEW YORK: View of Madison Square Garden prior to the New York Knicks against Golden State Warriors basketball game on Tuesday in New York City. – AFP

NEW YORK: New York Knicks superfan Anthony Donahue made an emotional return to Madison Square Garden when the NBA side played in front of home fans for the first time in almost a year Tuesday. Donahue was one of 2,000 supporters to cheer the Knicks on during a narrow loss to the Golden State Warriors, 352 days since spectators were last allowed into the iconic venue before the pandemic shutdown. “I missed the camaraderie, I miss seeing everybody,” said Donahue, who has barely skipped a Knicks game since attending his first one at age 10 in the mid-1990s.

“When you come all the time, these people here they become family. The Garden is more than just an arena. It’s life for a lot of us,” he told AFP. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo paved the way for the Knicks to welcome back supporters when he announced earlier this month that he would allow stadiums to open at ten percent capacity.

Across the East River on Tuesday night, the Brooklyn Nets played in front of 300 fans against the Sacramento Kings at their home, the Barclays Center. “It’s a big deal. Hopefully we’re standing here in six months and there’s 20,000 fans,” said Nets season ticket holder Rich Schaefer. Donahue, 37, wore a Knicks cap, sweatshirt, jacket, neck chain and of course, Knicks mask as he returned to his spiritual home, accompanied by his close friend Elgin Swift. “This is just one step towards getting back to normal,” said Swift, 46.

The pair were in buoyant mood with their beloved Knicks in the running for a play-off place for the first time in several seasons. But Donahue’s joy at getting back inside MSG was tinged with sadness and pain after the death of his 21-year-old sister Gianna Gregoire from brain cancer in August. Gregoire, also a hardcore Knicks fan, would go to about ten or 15 games a season with her brother. “It was very emotional, there were a lot of tears. She was there with me spiritually like she is every second of every day,” said Donahue.

He said it had been “horrible” to have been locked out of the Knicks’ arena over the past year while enduring such tragedy. “The Garden is my outlet over the years. Even if the Knicks aren’t winning, life is always great when you’re at the Garden. It’s where I need to be. Five or six different fans found me tonight and said, ‘I’m sorry about Gianna.’ That really tore me up,” Donahue added.

As a season ticket holder for around two decades, he got priority for the highly sought-after tickets which were selling on the secondary market for as high as $5,127, according to Donahue and Swift arrived three hours before the 7:30 pm (00:30 GMT yesterday) tip-off, in part to make sure their health declarations and negative COVID tests — within the past 72 hours — were in order. “I have to breathe the Garden air,” said Donahue.

Ahead of the start, the socially distanced crowd paid tribute to the 29,000 New Yorkers killed by coronavirus with a moment’s silence. A number of frontline health workers were invited to attend as guests. The Warriors put a damper on the party, winning 114-106. “It was good, other than the Knicks losing!” said Donahue, who has a Knicks tattoo on his left leg. On Instagram and Twitter, he describes himself as the “biggest Knicks fan in the world.” “The Knicks are my life. The Knicks and my sister, that’s truly all I’ve ever really cared about the last 20 years,” he said. – AFP