There were plenty of things to take away from New York Knicks owner James Dolan’s latest run-in with a spectator in and around Madison Square Garden — this time with a fan who told him to sell the team (something every New Yorker would love for him to do). As he did with Charles Oakley, Dolan responded by accusing the fan of having an alcohol problem.
As always, his actions can be taken in myriad ways. But in a quote he gave to Deadspin upon being asked about the incident, the 61-year-old cable magnate offered a glimpse into the way he views the world and his ownership of the Knicks.
“I get it. They call me names every day in the paper. Fine. I get it,” Dolan told the website. “But you’re walking up to the place where I work? It’s like they’re laying in wait for you. It’s like stalking me outside my home. Some people tend to think of team owners like politicians. But we’re not! I didn’t run for any office. These people who yell at you act surprised when you yell back. It’s like when I got that incredibly derogatory email, and so I wrote back an incredibly derogatory email, and these people are surprised?”
With those 95 words, James Dolan not only gave Knicks fans his view of the world, but he also explained why what should be one of the NBA’s flagship franchises has instead been in tattered ruins for virtually his entire tenure since assuming control in 1999.
See, in Dolan’s world, the problem isn’t the fact that the Knicks have, since the start of the 2001-02 season, had just three winning seasons, four playoff appearances and one playoff series victory. No, the problem is that people are upset about it, and are willing to tell Dolan — to his face — how they feel about his stewardship of the franchise the country’s biggest city supports unwaveringly.
Here’s the thing about owning a sports franchise — and, in particular, owning a franchise in New York: It is exactly like becoming a politician. The owner of a sports team is placed in charge of a public trust. And, in doing so, he must accept the attention and responsibility that comes with it.
For some — such Joe Lacob with the Golden State Warriors or John Henry with the Boston Red Sox or Tom Ricketts with the Chicago Cubs — it can mean gratification for turning a team into a winner. For others, such as Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks or Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, ownership made them celebrities in ways they never could have imagined in prior lives, and both have leveraged that to massively increase their public profiles.
And then there are cases such as Dolan or Jeffrey Loria of the Miami Marlins. For them, the problems with their teams have nothing to do with them being meddling, vindictive leaders of their respective franchises, yet both have seen their teams lose far more than they’ve won.
Instead, it’s because of the people around them being out to get them. That’s why all three have witnessed a revolving door of coaches and executives as the losses have piled up (and even in the rare periods when they managed to get a few wins), and establishing any kind of institutional culture has been virtually impossible.
Anyone who has paid attention to life inside The Garden over the past 15 years knows how incredibly dysfunctional it is, how secrecy and staying on message have grown far more important than fostering the kind of healthy environment necessary to have a winning team, and how loyalty to the top of the organization is valued over finding the people best capable of going out and finding a winning team.
This is how, year after year, the Knicks remain a mockery of a franchise that a routinely finds itself in one embarrassing situation after another — often involving the owner himself — while offering no hope to its beleaguered fan base.
And this is how, when a fan desperately yells at Dolan to sell the team, he doesn’t come to the fan and say that he’s sorry for the way the team is struggling, and that he and Phil Jackson and the rest of the organization are doing everything he can to try to turn things around.
No, instead Dolan curses at the fan, and then makes excuses. It’s the same logic that led to Dolan getting in a public spat with a Knicks legend and engaging in a back-and-forth email exchange with a fan.
No wonder the Knicks have been hopeless for years. Given Dolan’s worldview, good luck to fans waiting for things to change at Madison Square Garden.
Until Dolan looks in the mirror, his team doesn’t stand a chance.