Spike Lee incident shows Knicks rebrand will take far more than a new team president

Yahoo Sports

New boss, same old stuff from the New York Knicks.

On the second day of Leon Rose’s tenure as president of basketball operations, the Knicks find themselves in another public relations nightmare, this time with the face of their fans, Spike Lee.

In response to Lee’s allegation of harassment against Knicks owner James Dolan, namely that Madison Square Garden security denied his access to the front-row seat he has held for decades prior to Monday’s game, the Knicks issued a typically obtuse statement on Tuesday afternoon.

Knicks super fan Spike Lee says he will not attend another game this season. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Knicks super fan Spike Lee says he will not attend another game this season. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

“The idea that Spike Lee is a victim because we have repeatedly asked him to not use our employee entrance and instead use a dedicated VIP entrance — which is used by every other celebrity who enters The Garden — is laughable,” the statement said, accompanied by a pair of photos of the employee entrance and a halftime handshake on the matter between Lee and Dolan. “It’s disappointing that Spike would create this false controversy to perpetuate drama. He is welcome to come to The Garden anytime via the VIP or general entrance; just not through our employee entrance, which is what he and Jim agreed to last night when they shook hands.”

That the Knicks learned nothing from a similar incident with Charles Oakley is both remarkable and unsurprising. In the aftermath of Oakley’s arrest by MSG security in 2017, the Knicks issued two bluntly worded statements — one saying, “We hope he gets some help soon,” and another calling him a liar — before Dolan publicly insinuated the beloved former Knicks player is an alcoholic.

In video footage of Monday night’s incident, Lee can be heard repeatedly saying, “No one told me,” presumably about new rules regarding his entrance, and asking if MSG security planned to arrest him as they did Oakley. “Oh, you’re going to put your hand on my back like Oakley?” Lee yelled.

Lee told ESPN on Tuesday morning that he had been using the employee entrance to the arena for 28 years — until the previous night, when he said security approached him on the elevator to the Garden floor after his ticket was already scanned. According to Lee, security asked him to exit the building and re-enter through the VIP entrance, but he refused, citing distrust of MSG personnel.

Lee said security asked him to leave again. According to ESPN’s Malika Andrews, a Knicks PR staffer denied that Lee was ever asked to leave the Garden, citing a “mixup” over which entrance he was supposed to use and referencing a jovial conversation between Lee and Dolan at halftime. Lee was eventually escorted to his seat by security. Dolan approached Lee on the Garden floor at the half, but the acclaimed director said he refused to engage the billionaire owner on the subject.

“I’m being harassed by James Dolan, and I don’t know why,” Lee said on ESPN’s “First Take” on Tuesday morning, taking issue with the spokesperson’s portrayal of his conversation with Dolan.

Lee added that he does not plan on attending another Knicks game this season.

His TV appearance spurred Tuesday’s statement calling his remarks “laughable” and a “false controversy.” Regardless of whose vantage point is closer to the truth, it is incredible that the Knicks would engage so negatively and publicly with their most high-profile loyalist, rather than diffuse the situation behind closed doors. Another PR nightmare in a decades-long line of them.

“What’s laughable is how the Knicks are the laughingstock of sports,” Lee responded via The New York Times’ Sopan Deb on Tuesday, again contradicting Dolan. “That’s what’s f---ing laughable.”

“This press release, which is upsetting me, is an unmitigated, bold-faced lie. Capital letters,” Lee added amid saying Dolan addressed him “very rudely” at halftime. “On my late mother and my late brother’s grave, this is a lie. That they say that they had repeatedly asked me not to use the employee entrance. That is a lie. ... I challenge MSG to send me an email saying the policy has changed. Show me that email. And I challenge Madison Square Garden to have someone stare me in the face [to say] they repeatedly told me I cannot use this entrance. This is typical Garden spin.”

This season alone had already seen a fan ejected for starting a “Fire Dolan!” chant and the Garden erupting in another raucous “Sell the team!” chant. This is to say nothing of the awful product on the court. High-profile free agents spurned the Knicks in 2019 free agency after Dolan implied several stars had expressed desire in playing for them, and Knicks PR bungled a press release on that, too.

The Knicks fired their fourth coach in four seasons earlier this season, and when that expectedly did little to rectify their 20 years of futility, they fired team president Steve Mills days before the trade deadline. Rose officially took over on Monday. In between, the Knicks hired Steve Stoute as a brand consultant in charge of reshaping the team’s image. Stoute proceeded to insinuate interim coach Mike Miller would be fired at season’s end during a nationally televised interview on ESPN.

The hiring of Rose, a longtime power agent, was the next stage of the rebrand, akin to how ex-agents Bob Myers and Rob Pelinka reshaped the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively. Rose was said to have been given full control of basketball operations. In a statement addressing the challenges ahead, Rose said on Monday, “Nothing about this is easy, or quick, so I ask for your continued patience. What I promise you in return is that I will be honest and forthright.”

While Monday’s incident was not a basketball-related one, per se, it does suggest that the line between the product on the court and the conduct off of it is blurred, and it is hard to rectify one without addressing the other. As Lee said, when issues run this deep, the problem starts at the top.

Same owner, same Knicks.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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