Why a 30-year-old song propels the Knicks’ playoff hopes


As Joel Embiid’s desperation 3-pointer clanged off the rim and the buzzer sounded in Game 2 of the first-round series on April 22, thousands of New York Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden screamed with glee. At the same moment, Dan Monopoli — the in-house DJ — got a cue from his boss, the arena’s legendary organist and music director Ray Castoldi.

“He just said, ‘Now! ‘Go NY Go,’ and I felt the hair stand up on my neck,” Monopoli recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this place is going to melt.’ And it did.

“There’s still nothing like it.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. The Knicks, who beat Philly in six games, are one win away from eliminating Indiana and clinching their first trip to the Eastern Conference finals since 2000, and there is no denying that the song underpinning it all isn’t some new rap hit or club anthem, and it isn’t some underground or on-the-cusp track that’s about to get huge. It is “Go NY Go,” a simply named, easy-to-follow pop/hip-hop amalgam first played to a middling reaction in 1993.

Is it strange that Jalen Brunson’s wife, Ali Marks, captioned her celebratory Instagram story after the Knicks closed out the Sixers with “Go New York Go New York Go?” Maybe. But if it seems impossible to you that a basketball team based in the cultural capital of the world still gets its biggest rise from a song originally recorded in a Manhattan apartment closet more than three decades ago by a guy who would go on to become more famous as an entrepreneur than a musician (and who actually now owns a piece of a different NBA team), well … maybe you should stop and listen to the thing again.

“There are lots of songs you can use to hype up the crowd,” Monopoli said. “House of Pain, Zombie Nation, things like that — and we use those. But for Knicks fans, ‘Go NY Go’ represents something different. It brings back memories and connects what’s happening now to what happened in those years everyone loves.

“Plus,” he added, “let’s be honest: It’s just an absolutely all-time track.”

Yet as with most creative triumphs, there is also a great deal of serendipity wrapped up in the song’s rise. If it were not for a total earworm of a TV jingle, a chance meeting, a front office looking to overhaul the feel of their home court and the perfect juxtaposition of song and coach and team and city, “Go NY Go” might never have existed at all.


Part 1: A bag of chips

In the winter of 1992, Nancy Grunfeld — wife of Knicks executive Ernie Grunfeld and a pioneer in the sports fashion industry — was getting ready to leave her house one afternoon when she heard a commercial for some sort of potato chips on television.

“There was a chorus and it was like, ‘Everybody sing along!’ and it just got in my head,” Grunfeld said, adding that it was “very annoying.” But it also gave her an idea.

Nancy Grunfeld, president/co-owner of ITP Partners, 1992-2002: It was like this lightbulb moment for me. I was getting my bag together, and all I could think about was: We should do a song that people in the stands can sing along to together during the chorus. I can’t stop singing this silly thing, so why don’t teams do that? I didn’t know how to make music, but I knew who to call.

Jesse Itzler, rapper, author, entrepreneur: I was writing radio jingles for Nancy’s clothing company. I was 23, trying to make something happen in music in New York. I was all over the place.

Grunfeld: I had met Jesse at a fundraising dinner for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, and he was just so enthusiastic and energetic. He was bouncing off the walls. He was just so into everything — the clothes, the sports. He made terrific jingles. So I called him after I had the thought about the song, and I said, ‘Meet me at Charley O’s.’ It’s a restaurant on 8th Avenue that people would go to before games. I remember standing at the bar at Charley O’s, and saying to Jesse, ‘If you can write this song, I’ll bring it to Ernie.’

Itzler: In my mind, the meeting was scheduled in like two days.

Grunfeld: He came up with something really quick, and I listened to it and thought, ‘Yes!’ and showed it to Ernie. He brought it to Dave (Checketts, then the Knicks’ president), and there was a meeting.

Pam Harris, Knicks/MSG marketing executive, 1991-2000: Nancy, I remember her saying to me, ‘This guy is a sick Knicks fan, he’s an up-and-coming performer and he has this great idea to write a theme song for the Knicks.’ Jesse came into the office and played it on a cassette for us. It was me and Billie Streets, who ran game operations at the time, and I trusted Billie. I liked the song, but I knew Billie would know if the fans would get it. I was like, ‘Is this cool?’ And Billie was like, ‘Absolutely.’

Itzler: I played them this demo that I’d literally recorded the lyrics for in my closet. There was nothing to it, just, ‘We are the New York Knicks’ and then a little 8-bar rap and then nothing. It was a demo. There wasn’t even the ‘Go New York Go New York Go” on it then. That came later.

Harris: It’s a real balance in New York — lots of New Yorkers feel like, ‘We know this team, we know this game.’ In the office, we used to use the words ‘Bush league’ a lot when we would talk about new ideas — like, we can’t do what the T-Wolves do or what the Phoenix Suns are doing. This is New York. It has to be different. And we were captivated by the song because it felt like New York. It was different.

Itzler: They were like, ‘We love it,’ and I was like, ‘It’s a demo. I can make it better.’ They said, ‘How much better?’ and I said, ‘A lot.’ And I remember they gave me a deadline of around the All-Star Game. So I went back and started working on it.


Part 2: A new era

As Itzler worked, the Knicks were in the late stages of a franchise overhaul. Dave Checketts had arrived in 1991, and he hired Lakers coaching legend Pat Riley to lead the team toward something better. For most of the previous decade, the Knicks had been mediocre, and the Garden’s game-night atmosphere had been vanilla. Checketts wanted more across the board; he told everyone who worked for him, both on the court and in the front office and marketing departments, that the Knicks needed to offer fans a vision of something aspirational and appealing.

Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, co-host, “Mike and the Mad Dog,” WFAN radio, 1989-2008: The Knicks of the 80s were mostly terrible. I was in New York then, and I went to the games, and it was a ghost town. Hubie Brown? Give me a break.

Branford Marsalis, Grammy-winning saxophonist: I would go with Spike [Lee] a lot. We were neighbors. We’d sit close because you could do that then, and we’d just give Hubie Brown the business. ‘You suck, Hubie! You’re a bum.’ But everything changed when Riley got there.

Harris: The coach was a big part of it, but Dave had us looking at everything related to the experience of being at a Knicks game. We added the video boards, the Knicks City Dancers were created, we looked at the music — all of it was through the lens of New York. What fit? We talked about a mascot, like Benny the Bull in Chicago, but it didn’t feel right.

Marv Albert, Knicks play-by-play announcer, 1967-2004: Back then, no arenas had anything close to the atmosphere there is now. Even somewhere like Boston, it was so quiet at timeouts it was like a library. Maybe the PA announcer would say something, but that was it. There was no showbiz aspect to it. The idea of a team song was very unusual.

Itzler: I grew up in New York and was a die-hard fan. I remember staying up as a kid, every game, from 7:30 to 10 to watch the broadcast. So when I did the song, my creative approach was to imagine that I was sitting in the blue seats in the Garden and try to feel what I would feel when the Knicks went on a big rally. Like, what would make me stand up and not sit back down?

Dana Mozie, 27-time gold/platinum record producer: I’d known Jesse for a few years, and we’d worked together. I met him in DC when he was at American [University]. He was trying to be a white rapper. At the time it was a novel thing, so I started producing him. He was the first white rapper to perform at Howard University, and I was the one who brought him.

Itzler: There was nothing in sports songs. It was a blank slate — the Bears had done “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” the Mets had “Meet the Mets” but that was for commercials. We needed something built for an arena. I knew Dana would have ideas.

Mozie: Rap was making its transition then; Hammer, Diddy, there was a lot of energy. This was the birth of commercial hip-hop. It was the right time. I was the composer, the arranger and produced it. I wanted something to cut across all lines. I had to keep it real for the streets and keep it real for the suites. All types of people are Knicks fans. I think dealing with the challenge of the white guy in the rap game probably helped me produce something that could appeal to all races.

Itzler: The formula for the verses was a blend of current player references and some tidbits about New York. The chorus — I mean, “Go Blank Go” was an old party chant that’s been used a million times in hip-hop. I didn’t create it. But it just worked. Dana did the music, it fit the chorus so well and was super catchy.

Harris: I think we had a few notes initially, but not much. It was all them. Jesse was a fan. He knew what he wanted to say.

Mozie: We recorded it in a small studio in Manhattan. They had a tiny 8-track tape machine in there or something. We weren’t big, but we had flavor. And Jesse was flowing.

Itzler: My college roommate sang the chorus with me. I think the Knicks gave me something like $4,000 for the job. I lost money making it, I know that. But I would have paid them to do it! And I’ll tell you: I remember when we walked out of the studio, I got in my car and we had it on the cassette, and we blasted it. I was like, “Holy s—! I think this is gonna work.”


Part 3: A slow build

Itzler’s stage name at the time was Jesse Jaymes, and he’d made a few singles that had done well, including “Shake It (Like a White Girl),” which made it to No. 74 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1991 (and would be featured in the movie “White Chicks” in 2004). Nothing Itzler had created to that point, though, was quite as meaningful to him as “Go NY Go.” With Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks and the rest of the Knicks battling to win the Eastern Conference, the song debuted in the Garden in February of 1993 with lines like, “Ya better believe the Knicks got all that it takes / we’re throwin’ alley-oops and we’re running fast breaks.” Itzler was there the night it was played for the first time.

Itzler: They played it at a timeout. I was two rows from the top. I think I’d bought my own tickets. No one in the place knew what was going on — the reaction was lukewarm at best. Like, very lukewarm.

Marsalis: At first, everyone hated the song. Hip-hop was in its nascent stage, the flow was terrible — it needed time. It needed something.

Itzler: They played it at the next game, maybe like 10% more people knew what was happening and sang along. It was rough. That’s when I was like, I gotta get this on the radio. I remember saying, “We got to get the lyrics out there so people know what’s happening.”

Chris Weiller, Knicks/MSG head of communications, 1991-99: For the playoffs that season, the song was part of a “Nobody Beats the Wiz” promotion, and they gave away a towel with the words to the song on it.

Mozie: There was actually a cassette, too, a Wiz cassette. And I’ll tell you something: That’s when it happened. All that helped it take off.

Jonathan Supranowitz, Knicks media relations executive, 2000-2018: At that time, I was interning with the Nets, so I was a closeted Knicks fan, but that cassette was one of my prized possessions. My copy is actually part of a display at the Garden now with other memorabilia from that season.

Mozie: The ’93 playoffs, when they lost to the Bulls, and then the whole 93-94 season after that when they made the Finals is when the song really popped. It was just always going down at the Garden. The song was good, but the real difference was that the Knicks were good. They were tough, and they won. Every night, it was like the city was on fire, and it just kept spreading.

Marsalis: My relationship with that song is like my relationship with all pop music: The first time you hear it, you think ‘This stinks.’ The sixth time you hear it, you’re singing it. It fit that team — the way they played; it was just right.

Russo: We could have done all 5½ hours of the show every day on the Knicks. Every call, no problem. It was a grind-it-out team — after Ewing, they didn’t have a superstar. New Yorkers like defense! Lawrence Taylor with the Giants — New Yorkers like denying people. They like knocking people down, and that’s what that team did.

Gary Winkler, Knicks event presentation executive, 1995-2008: I was an intern in 1994, and one day they were like, ‘Here’s a stack of Go NY Go posters — take them to every bar in the city.’ It was like we were giving away money. People were hugging us. Just total strangers. They wanted anything with “Go NY Go” on it.

Russo: The Knicks were the thing, and Riley was king of the city. It was the time. At a charity auction, I got one of the suits that Riley wore on the sideline. A beautiful Armani suit, 2500 bucks. It was for charity! He’s 6-4, 6-5 so I had to tailor the heck out of it, but I wore it a lot. I don’t have it anymore, but it was a great suit. Everything about the Knicks was special then.

Albert: It was all just amped up. Even regular-season games, if they were against the Bulls or the Pacers or the Heat, it felt like the playoffs. Normally I would be focused during timeouts — looking at stats or who was making a run — but those years, especially when they played that song, I would notice it. You couldn’t escape it.

Harris: We made a video, too — it wasn’t just a song. The video was really popular — it had the players in it singing along, and the fans, too.

Jared DeMarino, car sales associate in Indianola, Iowa: I’m in the ’94 video. I grew up in New York, and my dad shared season tickets. They were filming fans one night when I was 13. I’m the kid in the hat [bottom left] that shows up right after Derek Harper. We had a VHS of it, and I digitized it and put it on YouTube. I also put up a video of me bungee jumping. That one has like 100 views; the Knicks one has 710,000 and counting. That song — it’s like a teleport back to 1994.

Itzler: By the playoffs in ’94, they were playing it on [hip-hop radio station] Hot 97. It was all over. I was flipping out. Everyone loved it.

Petra Pope, Knicks entertainment/marketing executive, 1991-2005; creator of the Knicks City Dancers: It was so New York. It’s like a warrior cry. People loved to see the City Dancers, but when that song came on, we never did a dance routine to it. No way. We might shoot T-shirts into the crowd or something, but we mostly just sang along with it. It was for the fans.


Part 4: Staying power

Although the Knicks lost to the Houston Rockets in the 1994 NBA Finals — “Starks!” Itzler said, sighing as he invoked John Starks’ infamous 2-for-18 shooting performance in Game 7 — there was no denying that “Go NY Go” had become a centerpiece of the Garden experience. Itzler had updated the lyrics once ahead of the 1993-94 season, (adding, among many other lines, “If ya’ defense makes a mistake / then BAM! / Ewing dunks in ya’ face!”) and he did so again before each of the next several seasons as the Knicks became a playoff fixture and the song’s popularity continued to grow.

Itzler: I started with a minute and 12-second song, so it would fit into a timeout. Then once it took off, I started giving them 30-second versions, doughnuts, for radio. Then 10-second clips, quick little ones to use whenever. And every time there was a trade or they signed someone big I’d do a new version or update it. I did it for years. It was everywhere — I think I even did a version for the Yankees-Mets Subway Series in baseball.

Mozie: I used to see Ewing all the time. Charles Oakley, Starks — I’d see them in the clubs or at Justin’s, which was Diddy’s restaurant. They all really liked the song. I remember one night, Chris Webber contacted me because he heard it and wanted to start a rap label. He wanted help with it.

Melissa Joan Hart, actress: I had it on my answering machine in college. There was an art to doing that back then, and I would have it playing and then sing, “Go New York Go New York Go!” and then shout, “Playoffs!” or “Finals!” or whatever they were in. And then, “Leave a message.”

Frank Isola, Knicks beat writer, New York Daily News, 1996-2016: They had really good timing when they played it. They didn’t overdo it, and they only did it when it was late in the game and the team was pulling away or made a big rally. There were different versions. My favorite was the one [singing] ‘I’m a Knick fan and I gotta stay true, yes I do / are you down with the orange and the blue?’ It was pretty electrifying.

Itzler: I felt so much pressure to make each version better than the year before. I’d have an idea and play it for like three or four friends and ask them, ‘Is this better than last year?’ It was always on my mind. It mattered a lot to me.

Winkler: I remember one playoff game against the Bulls, the Knicks went up huge in the first quarter, and the place was nuts. I just kind of lost it and was like, ‘We’re doing it!’ and we played it in the first quarter. After it was over, the phone rang at the scorer’s table where I would sit, and it was my boss — “What are you DOING?” I never played it in the first quarter again.

Traci Swain, Knicks City Dancers, 1993-96: It was just so empowering. I think that’s why the fans, and the players loved it. It was like this identity that everyone felt — we were New York.

Itzler: As we did more versions, we started getting guests on it — Mobb Deep was on it, Puffy was on it. Q-Tip. Ed Lover, Angie Martinez — we had all these amazing artists in New York and they loved the Knicks.

Dan Monopoli, Madison Square Garden DJ, 2020-present: They did some full remixes — I’ve seen a Swizz Beatz one, Fat Joe, but they were kind of hybrids. Nothing was like the original one.

Russo: It was a great run for the Knicks through the late 90s, but then things changed after the 1999 Finals run. [Jeff] Van Gundy was gone in 2001 and it all just sort of fell apart on the court. They were awful again. Oh, they were bad.

Harris: After the Finals run in 1999, it felt like a big shift. There was a lot of turnover. The song was kind of banished in the 2000s.

Winkler: We weren’t really using it as often, but to be honest, we also weren’t winning that much in the 2000s. It was around, and the players still liked it; I remember Nate Robinson really liked it. But we didn’t use it much.

Supranowitz: The Knicks do have a history of other songs, and while none are like “Go NY Go,” there are some good ones. I think in that time period, we heard a lot more of “Take Me Home,” which was from Doug E. Fresh. There wasn’t a lot of “Go NY Go.”

Pope: I don’t know that I ever heard it was intentional or like an order not to play “Go NY Go,” but maybe there just weren’t the moments that really warranted it anymore. And after a while, it felt like that era had kind of passed.


Part 5: Lost … and found

The success of “Go NY Go” was a jumping-off point for Itzler (and Mozie), who would go on to create dozens of songs for teams and leagues across a variety of sports. Music was only a piece of Itzler’s interests, though, and as the Knicks largely struggled through the first two decades of the 2000s — they won just a single playoff series from 2001 to 2022 — Itzler became a successful entrepreneur, co-founding companies such as Marquis Jet. Yet even as he moved on (and moved away from New York), Itzler’s love for the Knicks never wavered; not when “Go NY Go” faded as a staple of the Knicks’ game-night experience and not even when he and his wife, Sara Blakely, the founder of the shapewear brand Spanx, became part-owners of the Atlanta Hawks in 2015. “I still have four season tickets to the Knicks,” Itzler said. “I love them. And I loved that the song eventually came back, too.”

DeMarino: I’d always look on YouTube over the years to see how my video was doing, and there would be people that would make up their own versions of the song, just like rapping over it. None of them were the real thing, though. But clearly fans missed it.

Monopoli: That song, to myself and to many people, is attached to so many great memories and great times. It’s almost as if we needed the right opportunity to bring it back. And the team during the pandemic [2020-21 season] — it just seemed like there was something brewing. I think that was sort of the song’s rebirth.

Isola: Those 90s teams are always a reference point for any Knicks team, but this year’s team — I see it. Tom [Thibodeau] is like a Pat Riley disciple; he came from Jeff Van Gundy who worked under Riley.

Russo: It’s a similar formula — they have Brunson, who is a star, then blue-collar guys beside him. Who’s the second star? They’re good players, but there’s no superstar. It’s grinders — Hart, Hartenstein. They’re hard-nosed.

Albert: The Garden is as good now as it’s ever been.

Pope: My husband and I are season-ticket holders, and I still get hyped when I hear the song. It was such a smart piece of music — it was thug enough but mainstream back then, and it still is.

Harris: It was a unifier. I’ve worked on projects since then where we’d be like, ‘We need something iconic,’ and someone will say, ‘You mean like ‘Go New York?’

Hart: That song was just the best. It was so 90s and so New York all at the same time.

Grunfeld: It’s just a testament to Jesse and to Dana. They knew what the city needed. They created something that has lasted.

Itzler: You know, I was thinking the other day how I wish I had an opportunity to redo the song this year. This Knicks team — they’re so gritty. Obviously I can’t do it, and I’m 55 so I’m not even qualified anymore, but it would be fun. And with the Hawks not in the playoffs, I’m all about the Knicks. Honestly, I think I’m going to take my kids to a game. It would be cool if they could hear the song.



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