'And in the end, the love you take
is equal to the love you make'

By Chris Connelly
Special to Page 2

I belong to that sizable subset of Americans who, 21 years ago, learned of John Lennon's murder from Howard Cosell during a field-goal attempt on "Monday Night Football." So, it was weirdly fitting somehow to be online trolling for sports updates late Thursday night when the news broke that George Harrison had died.

George Harrison
George Harrison was known as the "Quiet Beatle," but Chris Connelly calls him the "Roberto Clemente of Rock."
He'll be remembered for a lot in the days to come, but he'll be celebrated in this space for providing one-half of what might have been the greatest single calendar year ever had by a sports arena. That year was 1971, and that venue was New York City's Madison Square Garden "the new Garden," opened just three years earlier.

What happened in '71 at MSG? For starters, it was where longtime WWF champion Bruno Sammartino lost his crown in January, and where Pedro Morales would win the belt a few months later. A shoulder injury to Willis Reed, compounded by his chronic knee problem, kept the Knicks from retaining their NBA title in the '71 playoffs; the Rangers, meanwhile, ran into a rough and ready Boston Bruins squad, led by magical Bobby Orr and man-handling Ace Bailey, whose physical play kept the Rangers banged up (and who died aboard one of the planes from Boston on Sept. 11). Led Zep played at MSG that year; so did Ricky Nelson, who got booed at an oldies show and went home to write what would be his last hit, "Garden Party."

"So what?" you say, and of course, you're right. But it was Madison Square Garden that was the site for the March 8 fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. I had just turned 14, and to this day I cannot imagine a bigger sports event taking place in my lifetime. The hype and buildup of the event were suitably massive -- Frank Sinatra covered the fight for Life magazine as a photographer! -- but who could miss the Clash-of-the-Titans enormity of the bout itself? Two charismatic heavyweight champs, with totally different fighting styles and world views, each undefeated ... amazing.

It was years before I saw a tape of the fight, and I'll never forget how almost comically huge Frazier's 15th-round left hook appeared, before it collided with Ali's jaw and put him on the canvas. If he'd hit you, you'd still be down. Ali got up, and while he lost the fight, it was Frazier who went to the hospital instead of his victory party.

George Harrison, Bob Dylan
Harrison got the reclusive Bob Dylan to make an appearance at "The Concert for Bangladesh" in 1971.
It was George Harrison's turn five months later, when he pulled together "The Concert for Bangladesh" at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 1, 1971 still the most viscerally thrilling rock benefit show of all-time, both for putting Harrison on the stage with his impishly charming fellow Beatle Ringo Starr and for getting two of the era's most charismatic musical recluses out of the house: Eric Clapton (then falling in love with Harrison's wife Patti Boyd, not that George ever expressed any enmity whatsoever ... shades of Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich!) and Bob Dylan, now a road warrior (who, speaking of Yankees pitchers, wrote an ode to Catfish Hunter in the mid-'70s) but then the ultimate pop-cult enigma, wrapped in more mystery, speculation and fascination than Toe Nash.

After his 27-minute set, Dylan wouldn't be seen on a New York stage for another three years, finally reappearing at the Garden, of course, this time wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey (for a possible encore with The Band). None of it would have been possible without the sly, shy, almost spectral Harrison, who, to his last days, seemed always passionate about the world's misery and almost indifferent about his own the Roberto Clemente of rock.

By 1971, the Garden had already welcomed a champion the '69-'70 Knicks, Red Holtzman's quintessentially unselfish squad. But for me and others my age, it took Ali-Frazier I and "The Concert for Bangladesh" to bestow grandeur on what was essentially a highly banal arena, with its off-white concrete, class-by-color-scheme seating sections, and less-than-festive browns and orange accents. The cultural reverb of those two events gave this Garden the same meaning its smokier predecessor had for our fathers: a place where history happens. (Mark Messier in 1994 didn't hurt, either.)

Harrison, a soul so sensitive that the "Let It Be" cameras captured him trying to leave the Beatles when intra-group strife erupted during a recording session, doesn't seem to have been temperamentally suited for the competitive spirit of sports or games. His death, coming as it does in a season of heartache for New Yorkers, doesn't figure to be commemorated at the Garden, where the Rangers shut out the Hurricanes on Thursday, and where the Knicks will test the Pistons Saturday night. But his life, like that of Ali's, reached some indefinable peak there.

And to a building that's now hosted more than three decades of champions, they each brought a unique brand of sacrifice and significance ... and for a flock of young New York fans, turned what could have been just another arena into a special place.

Chris Connelly writes a weekly column for Page 2. "Unscripted with Chris Connelly," the TV show airs at 5 p.m. ET, Monday-Friday on ESPN.



Chris Connelly Archive

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index