Celebrities are being punished at Madison Square Garden, with no more free tickets

Stars compete for an invitation to the most coveted row in American professional sports. It’s free, but it comes with conditions, as a couple of popular models have discovered the hard way

Memphis Grizzlies v New York Knicks
Christine Taylor, Ben Stiller, Pete Davidson and Emily Ratajkowski in the first row of Madison Square Garden, during a game between the Memphis Grizzlies and the New York Knicks, on November 27, 2023.Jamie Squire (Getty Images)
Miquel Echarri

The New York Knicks — in the opinion of one of their most illustrious fans, retired tennis star John McEnroe — are a secular religion. Almost everything that surrounds the NBA team is a matter of faith… starting with the always-renewed messianic confidence that they’re in a position to compete for an NBA title. This is despite the fact that they haven’t won a championship since 1973.

Emily Ratajkowski has been the latest to prove to what extent sports idolatries should be taken very seriously. This past November 25, the model and actress — born in London and raised in California — went to Madison Square Garden in the company of fellow model Irina Shayk, to attend a promising game: the Knicks against the Miami Heat, current champions of the Eastern Conference.

Ratajkowski and Shayk sat, of course, on Celebrity Row — the handful of coveted seats at the foot of the court where McEnroe, Spike Lee, Michael J. Fox, Whoopi Goldberg and Anne Hathaway are regulars. Martha Stewart, Aaron Rogers, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and Ethan Hawke sometimes make appearances, too.

New York Knicks
Christine Taylor, Ben Stiller, Pete Davidson, Emily Ratajkowski, Jordin Sparks and Dana Isaiah, at Madison Square Garden, in November 2023. Jamie Squire (Getty Images)

Although Emily has been frequenting Madison Square Garden for several years now, her attitude on this occasion was not up to the task. The two models behaved like a pair of influencers on a promotional tour: they turned their backs to the game on multiple occasions to film videos and take selfies. But the supreme outrage (in the fans’ opinion) came when they chose to leave the pavilion a couple of minutes before the end of the game. At that point, the Knicks were about to close a 21-point deficit to end up obtaining one of the most exciting victories of the season.

While Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle and Immanuel Quickley were fighting it out on the court before the enthusiasm of the stands, Irina and Emily deserted a pair of chairs whose price — when they go on sale — ranges between $6,000 and $10,000 during the regular season. Emily then returned a few days later to watch the game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

However, in mid-December, when the model asked the facility’s administrators for free preferential seats to see the New York Rangers ice hockey team, the request was denied, to the surprise of the star.

New York Knicks
Beyonce Knowles and her husband, Jay Z, applauding the Knicks in 2004, with the passion required to have front row tickets. KATHY WILLENS (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In the subsequent days, media outlets such as Outkick would go so far as to claim that Ratajkowski was prohibited from accessing discretionary VIP seats because the venue’s owner, James Dolan, felt that she had abused her privilege. Mike Gunzelman — the author of the article — allowed himself the luxury of admonishing the model with populist arguments: “‘Celebrities… they’re just like us!’ Except, every single time, they’re not. And in this instance, I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but I applaud MSG owner James Dolan for holding [Ratajkowski] to account.”

“Just because you’re a smokeshow” he continued venting, “doesn’t mean you can come and go as you please. No, Emily — you need to sit and watch the pathetic (at times) Knicks play just like all the rest of us peasant fans in the 300 level.”

Ratajkowski claimed that she had left early because her two-year-old son — Sylvester Apollo Bear — was ill. But the photos that she took around the stadium with Irina Shayk after her untimely defection don’t leave her in a good light. Brian Gallagher pointed out in the tabloid The Daily Mail that Emily “hasn’t been banned from the Garden,” but she has been “urged” to pay for her tickets, like everyone else. That is to say, she has been stripped of her status as high priestess of the Knicks cult to become, once again, a mere mortal.

There isn’t room for everyone

The NBA has a peculiar relationship with its celebrity row. All teams are interested in the sheen of glamour that comes with significant VIP support in the stands. However, only two teams have formally made it one of their marketing strategies: the Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Los Angeles team is the most successful in the NBA (along with maybe the Boston Celtics). In the last couple of decades, it has had supreme athletes within its ranks, such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. The team has never lacked the support of the Hollywood elite, which considers basketball to be its favorite sport. Many A-listers attend Lakers games, including Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kanye West, Jennifer Garner, Timothée Chalamet, Tom Cruise and Drew Barrymore… without forgetting number one fan Jack Nicholson, who has been suffering on the court for decades without losing his smile.

Less obvious is the case of the Knicks — a rather modest team in historical terms, with only a couple of very distant titles to their credit. Even with Patrick Ewing — one of the greatest centers in history — from 1985 until 2000, the team couldn’t pick up a single ring. But, of course, they’re the Manhattan team: they play in the historic Garden, they’re as genuinely “New York” as cannoli, bagels, or pastrami sandwiches from Little Italy. And they’re adored by an enthusiastic fanbase, with top-level players such as Jason Brunon and Julius Randle killing it right now. Expectations haven’t been this high since the formidable acrobat Jeremy Lin stunned the league during the 2011-2012 season.

Walt Frazier — the franchise player who took the Knicks to the top in 1970 and 1973 — spoke to EL PAÍS six years ago. He noted that, despite the team’s frustrating trajectory — almost always far from excellence — it’s more of “a feeling and a collective identity” than a mere basketball team. It’s a team that has more mystique and history than tangible achievements… a narrative that Knicks fans believe wholeheartedly. This explains why 2023’s modest record of 16 wins and 12 losses has led to predictions that, this year, the team has a serious chance of at least making it to the playoffs.

Elusive criteria

Last spring, Kristen Fleming explained in the tabloid The New York Post that the Garden’s administrators were overwhelmed by the high number of applicants looking to sit in celebrity row. After a couple of seasons in which Spike Lee and John McEnroe had to fly the VIP banner almost alone, Tracy Morgan, Jessica Alba, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and Roger Federer began to compete for privileged seats alongside former NBA players, such as Carmelo Anthony or Walt Frazier.

In an era in which celebrity row has once again become the most exquisite red carpet in New York, entertainers who want a seat are subject to a casting in which the criteria isn’t very transparent. As Dan Feldman explained on NBC Sports, everyone must go through a procedure that begins as soon as they request this type of ticket for the first time. Those who receive a response gain the status of “friends of the Garden.” Subsequently, they can enter the pavilion through a special entrance and freely access catering rooms and VIP areas.

From there, a committee of wise men evaluates whether each of these “friends” is famous enough for their presence at the baseline. They need to be considered an “asset” for the venue; the seat isn’t just meant as a courtesy. Some of them are given the opportunity to sit in the front row at least once to see what the reaction is among the audience when the celebrity cam is focused on them.

One of the latest pop culture figures to submit his application was Timothée Chalamet, whose first appearance among the chosen ones was greeted with fervor. Chalamet even had the detail of modestly covering his face when the camera was focused on him… with a Knicks cap.

In any case, the invitation to join the most coveted row in American professional sports becomes a contract that also has obligations, such as participating in the round of interviews that occur during breaks, interacting naturally with the rest of the celebrities, transmitting a positive image, being friendly with the rest of the public and supporting the local team with some enthusiasm. And, of course, staying until the end, especially when the game is tied.

Elliott Gould, Donald Trump and Marla Maples at Madison Square Garden, in 1991. Steve Freeman (AP)

Whoever sits in celebrity row during a Knicks game is joining a whole lineage of elite fans that has included Rihanna, Jon Stewart, Liam Neeson, Howard Stern, Chloe Sevigny, Katie Holmes, 50 Cent, Woody Allen, Jerry Senfield, or Alicia Keys. Even Donald Trump was a regular at the Manhattan team’s games, before his confrontation with the NBA stars over the Black Lives Matter movement made him a pariah in the world of basketball.

Sitting so close to the court in such a setting and with such a background is — as Stan Lee would say — one of those great powers that implies great responsibility. Emily Ratajkowski didn’t quite understand this logic. And that’s why she’s lost one of the most exclusive privileges granted by the world of sports.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS