I was inspired to write Bad Sports because of one person and one person only. It wasn’t a mentor, friend, or family member. It was James Dolan, owner of the New York Knicks. I grew up in New York City, bleeding the orange and royal blue. I had a Bernard King jersey nailed to my wall and even had posters of players on other teams as long as a Knick was playing D. We would take the B train to Madison Square Garden and it felt like we were entering the Eden of the hoops. For ten bucks we saw Magic, Bird, Julius, and the majesty that was Kareem. I was convinced that I’d be down with the Knicks until death, passing this love down to my kids like a family heirloom.
You see where this is going, right? Over the last decade I’ve watched the Knicks become a punchline of a franchise, all while hawking tickets above and beyond what a working person can afford. I’ve seen the blame for this state of affairs shift from Scott Layden to Isiah Thomas to Stephon Marbury. Now the papers even blame LeBron for not wanting to entrust his future to this team. There is only one person who was in charge of maintaining the integrity of this team and his name is James Dolan, and he has failed.
The dream in sports is to have an owner who leads a winning franchise with grace and class. The Rooney family who command the Pittsburgh Steelers are the prototype. If you can’t have the Rooneys, most fans would want a winning team even if the boss spits on the floor. We would trade our soul for a home team like the Lakers led by Dr. Jerry Buss winning with a kind of shabby Runyonesque sneer. After that there is the often duplicated, rarely imitated Steinbrenner model: win but feeling somewhat queasy about who is pulling the strings. Then we would settle for the lovable losers: the owner who genuinely cares about his or her community. The late Abe Pollin who owned the Washington Wizards presided over decades of futility but people perceived him to be a person of dignity.
At the bottom of the food chain we have James Dolan. Dolan is by all accounts a rager, a screamer, a narcissist and someone who has helped create a work environment that is by some accounts as agreeable to women as a Girls Gone Wild video shoot.
“Jim actually doesn’t care whether you love him or hate him, as long as you know him,” says one former Garden executive. “Why else does he sit in the very front row? Why else does he come in late? He wants everyone to know: I am in charge.”
What he is actually in charge of is another question.
In an ordered, sensible universe, the NBA team out of New York City would be America’s Team. Basketball is the city game and without New York City, basketball might still be a game played in peach baskets. It was the city — through the Irish, Jews, and African Americans — who took a game designed by Dr. James Naismith to give idle college students something to do over the winter, and gave it a soul. The New York Knicks should be representing that soul at the professional level. Instead, they need an exorcist.
The team plays at Madison Square Garden, known as “the World’s Most Famous Arena.” Like the Yankees and Mets, they have financial resources that other teams in the NBA could only envy. But the Knicks are a nightmare. They have had 8 straight seasons losing at least 50 games. They haven’t been relevant in 15 years. They have spent money like a coked-up 1980s stock broker. They have been less a basketball team than a reality program, with a series of off-court incidents that put a proud franchise to shame. And for all of that, and then some, we can thank the man in charge, who in his own words makes every decision, James Dolan.
But don’t take my word for it. Commissioner David Stern, who would sooner shave his head with a cheese grater than criticize a resident of the owner’s box, actually said of the Knicks “they’re not a model of intelligent management.”
James Dolan has taken that sacred strand that connects the team and the city and flossed his teeth with it. I was among the many who, even though it hurt, simply said, Enough.
But now I’m singing a different tune with this book. I don’t want to reject the Knicks. I want to reclaim them. These are the facts: The Knicks were ours before they were ever James Dolan’s. If Dolan wants to continue his position as owner of the team, there need to be some changes. Tickets need to be affordable again. Beer shouldn’t cost as much as a meal. A fan — a people’s representative — should be put on the board of directors. And he needs to back off the day-to-day operations and let the basketball people do their jobs. As for the fans, we need to start adopting the mentality that European soccer fanatics have about their teams. In Europe, the owner is merely in charge of maintaining the team for the next generation. But the game belongs to the fans, and woe to any owner who would forget it. That’s the way it is over there. That’s the way it should be over here.
In the name of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bernard King, Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and everyone who left it all on the Garden floor: it’s time for a change.