Knicks owner James Dolan

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Keidel: The Knicks And The Dolan Years

Jason Keidel
December 18, 2018 - 10:38 am
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If people think Knicks fans dislike James Dolan because he's eccentric or sensitive, or because he was born rich, think again.  

New Yorkers have long lived through someone who owned an iconic franchise, ruled with an iron grip, had rabbit ears, a moody mien, and was often an insufferable monarch who seemed to mete out medieval justice. 

He would be George Steinbrenner, the modern patriarch of the Yankees. While his later years were sprinkled with faerie dust, softening a hard-edged legacy of random hirings and firings, of feuds with folks who should not have crawled under his skin, we forget that there was a time when fans begged Steinbrenner to sell the Bronx Bombers, just as Knicks fans are drooling over the idea of Dolan releasing his corporate chokehold on the Knicks. 

People either weren't alive or forget the 1980s, when Steinbrenner planted a turnstile at the manager's office, when he meddled in matters better left to baseball lifers, when he traded homegrown studs for aging mercenaries. We forget the Jack Clark, Jesse Barfield, Omar Moreno, Rickey Henderson, John Candelaria Yankees because that's not our final image of the team, or the man who owned it.

Indeed, it was only when Steinbrenner - who relished his handle, The Boss - was banned from baseball operations and fine baseball men like Gene Michael and Bob Watson were allowed to run the club with impunity that the Yankees had their epic 1990s revival. In his final act as owner, Steinbrenner returned, hired Joe Torre, and (mostly) stayed out of the way while the Yankees won four World Series in five years. 

Winning has always acted as mascara on a legacy. But Dolan's bad side is always amplified because the Knicks are awful. Had the Knicks just dueled the Warriors in the NBA Finals, fans would embrace Dolan as grumpy but charming, a blue-collar guy who just happened to be born with a monster checkbook. No one cared that Steinbrenner was born into a shipping empire, that he paid $10 million for the Yankees and then watched the value boom to over a billion bucks before he died. He won. He gave the fans enough titles, especially at the end, to massage our recollections of him. 

Some sins are unforgivable. But Dolan hasn't committed one that winning couldn't cure. The problem is he's had years and years to turn this basketball tanker around, hasn't done it, and never will. The Dolan animus isn't about a song or a beef or even booting a former player or employee who didn't deserve to be fired. 

The problem is he drafted Frederic Weis and Michael Sweetney and drafted the wrong Hardaway and signed Jerome James and dealt for Eddy Curry. But even then Knicks fans were willing to give Dolan another chance to sweep this brutal history out of MSG. Then came Dolan's signature move: trading for Carmelo Anthony, the Brooklyn-born gunner who would lead the Knicks to the halcyon years of Red Holzman. 


It wasn't that Melo never had the mind to win in NYC, he never had the game. Fans were euphoric at the photoshopped reality Dolan was selling. Only a handful of us warned you that Melo would never work here. But many just had to see it with their own eyes, wrap their senses around the senseless moves by the Knicks' owner. 

Then Dolan hired Phil Jackson, one of the few living humans who was there during those enchanted years between 1969 and 1973.  But as was the case with Carmelo, Dolan hired Jackson for the wrong job, always trying to jam squares into his team's round holes. All of Dolan's public sideshows and personality glitches are just exacerbated by an exhausted and disgusted fan base who have nothing else to watch.

Few of us would care about Dolan's neuroses if the Knicks had won an NBA title over the last 20 - or 40 - years, if every year didn't morph into a march toward the lottery. If Zion Williamson were gift-wrapped for the Knicks this Christmas, they would find a way to foul it up. That's what happens with teams that have one division title since 1994, just two 50-win seasons since 1997, and zero world championships since 1973. 

Maybe in a smaller city Dolan would be noticed, or even celebrated, based on his bank and the reach that comes with it. But the Big Apple has too many shot-callers who win with regularity to notice one who can't win basketball games despite owning a flagship NBA team in a basketball town. So now James Dolan says he would listen to an offer for the Knicks if the price were right. Good.  

For a man with musical aspirations, Dolan is too often tone deaf to the people who pay those bloated prices for courtside seats, or call into sports talk shows with their yearly contempt for the Knicks. If James Dolan cant understand why fans cheer the very rumor of a sale, then that should tell you exactly why he has to sell them. And why he's no George Steinbrenner. 


Twitter: @JasonKeidel