There sat Oliver Platt, the swarthy, tousled actor known for his portrayal of cowardly suck-ups. He was at the game , Knicks-Pacers, Conference Finals, Game 4.
A white NBC identification tag hung from his neck. Courtside, an NBC producer’s clipboard designated him simply as “NBC promo position # 2.” Sure enough, late in the third quarter, NBC ran an ad for its upcoming fall series Deadline , in which Mr. Platt plays a gritty newspaper columnist. When NBC returned to the game, an NBC camera zoomed in on section 115 to get a close-up of Mr. Platt’s doughy mug. NBC play-by-play guy Tom Hammond read the promo: “Courtside at today’s game, a familiar face to moviegoers and a new face to the NBC family. That’s Oliver Platt, star of NBC’s new fall drama, Deadline , coming to NBC this fall …”
That’s what basketball’s all about! (Baseball is Calista Flockhart in a field box on Fox). NBC was just pursuing its expensively purchased sports-carrier prerogative by turning the courtside cast–all those famous faces, not quite hiding behind baseball caps and Memorial Day stubble–into players in its own movie, a cheesy Penn Plaza rendition of Nashville .
Mr. Platt’s comment on his role as promotional bait? “Enjoy the game,” he said. Is that what people do at the Garden? Was he being sarcastic?
There seemed to be some real fans scattered among the movie stars, plutocrats and politicians in the $3,000 courtside seats, but they were just there to make crowd noise for the sharpies in the lights at the bottom of the bowl.
The Garden at playoff time is an urban biosphere teeming with self-importance. Courtside, on the floor, dwarfed by the players, you see the obvious fans–Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Matthew Modine and his kooky wife, Cari. But most of the action goes on a few rows up. Each section ringing the floor has an identity of its own. Directly across from the Knicks bench are sections 27, 28 and 29, starring Kevin Kline, Tom Brokaw and Ed Bradley, who lead their seat mates in projecting a sober air of self-satisfaction. There’s not a lot of high-fiving and back-slapping in the high 20’s. Same goes for certain clusters in sections 11 and 12, behind the basket closest to the Knicks bench, where guys like Donald Trump, Cablevision Systems (and therefore Knicks and Garden) owner Chuck Dolan, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, corporate raider Carl Icahn, restaurateur Warner LeRoy and an odd preponderance of doctors sit woodenly while the hoop-freak regulars around them score the game, wave towels and call out three-second violations.
Before, during and after Game 4, Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica made his way through these sections, schmoozing the men who know the stuff that can make a big-city sports column work.
Behind the Knicks bench sit Ralph Dalton, Patrick Ewing’s former Georgetown teammate, and producer Phil Spector. Toward center court, behind the scorer’s table, there’s Woody and Soon Yi. Across the ramp where the players amble by, billionaire Teddy Forstmann and restaurateur Phil Suarez share a section with Knicks doctor Norman Scott, who usually strides up the tunnel just before tip-off.
Everybody’s got an angle. Every time the people at home hear the N.B.A. on NBC theme music kick in, the fans near the floor are getting down to business.
Brad Martin, the dry-cleaning executive (courtside, section 11), said, “If you can’t cut a deal and you’re bringing them to the front row of a Knicks game, then that deal ain’t going to happen.”
“A lot of networking happens at the game,” said Neil Platt, who works in publicity at Fox Films. “There’s a tremendous amount of emotion at the games and you’re with a client and you’re rooting for the same team–the chances of making a potential contact or making a deal are that much better. We’re all there to enjoy the game, but we exchange business cards, too.”
They don’t do much exchanging of cards up in Suite 200, the owners’ club (invitation only; no children allowed on weekdays; Tom Hanks was once escorted out for failing to wear a jacket). They all pretty much know each other already. Surrounded by LeRoy Neiman paintings and TV sets broadcasting the house network, the courtside regulars often stick around well into the second half over roast beef and big, free glasses of scotch, timing their entrances so that the fans who can’t see them in their seats can at least watch them walk along the fabled Garden hardwood.
According to some visitors, Cablevision chief executive Jim Dolan (Chuck’s son) can often be seen berating the Garden staff after a tense game. “He gets obsessed with how many people are in the room, who they are and what they’re wearing,” said one regular. For most fans, though, the thrill of sitting courtside is enough.
“You can sometimes influence the refs,” said Steven Greenberg, a financier who sits courtside (yes, he’s the one who looks like Benjamin Franklin) next to former EMI Records head Charles Koppleman and Island Def Jam Records president Lyor Cohen. “You can point out illegal defense. The refs can’t help hearing you. In the Sunday Heat game when there were 17 seconds to go, I said to the ref, Joe Forte, I said, ‘Joe, just remember one thing: You really are a Knick fan.’ Then [Allan] Houston took the ball out and that’s when [Dan] Majerle fouled him.”
During the second half of Game 4, Kris Murphy, a 30-year-old chief executive of a publicity firm called Outta Control, was sitting four rows up behind the basket near the visitors’ bench. Mr. Murphy had a cell-phone ear piece plugged into his right ear. “I always meet a lot of people here,” he said. “Jim Fassel, I met him here. Michael Rapaport, we know each other. David Spade.”
Mr. Murphy’s season tickets are in the fourth row, but when he’s hosting a celebrity he lets the Garden know about it, and if the celebrity’s good enough, they’ll give him an upgrade. “It’s an easy sell for the celebrity. Anytime you call someone with Knick tickets, it’s a lock, they’re gonna come. When I’m with someone big, I’ll call MSG. They’ll say, ‘Who do you have?’ I’ll say, ‘David Spade.’ They’ll say, ‘Well, O.K.’ Then afterwards it’s easy to talk. You make a lot of contacts that way.”