If you were waiting for Charles Oakley and James Dolan to let bygones be bygones, don’t hold your breath. In the latest episode of turmoil for the beleaguered team, the ex-Knicks forward filed a lawsuit against the Knicks’ owner and his Madison Square Garden Company, accusing Dolan of baselessly taking out his “petty insecurities” on Oakley.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in U.S. district court in New York, and it stems from the February incident in which Oakley was forcibly removed from a Knicks-Clippers game at MSG.
The 53-year-old, who became a fan favorite in New York while playing for the team from 1988 to 1998, was subsequently charged with two misdemeanor counts of assault, one misdemeanor count of aggravated harassment and one misdemeanor count of trespassing. He reached a plea deal last month in which the charges will be dropped if he stays out of trouble for six months and stays away from MSG altogether for one year.
On the night of the ejection, the Knicks issued a statement in which they said that Oakley “behaved in a highly inappropriate and completely abusive manner” while at the game, adding, “He was a great Knick and we hope he gets some help soon.” Soon thereafter, Dolan went on a New York radio station and said Oakley had “a problem with anger” and “may have a problem with alcohol,” causing the latter to assert, “I’m not an alcoholic.”
The lawsuit took aim at accusations against the former player, saying they amounted to “a coordinated and defamatory public relations campaign” by Dolan and MSG. “By propagating these blatant lies about Mr. Oakley,” the court filing stated, “Dolan and MSG have caused irreparable harm to his name and career and discriminated against him based on the false perception that he is an alcoholic, all in a transparent attempt to denigrate his standing among Knicks fans.”
The lawsuit made a point of emphasizing Oakley’s popularity among Knicks fans, offering it as a reason for a resentful Dolan to mistreat him. “One person who could not abide by Mr. Oakley’s refusal to meekly submit to people in positions of power was Defendant James Dolan, who inherited control of the Knicks from his father a year after Mr. Oakley’s career with the team came to an end,” the lawsuit claimed.
“Whether it was because of resentment for Mr. Oakley’s passionate following among Knicks fans, anger that Mr. Oakley would not ‘kiss the ring’ of the heir to the Madison Square Garden empire, or petty insecurities driven by his own personal demons, Defendant Dolan constantly disrespected Mr. Oakley, refusing to make eye contact or shake his hand during meetings, denying him the type of fan appreciation nights given to much less popular and successful members of the Knicks, and even making him purchase his own tickets to attend games at the arena he called home for a decade.”
In addition to its negative portrayal of Dolan’s personality, the lawsuit disparaged his handling of the Knicks after taking control of them and the Rangers in 1999. Since then, “the Knicks have unfortunately become a laughingstock in the NBA,” it said, noting that Dolan was ordered to pay ex-Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders $3 million, following her sexual harassment allegations against then-head coach Isiah Thomas in 2007.
“This is a frivolous lawsuit and nothing more than another attempt by Mr. Oakley to garner attention,” the Knicks said Tuesday in a statement. “We will deal with this accordingly.”
Oakley claimed in his filing that he was “neither intoxicated nor otherwise behaving inappropriately” on the night he was ejected from the Garden. In response to him asking why he was being forced to leave, Oakley said an MSG security guard asked him, “Why are you sitting so close to Mr. Dolan?”
The lawsuit pointed out a 2015 email Dolan sent to a frustrated Knicks fan in which the owner called the fan “a sad person” and a “negative force,” speculating that he was an “alcoholic.” Noting that Dolan admitted to his own struggles with alcohol and years-long adherence to sobriety in the email, the lawsuit portrayed “a particularly sad pattern” in which the owner’s “knee jerk response when confronted by anyone that he does not like is to level unsupported accusations that his critics suffer from alcoholism.”
Although Oakley has denied having an alcohol problem, the filing accused the Knicks of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by “by denying him access to the Garden based on their perception that he suffers from alcoholism, a disability.” Claiming to have suffered harms including defamation, libel, slander, assault, battery and false imprisonment, Oakley’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.