James Dolan, everyone. And, really, should we be surprised?
On Friday, Dolan, the Knicks owner, popped into the YES Network studios and proceeded to embarrass himself. Not content to let an ugly situation with ex-Knick Charles Oakley dissipate — Oakley was forcibly removed from Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, later arrested and charged with assault — Dolan proceeded to make it worse. Armed with a binder marked “Preparation” and without an ounce of self-awareness, Dolan declared Oakley unwelcome at MSG while recklessly suggesting Oakley may be dealing with anger and alcohol issues.
It was surreal. The high ground — and there was a high ground—was surrendered. Legions of players, past and present, have rushed to Oakley’s defense, but it was easy to see Oakley as the bad guy. It couldn’t have been a coincidence Oakley’s seat was within Dolan’s earshot, and it’s conceivable that Oakley came to give Dolan grief. Almost 20 years removed from his last season in New York, Oakley has been shut out. Jamal Crawford, a Knick for four largely forgettable seasons, was celebrated when he returned in 2009; Oakley, a key member of the successful ’90s teams, can’t get a ticket.
A riled-up Oakley on a mission to abuse the Knicks owner is believable. And you can’t do that. A ticket doesn’t entitle you to boorish behavior. In Philadelphia, a local doctor was tossed for flashing two middle fingers at Russell Westbrook. In Charlotte, two fans were ejected for getting a little too close to LeBron James. There’s a code of conduct on every ticket, and Oakley — who has denied being drunk, belligerent or anything of which the Knicks have accused him — and everyone else has to abide by it.
None of that matters, of course, because Dolan, in a narcissistic, 30-minute interview that largely strained credulity, shredded any goodwill that lingered. He declared Oakley needed help and that the Knicks would welcome him back if he got it. He called tossing Oakley a safety issue and name-dropped Mark Messier in a goofy story about what can happen when a crowd gets amped up. He sniffed at the suggestion that he was hated, telling Michael Kay that people would be “hard-pressed” to find a well-liked living New York team owner, ignoring that he owns two teams and, hey, people do kind of like that Mara fella.
No one inside the MSG walls could have advised him to give that interview, because no one could be that stupid. Doubling down on the war with Oakley is so much more damaging than defusing it. Had Dolan ordered his troops off and offered Oakley the seat alongside him, where would we be today? Worst case an angry Oakley continues his tirade and again has to be removed. Best case a hatchet is buried and a beloved ex-Knick is brought back into the fold.
He blew it, again, and the mistakes in the Dolan era continue to pile up. The Knicks have won one playoff series this century and the next isn’t anywhere in sight. Dolan continued to praise president Phil Jackson’s skills as an executive by citing his coaching credentials while patting himself on the back for spending these last three years letting Jackson run the show. He refused to comment on Carmelo Anthony, the player he shoved down Donnie Walsh’s throat and the one Jackson is desperately trying to get rid of.
It’s been years since the Knicks landed a significant free agent, and Dolan, and the culture he has created, is a big reason why. Agents tell clients: You don’t want any part of that. Organizational chaos and a staggering level of ineptitude do not go unnoticed. The Knicks will always be able to overpay for the Joakim Noahs and fork over above-market cash for a Brandon Jennings. But a head-to-head fight for an A-level star? That’s one they aren’t winning.
When Dolan exited the studio Friday afternoon, there were undoubtedly no shortage of people telling him it was a job well done. It’s easy to find people to praise you when you put them on the payroll. In Dolan’s world the critics really are, as he put it, a “malcontent group that will always be there.” But hours later at the Garden, his Garden, it was Oakley’s name echoing through the building. That group is a lot bigger than Dolan thinks.
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