Editor's Note: This story originally ran on March 14, 2011, as part of MLSsoccer.com's "Faces of First Kick" series, previewing the 2011 MLS season.
NEW YORK – This is a story of New York sports heroes and the fans who love them, and how one athlete is bucking a real estate trend trying to tear them apart.
New York has long adored the accessible sports icons that live and work in the city alongside its residents, passing one another in the streets of Manhattan or coincidentally brushing shoulders at the corner café.
Baseball great Willie Mays, for example, is as well remembered for playing stickball with local children in the streets of Harlem as he is for any of his exploits at the Polo Grounds with the New York Giants during the early 1950s.
Or, more recently, take the case of Mark Messier. The hard-nosed Edmonton native and captain of the New York Rangers often spoke of his love for New York City after he arrived in 1991, lived in Manhattan and then went ahead and scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals at Madison Square Garden.
But professional athletes are increasingly scurrying for palatial and isolated estates in the suburbs, some understandably dodging New York state property taxes and others simply escaping the glare and crush of curious sports fans who would give anything to see their heroes at the corner.
But if you look in the right places, you still might catch Thierry Henry. The former Arsenal and Barcelona star is entering his second season both as a New York Red Bulls Designated Player and a real, live New Yorker, and still loving the city that other athletes have spurned.
“It’s difficult to put my finger on it,” Henry said. “I just love the city, I love the vibe. It’s difficult to describe; you love or you don’t love New York. I do.”
Henry eats out regularly. He ducks into undercover boutiques looking for “cool, funky stuff.” He goes to Broadway plays. He says he’ll still periodically ride the PATH train to games at Red Bull Arena this year like he did last season, and it’s tough to get him to stop talking when it comes to his newfound love for the New York Knicks.
“It’s the final logic of his career,” said Michael Oliveira da Costa, a New York correspondent for the French sports newspaper L’Equipe. “French people know Thierry Henry loves basketball, big cities, the United States and fashion. He has to be in New York.”
All of this is somewhat of a far cry from some of Henry’s athletic contemporaries in the Big Apple. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and Giants hero Eli Manning, a rising star and an already beloved Super Bowl champion in the eyes of most New Yorkers, for example, both live in New Jersey.
New York Yankees great and former Manhattan socialite Derek Jeter even irked New Yorkers recently by purchasing a $7.7 million self-described dream home roughly 1,200 miles from Yankee Stadium, dubbed by the locals as “St. Jetersburg.”
Henry, meanwhile, spent months looking for his new home in the city last year before he eventually opted for a triplex penthouse apartment in the “chill, laid-back” neighborhood of SoHo, located fittingly on the same block as “Empire State of Mind” pop siren Alicia Keys.
“Derek Jeter would literally rather prefer to live on an island in Florida than in New York City,” said longtime New York Daily News reporter Filip Bondy. “You’re not going to see him anywhere, and New Yorkers know it. Henry is different.”
An Icon In Anonymity
Of course, there is a strange irony here involving one of the world’s biggest athletes walking around somewhat anonymously in one of its biggest cities. Henry is global soccer icon but a relative unknown on the streets of New York, and that’s a luxury not afforded to him since he broke through with Arsenal in 1999.
He’s been one of the world’s most identifiable athletes ever since, but to everyday New Yorkers he’s literally another passenger on the train. After more than a decade in the spotlight, that newfound level of anonymity is welcome in Henry’s world.
He goes to the movies in peace. He can leave his apartment whenever he pleases. Thierry Henry, a World Cup champion and perhaps the single best soccer player on the planet at one time in his career, can walk through Central Park on the morning of the Red Bull season opener against Seattle this Saturday, and there’s a great chance no one will notice.
“That can’t happen in Europe,” he said. “It’s great not to be recognized. I feel comfortable in this town, and I feel like I can be myself.”
There’s also noticeably less pressure in the mainstream media on Henry these days, thanks to the most crowded sports market in the country. Henry’s arrival last summer and the Red Bulls’ ensuing push to the postseason made waves in New York City, but not the way his every exploit on the field was chronicled during his days in Paris, London or Barcelona.
And that’s also a welcome change for Henry, who typically meets with the media once a week and again on game nights during the season. He’s never been a player to shy away from interviews, but he’s hardly outspoken; and although he’s embraced his role as a flag-bearer for the growth of Major League Soccer, he’s quietly thrilled not to be in the crosshairs of the New York media.
“I don’t even make the back page here,” he said. “It’s always about the Yankees or the Knicks, and I don’t mind that. Although we’re all here trying to promote the game and make it bigger, I don’t mind being on the back page of a newspaper.”
Added Bondy, “He’s going up against all the big guns of New York sports. From the newspaper point of view, it’s very tough to do him justice.”
Henry’s good friend Ronny Turiaf, meanwhile, knows the other side. The New York Knicks forward has been friends with Henry for roughly seven years after meeting a few days before the wedding of San Antonio Spurs guard and fellow Frenchman Tony Parker, and was a frequent fan at Red Bull Arena after Henry arrived last season.
Henry has happily returned the favor by attending Knicks games when he’s in town (right) and Turiaf has given him the tour of the Knicks locker room at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps fortunately and certainly fittingly for Henry these days, only a few people milling around knew who he was the first time he peered behind the scenes, and those players only recognized him from playing video games.
The few who knew Henry on sight? The team’s medical staff, from London.
“We never get into what it’s like to be him or what it’s like to be me,” Turiaf said. “I think he enjoys that. I know that had a big part in his coming to New York.”
The Knicks, of course, recently welcomed their own new headliner into town in the form of Carmelo Anthony, the NBA All-Star who, like Henry did last year for the Red Bulls, has bolstered the team’s hopes for a title and reenergized a restless fan base.
“What a time to arrive in town, right?” Henry bubbled. “What a time to be a Knicks fan.”
The Red Bulls’ hectic and road-heavy preseason schedule has kept Henry from meeting Anthony and fellow New York newcomer Chauncey Billups, but that day is coming.
“I’m not at the level of Spike Lee, but I try my best to go whenever I can,” Henry said. “I will always respect a fellow athlete, because I know how hard it is to stay on top. I respect all of those guys, because I know it’s hard to deliver every night and satisfy everybody. Some people will never like you, some people will always like you, no matter what.”
A New York State Of Mind
Henry will turn 34 years old this summer, and his health and form this season are the biggest topics in Red Bulls camp. Forced to acclimate midway through last season and then hampered in the fall with injuries, Henry never fully showed the form the world is used to. He also got caught in the wash of the Juan Pablo Angel saga, as the team’s other superstar forward fell out of favor following Henry’s arrival and was eventually deemed expendable after the season.
Henry returned this preseason energized, healthy and now the No. 1 focal point of the club’s offense. He’s happy and adjusted to this new life, this new league and the city he’s adored since he was a 19-year-old fledgling star with AS Monaco.
Back then he stared at the buildings in awe and swore he’d return, which he did on vacation before he eventually settled here for good last year. He says with certainty that New York is his home now for the long term, perhaps even after his Red Bulls days are through.
But what’s left to figure out is if New York will take the time to embrace Henry. The city’s list of sports icons reads like a who’s who of 20th-century legends and rising stars for a new millennium, but just exactly where Henry fits into the mix is still unclear.
But unlike the Mississippi country boy Manning, the Southern California native Sanchez or even the somewhat reclusive Jeter, Henry seems to embody the traits ideal for a New York star: international, erudite, cosmopolitan, charming and, most importantly, successful.
“In many ways, he’s more of a New Yorker than the other guys on that list,” Bondy said. “I think the people here would like him very much, if they just got to know him.”
If they open their eyes and hearts the way they did for their past heroes like Mays or Messier, they will.
“I will stay in New York no matter what,” Henry said. “I’ve loved this city before, I love this city now and I will love this city after. That will never change.”