This was a first for Joe Judge, sitting courtside at Madison Square Garden, with a near-capacity crowd engaged in a heated playoff game against the Hawks. Judge had been in the storied building twice previously, but on those occasions there were COVID-19 restrictions in place and fans were sparse and separated.
It was Game 5, and the Knicks would end up getting eliminated. As he sat there, his son Michael at his side, Judge for the first time since he was hired as head coach of the Giants witnessed and felt the New York sports fervor.
“It was loud and great energy and that was the first time in over a year that we had been in an environment where there were fans like that, and that energy,” Judge told The Post. “To be honest with you, you sit there and you just watch that and you can’t wait for the season.
“Like I’m sitting there watching tipoff and all I keep thinking is ‘I can’t wait to get the season going.’ Be out there at MetLife and have fans in the stands. The energy, that was huge, and I love the fans in the city, it was great, it was awesome. They showed a bunch of the old Knicks and the place erupted. It was some great stuff right there. The passion of the fans, being in New York, it was awesome.”
Judge went 6-10 in his first season with the Giants, going 3-5 playing at empty MetLife Stadium. Capacity for the 2021 season is back to full, pre-pandemic levels, but all those fans in all those grey seats will bring the noise and the energy for only so long. Howls of appreciation can turn to jeers of disgust as quickly as a seemingly promising Daniel Jones drop back in the pocket devolves into a desultory turnover.
Nothing is given. Judge knows this.
“We got to go out there and earn it from ’em,” he said.
The pathway to earning accolades for his team widens Tuesday, when the full Giants squad reports for training camp (the first practice is Wednesday). Judge heads into Year 2 more advanced in his professional growth, having endured an NFL head coach indoctrination he, nor anyone else could ever have anticipated, arriving to the job as a global pandemic was wreaking havoc on nearly every conceivable decision that came across his desk.
The 38-year-old head coaching novice was not set in his ways, allowing him to be more flexible in his thinking and more limber when it came to the gymnastics of adjusting to Zoom meetings, social distancing protocols and every other intrusion that ran counter to proper team building.
The now 39-year-old Judge had to learn and experience his first time around the head-coaching block all the other unseen responsibilities that come with sitting in the big seat.
“Really, for the head-coach position it was all the administrative stuff, dealing with the league office, having to go through the formalities,’’ Judge said. “It’s amazing how many times as an assistant you just think ‘Yeah, get it done’ and as a head coach you realize there’s a lot of red tape involved with just dealing with the league on certain things, it’s not always as easy as waving a magic wand.”
After every game, Judge said he had “a list of stuff” to go over with his staff, always attempting to improve the product. One moment he would like to have back came in Week 3, with his team trailing the 49ers 23-9 at MetLife Stadium. He opted to keep his offense on the field and go for it on fourth-and-1 on the Giants’ 30-yard line. A run by Jones was stopped for no gain, the Niners took over in Giants territory and four plays later they scored en route to a 36-9 trouncing of Judge’s team.
“It’s one of those things you learn from,’’ Judge said. “It probably makes me a better coach long term. You really realize ‘OK, that’s not a mistake I really want to repeat.’ Look, I’m always going to be aggressive, but sometimes when is it worth being over-aggressive and what’s the full situation of the game? That’s just something that stood out to me.’’
A self-described “homebody,” Judge has yet to visit Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, and has not seen a hockey game in the New York area.
“I will say this, I really love the Garden,” he said. “You hear a lot of things about it, when you’re an outsider sometimes it’s like ‘Eh, it’s overblown.’ But when you get in it, it’s like ‘Wow, this place is pretty special.’ “
Next up for Judge: Make MetLife a pretty special place when his Giants are on the field.