New York Knicks Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawne Williams, January 2011.
James Dolan, owner of the New York Knicks, is the most embarrassing chief executive in sports. He certainly has competition—the Indianapolis Colts’ Jim Irsay and Washington’s Dan Snyder come to mind—but a recent incident with Knicks legend Charles Oakley gives Dolan the top prize, as well as raising the question about whether his team should be seized by the league and sold to new ownership.
Oakley was seated behind Dolan at a recent game. According to reports, Dolan called security to have Oakley removed. This led to Oakley being thrown onto the floor, handcuffed in full view of the fans, charged with three counts of assault, and banned “for life” from Madison Square Garden. Appearing later on ESPN’s The Michael Kay Show, Dolan said of Oakley, “He’s both physically and verbally abusive. He may have a problem with alcohol, we don’t know.”
Dolan and Oakley have had years of bad blood, as Oak has never held his tongue about mismanagement during Dolan’s tenure. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, with the help of Michael Jordan, brokered a meeting between the two. But Oakley does not appear to let bygones be bygones, appearing on ESPN’s Dan LeBatard show and saying, “Some things don’t just walk away. A dog got a broken leg, he ain’t just going to walk away. He going to try to get himself together.” Current and former players have protested the treatment of Oakley, and at a Rangers hockey game at Madison Square Garden on February 9, fans chanted, “Free Oakley!”
So how can James Dolan be so repellent and get away with it? I’ve watched Dolan and his fellow owners for years, and wrote about him in my book Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (The New Press, 2008.)
James Dolan was named the "worst owner in the NBA" by Sports Illustrated back when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was still in the league, and that fact is, on its face, staggering. But it was also well earned. Dolan is by all accounts a rager, a screamer, a narcissist, and someone who has helped create a work environment about as agreeable to women as a Trump beauty pageant.
“Jim actually doesn’t care whether you love him or hate him, as long as you know him,” says one former Madison Square 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.
The Knicks plays at Madison Square Garden, our hoops Eden, also known as “the World’s Most Famous Arena.” Like the Yankees and the Mets, they have financial resources that other teams in the NBA can only envy. But the Knicks are a nightmare. They have spent money under Dolan like a coked-up 1980s stockbroker, less a basketball team than a reality program, with off-court incidents that put a proud franchise to shame. And we can thank the man in charge, James Dolan, who in his own words makes every decision.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Former commissioner David Stern, who would sooner gargle Drano 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. Dolan came to run the Knicks because of the power of genetics. Dolan’s father is the one and only Charles Dolan, the founder of Cablevision. Cablevision owns Madison Square Garden, and the teams that call it home, the New York Rangers and Knicks, therefore James Dolan had himself a job.
It’s not just that the Dolan is unqualified. James Dolan’s early years were marked by drugs, alcohol abuse, and mugshots. He has said that his mid-thirties were “a festival. It was not a festival of love, it was a festival of self-abuse. Like any other alcoholic and chemically dependent person, every binge, every event, is a little more than the one before. To be honest, there are stories that I’ve heard that may be true, but I don’t remember them.”
If he were poor, he’d probably be sitting in a prison cell serving a mandatory minimum. But he’s a Dolan, so he gets to run the Knicks. Operating the team seems like his father’s version of boot camp for the wayward son: a way to teach him responsibility and the value of a dollar. If only he’d been given a paper route.
If he were poor, he’d probably be sitting in a prison cell serving a mandatory minimum. But he’s a Dolan, so he gets to run the Knicks.
Becoming a Knick used to be a dream destination for free agents. But the last decade has seen some of the more dynamic players in the NBA sapped of their strength once they don the orange and royal blue, with future hall-of-famer Carmelo Anthony being the most recent example. Even the much-maligned Phil Jackson, has seen his reputation go from "perhaps greatest coach of all time" to "fraud" since his involvement with the Knicks. Phil has—rightly—taken the blame for a series of absurd decisions. But his failures are part of a continuum that started long before he arrived.
The list of James Dolan’s offenses is longer than his father’s shadow. They constitute a steaming bouillabaisse of incompetence and abuse, making Knick fans across the city glassy-eyed with stunned frustration. There was the unceremonious firing in 2004 of Hall of Fame announcer Marv Albert, who Dolan believed was too critical of the Knicks for his tastes. Albert had been announcing Knick games since 1967, his voice spanning the eras from Willis Reed to Patrick Ewing. And he was gone. There was Dolan’s revolving door of coaches. He signed head coach Larry Brown to a five-year, $50 million deal in 2006 and then dropped the Hall of Famer after one season. Brown settled with Dolan for $18 million. As current Golden State coach, and someone who turned down the chance to coach the Knicks, Steve Kerr said, “The only winner in this mess is Larry Brown’s accountant.” On top of this was a series of bad signings that would require a magnum opus to merely catalog.
Dolan’s team management was noxious by any measure, but it’s the embarrassment to the Knicks’ name that should be grounds for expulsion from the ranks of ownership. Commissioner Stern spoke often about accountability for off-court behavior for players while owners always received a pass. This certainly proved true for Dolan, even when there was the matter of sexual harassment.
Former Knicks vice president Anucha Browne Sanders walked out of a New York City courtroom in 2007 with $11.6 million in damages, in a sexual harassment trial against Dolan and team president Isiah Thomas.
In videotaped testimony, after much hedging, Dolan acknowledged that it was inappropriate for anyone to call a woman a “black bitch.” Then he said with a shrug, “It is also not appropriate to murder anyone. I don’t know that that happened, either.”
This entire story, disturbingly, mirrored tales of Dolan’s failed tenure as the head of his father’s company, Cablevision.
“It was a boys’ club, a boys’ network, and the boys could do whatever they wanted to do,” said Richard Saavedra, who worked at Cablevision for thirteen years between 1989 and 2002.
Sanders, at age forty-four, had to walk away from a job that on the surface, at least, was an absolute dream. At Northwestern University, Anucha Browne, as she was then known, was a basketball superstar. A three-time All Big Ten selection and two-time conference player of the year, she still holds the conference records in points and rebounds.
She was charting new ground for all women in the upper management strata of sports. Now those days are done. But Sanders may have done more good by raising awareness that sports is no longer a club for aging frat boys.
We need to be as brave as Sanders and challenge Dolan’s authority. There is no reason why the world’s worst owner should hold sway in the world’s most famous arena. If there are Oedipal issues to be worked out, let that be done on a psychiatrist’s couch. And let’s make the Garden once again a place of honor and greatness, as it was before the serpent slithered in through the back door.