Tuesday night, I celebrated a first, just as Deni Avdija was marking two firsts. I attended my first in person sports event in over a year. Deni, the Washington Wizards rookies from Israel, made his Madison Square Garden debut. He scored 14 points before fouling out in a pretty big Wizards loss. (As I started writing this blog, the Wizards were ahead of the Knicks in their Thursday rematch at MSG—for 3 periods. Sadly, they lost 106-102).
The fact that an entire season of basketball is taking place, in arenas across the country–a year into the Covid 19 pandemic—is nothing short of incredible. Last year, the NBA pulled it off by having everyone in a bubble. No fans and few members of the media witnessed it in person.
This season, I have been lucky enough to have Washington Wizards media credentials, have been attending Zoom media sessions, and have written many articles for JNS and the Jerusalem Post about the 20 year old Israeli taken by the Wizards #9 in the recent NBA draft I was eager to see Deni play in person. When I saw that the Wizards would be in New York for a Sunday game against the Nets in Brooklyn and Tuesday/Thursday games against the Knicks, I applied for media credentials. I fished my wish! I was granted credentials for Tuesday.
Here is where I tip my hat first to the NBA and then to the Knicks and Madison Square Garden. The NBA takes great precautions to keep players, coaches and fans safe. Players including Deni have been on Covid protocol at various points over the summer. Some even missed the NBA All-Star game for the same reason. Once credentials were granted, I was told I would need to arrive no later than 3:45 pm for a 7:30 game. Each staff member at MSG and all media are required to undergo onsite health screening and Covid testing.
The process was organized and calm, and all employees of MSG remained similarly calm and in good spirits. Everyone logged in to the system, was swabbed and waited for (hopefully) negative test results. I was told that there is an extra NBA stringency for media and I was escorted to a special seat (seat #1) in the balcony of the Theater at MSG. I was told it would take “about 45 minutes.” I was told not to leave my seat under any circumstances. I spoke from afar with a fellow journalist I knew from other sports events. I had a 45-minute tutoring lesson about Passover with a student. Two hours later, I was told I was negative. After 15 more minutes, I was given a wristband and escorted with two other journalists to our seats on The Bridge at MSG.
Walking along The Bridge is a walk down MSG memory lane—one passes retired Knicks and Rangers jerseys, championship banners and special tributes to long concert runs (Phish, Billy Joel, etc.). We were shown the bathrooms, the table with hot dogs, pretzels and water, and our very socially distanced work stations. We were not to leave our area. In past years, media was allowed to enter the locker room at appointed times to interview players (I once brought humus to Omri Casspi!), attend the coach press conference in the hallway, watch practice from the court, and we were free to wander the stadium to interview fans. Not this year.
The Garden is at 10% capacity, which means no more than 2,000 fans. It was a ghost town, but a happy ghost town with fans cheering, a DJ for Noche Latina de los Knicks, and Knicks City Dancers—on the screen, prerecorded. I would have ordinarily gone down to speak with the two waving the Israeli flags to see why they are Deni and Wizards super-fans. Not tonight.
Tonight was a night to feel lucky to see Deni in person. It was a night to watch Deni high fiving such NBA stars as Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal and to remember that this 20-year-old Israeli is in the same league as these legends. It was a night to think about just how far this young Israeli is from home—and to see just how adaptable and resilient he has been, traversing his new country, in the middle of a pandemic. It was a night to hope that one day soon, I will get to meet and interview Deni.
Then, by dumb luck, I DID get to see Deni! Two minutes after Deni spoke to the media via Zoom, I was leaving the Garden and spotted 20 religious boys chanting his name. Then…Deni appeared! He was behind a barricade, escorted to the team bus. He was not permitted to sign autographs (though one shouted, “sign my tissue, Deni!”), but he smiled and waved to his admiring fans.
It is clear that Deni is here to stay. He is a young up and coming mensch who will one post-Covid day sign lots of autographs and schmooze with admiring fans—young and adult, Israeli and American, Jewish and non-Jewish, for years to come. Happy Passover, Deni!