Roughly 2,000 Knicks fans will be in attendance at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night for the first time in 352 days since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown began last March, and an emotional Anthony Donahue will be among them.
Donahue, a season-ticket holder for nearly 20 years and a hardcore Knicks fan since he was in fourth grade in 1994, suffered the loss of his 21-year-old sister Gianna Gregoire to brain cancer in August.
“It’s been a long 11 months. For me personally it’s been a long year and a half,” the 37-year-old Donahue told The Post on Monday. “During the whole season last year, it was one of the first years in my life where I didn’t even care if the Knicks won or lost. I was still going to every game, and going to the Garden was such a support system. It’s going to be very emotional walking in that building on Tuesday night.
“I’ve been at almost every home game for the last 20 years, and I’ve been going to games the last 26. I really don’t know what to expect. But I am excited about being there and watching this team live, finally. It’s my favorite place in the world, so it will be very emotional.”
The 37-year-old Donahue will attend Tuesday’s game against Stephen Curry and the Warriors with close friend Elgin Swift. The 46-year-old Manhattan resident first met Donahue while donating items and services for a fundraiser auction on Gianna’s behalf in 2011.
“She was such a big part of Knicks nation, too,” Donahue said of Gianna. “She had beaten brain cancer initially when she was 12, and she was my whole world. I raised her like a parent and took her to Knicks games since she was 4 years old. Everybody watched her grow up there.”
Swift was furloughed from his job with Audi last March, and he now works as a wholesale director at a tech start-up called Rodo, an app for selling and leasing cars online.
“Oh man, it’s been a dreadful year, sitting in the house every day, and even when I come into the office,” Swift said. “I work right across the street from the Garden at 1 Penn Plaza. I’m looking at it right now. I’m very excited to be going back, especially with Anthony. Combined with the fact that the team actually is enjoyable to watch again, makes it even better.”
Both Donahue and Swift believe the Knicks, 15-16 under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau, have been the type of hardworking, defense-oriented team New York fans already have embraced.
“I bleed orange and blue. I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been a tough go for most of the last 20 years. But there’s nothing like walking into the Garden when the team is competitive,” Donahue said.
“You can look forward to the games again. It’s, ‘All right, the Knicks play tonight, I’m locked in. Don’t bother me,’ ” added Swift, who said his fandom dates back to “Micheal Ray Richardson days” in the early 1980s. “It’s really been one of the more pleasant surprises in my years of being a fan.
“The expectations were not high. I thought they would be better, but they have played well above their heads. It’s obviously a case of having a good coach, too. I think this is clearly where you look at someone who knows how to coach and how he wants to coach and getting the players to play the way he wants them to play. I think as New Yorkers we tend to admire effort, and that’s how we define if we like you or get behind you. I think that’s part of who they are and the coaching that [Thiibodeau] has instilled in them.”
The friends will be seated in Section 212 Tuesday night, not their regular seats closer to the court, due to the need for fans to be socially distanced throughout the lower and upper bowls due to COVID-19.
On this night, however, location doesn’t matter. They will be back in the building, the Knicks’ first home game with fans since March 8 of last year against Detroit.
“I think we are headed in the right direction, finally,” said Donahue, a Bronx native who used to host a Knicks-based show for SNY. “So many times over the years, we’ve tried to take shortcuts, and make crazy trades. But we’re doing it the right way, finally.
“I’ve said so many times over the last 20 years, if you put out a product that plays hard and competes, these fans will be fully behind that. I’m really excited about this team and the way it plays. You’d have the old-school signs with the ‘D’ and the ‘Fence.’ You’d have “defense” chants during the layup line with the way this team plays D.
“We know it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a championship team yet, but this is a team Knicks fans have been waiting for, for a long time. It’s finally a team we can really get behind and it definitely will be nice to be a part of it again, inside the arena.”