Imagine you have everything. Wealth, family, the gift of music. And one of the most precious assets in the world, too: the deed to Madison Square Garden and inside, its beloved New York Knicks. This is the sort of property that makes normal men benevolent emperors, titans of goodwill. In the 21st century, most professional sports team owners are greedy people, but few are so prideful and vindictive that they lose sight of their capacity to create happiness beyond their own. There are some: Dan Snyder comes to mind. Peter Angelos as well. But few combine vanity, ignorance, pettiness, and incompetence in as toxic a stew as James Dolan. This weekend, a disaster for the Knicks and their long-standing plan to add two superstar free agents, Dolan rose above his contemporaries in defiant, fan-base-enervating ownership. He stands alone, the only owner in sports who is actively, fundamentally ruining his team’s chances at success.
I am trying to find empathy for an impossible feeling. Dolan is the biggest and perhaps the only reason the New York Knicks did not acquire a single superstar free agent during the rowdiest and most exciting offseason in the NBA’s history, which featured more marquee players and more movement than ever before. During a six-month period in which Kevin Durant’s arrival in New York felt inevitable—with Kyrie Irving and maybe even Zion Williamson in tow—fan expectations grew to ludicrous, unhealthy proportions. This was the contact high of hope, invisible but mind-altering. Today is the hangover. But that impossible feeling I’m trying to conjure is singular blame; the knowledge that the majority of your fan base hates you and wishes you would sell your most precious commodity and vanish from the planet. James Dolan doesn’t just annoy Knicks fans. He is the personification of willful, self-righteous awfulness. He is the enemy. It is an extraordinary, corrupting power. The stuff of comic book supervillainy. How many people on earth can ever truly understand James Dolan’s self-inflicted plight? Only one.
“I can tell you from what we’ve heard I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”
[Narrator: They didn’t.]
“The thing about the team now is that it’s very young. It’s the youngest team in the NBA. You take a look at some of the players that we have and they won’t be the centerpiece of the team, but as complements to the centerpiece of the team, we’re developing them right now.”
[Narrator: They are.]
Dolan gave those statements—a foolish choice at the time and exceptionally dumb now—during a March interview with The Michael Kay Show. The appearance was precipitated by an encounter with a fan who urged Dolan to “Sell the team!” after a game, an action that led to the fan being banned from Madison Square Garden.
One month earlier, the Knicks had banished its lone star, Kristaps Porzingis, to the Lone Star State in a trade that netted them a player they passed on in the draft (Dennis Smith Jr.) and lots of cap room that they would struggle to give away this summer. Two years earlier, another figure was banned from MSG, perhaps the most uncomplicatedly beloved Knick of the past 40 years and a symbol for teams of yore: Charles Oakley. This was a karmic blunder, the sort that never ends well. For the Knicks, it was one domino in an ever-toppling row. Personnel gaffes, disastrous trades, illegal and horrifying management decisions. The mistakes run the gamut, from moronic—Knicksy, we call it—to genuinely destructive. I will now spin the wheel in my mind and rattle off a few from this century that spring to mind: amnestying Chauncey Billups. Signing Jerome James. Trading for Andrea Bargnani. Calling Phil Jackson. Extending Allan Houston. Hiring Isiah Thomas. That took less than a minute. The Knicks are a poorly run organization and have been for some time. Dolan is the chief architect of their ineptitude. The team has missed out on major free agents in years past, most notably LeBron James in 2010. But this year was meant to be different. The contractual flotsam was disappeared in the Porzingis trade. General Manager Scott Perry has a credible track record as a personnel man. Head coach David Fizdale is a player-friendly relationship builder. The 2018-19 tank went swimmingly. Mitchell Robinson is an exciting prospect. Kevin Knox seems like a nice fellow, and Megan Thee Stallion wore his jersey. Stray beams of sunlight ripple through the shades.
Alas, James Dolan owns the Knicks.
The irony of this week’s events is that the Knicks are finally doing what the team should have done nearly 20 years ago; instead they traded Patrick Ewing’s expiring contract away. They’re doing what they should have done 15 years ago; instead they acquired Stephon Marbury. They’re doing what they should have done eight years ago, when they traded for Carmelo Anthony rather than wait for his imminent free agency. The Knicks cleared the deck and started a youth movement. They tanked. Finally! And they are processing. This might be the most fun 28-win team of my life. Even after signing 24-year-old Julius Randle to a three-year $63 million deal (with a savvily instituted team option on the third year), a youth movement is afoot. This is, in theory, glorious. Stockpile assets. Develop the kids. Maybe RJ Barrett really is a star. Keep your powder dry for 2021. That’s when a new batch of free agents will crop up—Giannis, Paul George, Bradley Beal. After all, who wouldn’t want to play in the Mecca?
The Knicks and owner Jim Dolan were not prepared to offer Kevin Durant a full max contract due to concerns over his recovery from the Achilles injury, league sources tell me and @wojespn. Knicks officials are in Los Angeles tonight, meeting with free agents such as Julius Randle.
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) June 30, 2019
You hate to see it. Whether Dolan is covering his ass after it was spurned or he actually declined to open his checkbook for a distressed asset—and lo, we forget Amar’e Stoudemire’s uninsured contract so soon—both options are bleak. Either the league’s players—who sure seem to dislike the idea of suiting up for Dolan—will regard his conservative approach with contempt, or he’s a liar. No outcome is good for Knicks fans. This may be worse.
The Knicks have released a statement from team president Steve Mills in the wake of missing out on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving: pic.twitter.com/z4yKVILSqi
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) July 1, 2019
Vaguely apologizing to your fans for not doing something you said you weren’t going to do is truly absurd, revisionist incompetence. And so what is the recourse for fans? Jump ship and align with the ascendant Brooklyn Nets? Most true Knicks fans find the idea repellant or dull. It’d be like quitting alcohol and replacing it with celery. Sure you’ll live longer and it’ll never hurt in the morning, but that’s missing the point: The darkness has become the point. The self-loathing is baked into the experience. This team hasn’t won a title in 46 years. We are two generations removed from glory in the greatest basketball city on the planet. Fatalism is now interwoven in Knicks fandom; it’s a cage of our own making. James Dolan holds the key, but he forgot where he put it.
I tried quitting the Knicks once before. It was 2012, the summer after Linsanity. The catalyst back then was significantly less dire than the team’s recent problems. Jeremy Lin was offered a “poison pill” contract by Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets—totaling three years and $25.1 million. Dolan and the Knicks declined to match; Dolan was reportedly furious at Lin’s temerity in seeking out a hefty contract for himself after rising as an undrafted free agent to acclaim in New York. I’ve always had a hard time letting go of the idea of James Dolan being angry with Jeremy Lin for any reason whatsoever. Linsanity is the only authentically happy memory for Knicks fans this decade. In ESPN’s news story recapping New York’s decision, the sentence “The Knicks will now turn to Raymond Felton at point guard” appears. Dark. The season that followed was a success—54 wins and a playoff series victory. It evaporated quickly and unsurprisingly, under the crushing, doleful weight of Carmelo Anthony’s delusions.
I found it easy to ignore the team for a couple years after that, throwing interest behind the Nuggets or the Jazz in absence of meaningful basketball in New York. The past two years have been like a clarion call, with the promise particularly of Durant on the horizon. KD is my favorite player to watch and has been since the day he arrived in the league—he has no comparative figure in Knicks history, no one with the combination of size, skills, track record, and prickly New Yorkian intensity. He felt made for this team and made for this narrative—a thin-skinned savior, our petty god in waiting. Who better to bail out James Dolan? That he will recover from an Achilles rupture and then return to the sport in New York, but not for the Knicks is a unique frustration. Dolan shoveling dirt onto the idea of a Durant offer after his injury is in keeping with the small-minded strategy of a rich guy without a clue.
In a December 2018 profile of Dolan, ESPN’s Ian O’Connor set up a paragraph about Dolan’s charity work and powerful stature in New York with the following:
The son of cable industry icon Charles Dolan, Jim Dolan, a father of six boys from two marriages, has been painted as a grown-up rich kid with a volcanic temper and a born-on-third-base makeup, and as a hapless owner whose clashes with the media suggest he’s more concerned with controlling negative commentary than he is with fixing the problems that encourage it.
This is a common narrative approach for a profile about a person with a very bad public reputation. You may have heard this person is terrible, but … Unfortunately for the subject, the preamble is always more important than the Well, actually … O’Connor’s piece positions Dolan’s contrarianism as a business strategy, a style that led to wise moves in the field of “selling the cable company that his dad gave him for billions of dollars.” Dolan, who spends his spare time recording and touring as the front man of the blues-rock band/musical holocaust JD and the Straight Shot, is often apoplectic at the way he is received by fans urging him to sell. In contrasting the dark and light sides of Dolan, O’Connor writes:
Bad Jim receives an angry email from a Knicks fan of more than 60 years and responds with an angrier email calling the man a “hateful mess,” suggesting he might be an alcoholic, and ordering him to start rooting for the Nets, according to Deadspin. Bad Jim responds to a heckler who was holding a beer while shouting at him to sell the team by confronting the man, berating him and accusing him of being drunk. “People who come out of the blue, they don’t know you, they don’t know anything about you, and send a hateful tirade at you,” Dolan says today. “I mean, who does that?”
Native New Yorker Jim Dolan struggles to understand the free-floating hostility of a wounded fan base. This is the kind of emotional response unfit for supervillainy. If you’re looking for evidence of an insulated existence, there it is. And here is our key problem as fans: James Dolan isn’t even a fun bête noire. The most disqualifying thing about his aspirations to defiant ownership is just how simple, how uncreatively lousy he seems. He has none of the devilish, dervish energy of an Al Davis or George Steinbrenner. He isn’t a monster. He’s a buffoon. New York despises a buffoon. Sell the team.