Andrew Unterberger just finished his tour of the NBA’s arenas. Here’s his final report with a recap coming tomorrow. For the last time, enjoy…

After ringing in the New Year in Boston with some high school friends, I began what would be the final drive of my trip, back up to my home base in New York. About sixty miles out, I thought to myself “Well how about that, I made it the entire trip without having to change a flat tire.” About fifty miles out, I heard a tearing noise followed by a horrible grinding noise and I quickly realized that I had thought-spoke too soon. I pulled over to the shoulder and got out, determined to use the instructions my father taught me before the trip started and to prove how much I’d grown over the trip by changing the tire all on my own.

I poked at the wheel a couple times with my tire iron and then I called Triple A. Manhood would have to wait until the next road trip, I suppose.

Walking up to Madison Square Garden for Knicks-Pacers the next day (Took the subway — realize now how much more fun live basketball is when finding a parking lot for less than $20 a half-mile from the arena isn’t any kind of concern), I realized that my trip had officially come full circle. Not only was I supposed to go to MSG at the very beginning of the trip — the asbestos-ruined game against the Magic if you recall — but I had met my friends in front of the arena to take local trans to the Nets game, which ended up actually being the first match of my trip. I could say I got a little misty-eyed as I took out my camera-mp3-player to take the last arena exterior shot of my trip, but really, I was too focused on looking forward to playing Rock Band 3 with my friends for the first time in two months after the game to feel much on-court sentimentality. (Come on, I only got like three days with it before I had to leave. And they released “Blue Monday” for download in the meantime!)

The Stadium: What is there to say about Madison Square Garden that hasn’t been said already? (Can I just leave it at that? Ugh, you want more? Fine.) I remember reading an article recently after the asbestos leak that made the point that while MSG is deservedly famous for its age and history and all the great basketball that’s taken place on its floor (though Richard Jefferson would undoubtedly be unmoved by that last part), the actual building itself is not all that remarkable. And it’s true that as an arena, it’s not much of a stunner as far as amenities or looks goes — even the Knicks color scheme, iconic by mere virtue of having been around as long as it has, is kinda gaudy and weird.

The really cool and semi-unique thing about the Garden though, is the way the seating is structured. Unlike most arenas, which stack their stands in traditional even or near-even tiers, MSG consists almost entirely of lower deck — one big, wide, relatively un-partitioned level that serves to eliminate the stadium’s class system almost entirely and makes it feel like the crowd is really all cheering as one. I was talking with some friends after the game about how the Knicks are singular in New York because they’re the only pro team without anyone else to claim their territory — no Mets, Jets or Islanders to provide competition for NY hearts and minds. (Unless you count the Nets … well, don’t.) It’s the one team everyone in the Big Apple can agree on, and the way MSG is built certainly serves to reflect that.

And if you’re one of the unlucky few who has to sit in the minimal upper-deck space … uh, sorry. I’ve had to do it a handful of times myself. It’s still pretty cool.

The Game: I saw two friends sitting together at the Garden, one wearing a Knicks hat and one repping the Pacers. I tried to goad the latter into comparing the game to one of the famous Pacer-Knick clashes of the 90s, but he wasn’t biting. “Not even close,” he said. “There’s no Reggie Miller, it’s not the same players … the rivalry doesn’t really exist anymore.” Hard to argue with — the teams couldn’t be much more different ideologically than the ones that set the Garden on fire in the East playoffs 15 years ago, and no one’s gonna be mistaking Danny Granger for Reggie or Roy Hibbert for one of the Davis boys anytime soon. Still, there was a certain testiness to the game, and at the very least, it was hard-fought the whole way. I don’t think either team led by more than five or so for any point in the first three quarters.

Though both teams were fun to watch operate in the half-court — the Knicks especially can be absolutely gorgeous in their ball movement around the perimeter — I was most fascinated with the post play of one Amar’e Stoudemire. For a guy being touted as an MVP candidate, and not entirely unreasonably so, the guy can be absolutely brutal to watch at times. It seems like when there’s no effective move to be made for STAT down low, he has absolutely no problem just charging the basket and chucking the ball up, no matter how congested the lane is, resulting in a lot of bad misses and silly turnovers. When he’s lucky he can draw a foul, but when he isn’t, he just ends up looking silly, as well as shockingly unresourceful for such an efficient offensive first option.

But then he strings together a couple of good plays and makes all the garbage forgivable. I laughed at the Garden’s reaction when starting Pacers power forward Jeff Foster fouled out against Stoudemire, thinking it ridiculous that his removal from the game would really be worth rejoicing. But to the vet’s credit, without him to defend Stoudemire one-on-one, Amar’e started tearing the Pacers up, making three big shots late in the fourth that helped put the Knicks ahead convincingly for the first time in the game. Wilson Chandler also hit a pair of big threes — some year that guy’s having, for real — and Ronny Turiaf got the sixth of his crowd-pleasing blocks as New York hung on for the 98-92 victory.

The Fans: Really, the asbestos thing ended up being somewhat serendipitous for me, since in the two months between the two games, the Knicks had gone from being an early-season disappointment to being one of the hottest tickets in the league. I had heard reports all along my trip of how great the atmosphere at MSG was getting, and I longed to be in New York for the week where they took on the Celtics and Heat in the first legitimately marquee matchups that the K’s had hosted in about a decade. There was always enough energy at the Garden to sustain even a regular-season game against the Bobcats when the team was shitty, what would it be like playing a semi-legit opponent when the team was actually good for once?

The answer should have been obvious from the fact that by tip-off — despite being on a Sunday afternoon, and just a day after New Years — the place was packed. After what felt like 29 stadiums of excuses for poor attendance, boy howdy was it nice for a fanbase to be given every reason not to show up and to still do so in droves. And once the game started, the fans were absolutely brilliant, rewarding every hustle play, every big block, every dunk and near-dunk with the appropriate level of hair-raising roar. It was so loud near the end that when Chandler hit those game-breaking threes in the final minutes, I actually braced myself for the impact of the crowd’s response — first time this trip I remember doing that. “And that’s a Sunday matinee crowd!” a Twitter follower aptly pointed out. Well fucking done, New York.

“It’s a lot more exciting without a doubt,” said a season-ticket holder and total gamer named Joe when I asked about MSG compared to the last two years. “It’s not just about the team, it’s about the energy in the stadium. It reminds me of being here in high school in the mid-90s.” Joe said that the Knicks’ recent hot stretch compared favorably even to those youthful days: “It’s even better now, because it’s been so long since they’ve been good … we’ve been lousy for ten years, and now we’re the underdog again. The fans are hungrier than they’ve ever been.” Hard to believe for a team just five games above .500, but being at the building, you’d have to believe it was at least partly true.

Joe was effusive in praise for most of the Knicks current big guns, especially Raymond Felton (“A top ten point guard in the league without a doubt”) and Landry Fields (“Steal of the draft … phenomenal player”), but unsurprisingly, the big name for discussion was one not currently on the Knicks’ roster: Carmelo Anthony, whose presence he thought could make the Knicks a championship contender. “Without a doubt, we’ll sign him as a free agent,” Joe said, reluctant to part with Chandler, Fields or Gallinari in exchange for the All-Star. For their immediate future, Joe only saw a “four or five seed … [could] get to the second round, take the Celtics to seven games,” but looked forward to the more distant future, where he felt the Knicks would be one of the younger teams to inherit the torch in the East from the C’s and Magic. “I think it’s right back to the 90s again — the Heat, the Bulls and the Knicks,” Joe said. It’d sure be nice, wouldn’t it?

And as for those nameless few who passed on the Knicks in the ’10 off-season, Joe’s friend Andre had some choice words: “FUCK THEM!!!” he insisted. “Make sure you quote me on that — FUCK THE HEAT.” Done and done, Andre.

Most Popular Jerseys: Stoudemire for the current, though not by as big of a margin over Danny G as you might expect. For the retro, surprisingly few Ewing #33s — saw more single #3s on display, for both John Starks and (really?) Stephon Marbury. Go figure.

Also Worth Noting: Just wanted to say that it’s nice that no matter what Amar’e does or doesn’t do on the court for the Knicks, at the very least, he gives them the legit face for the franchise that they haven’t had in I don’t even know how long. When I went to games at the Garden the previous two seasons, none of the players were really marketable, so all the team videos meant to pump up the audience tended to focus on either the coach or the city itself. It was downright depressing. If you’re making a case for Amar’e as the league MVP, I’d probably start with him making the team intro montage bearable again. Important shit.

Local Pop Culture Tie-Ins: Plenty of teams demand that their fans show the appropriate enthusiasm during late-game situations, but none have as many famous friends as the Knicks to go and do it for them. Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Fat Joe, Tracy Jordan and Samuel L. Jackson all stopped by to urge Knick fans to get up out their seat. Kevin James must have been busy shooting “The Dilemma” or something.

Swag Acquired: Just a nice, classy blue-and-orange Knicks logo shirt. I’ll find a good, hopefully less-expensive Knicks hat to wear on my own time.

2011 Jam of the Day:

JJ – “New Work.” Yeah, I’m cribbing from Pitchfork here — sorry, I usually don’t start doing independent research into a year’s musical nooks and crannies until at least October. Plus, it’s thematically relevant and all. And fun!

Look out tomorrow for a big recap post of the best and worst from my whole trip, the conclusions reached and the lessons learned. I’ll try to hold off the mawkish thanks and goodbyes until then.