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Lord Jim

For the NBA's most confounding franchise, the spotlight is on a tempestuous owner and a much-maligned coach

Posted: Tuesday February 6, 2007 10:55AM; Updated: Friday February 9, 2007 3:14PM
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Dolan is keeping a close watch not only on Thomas but also on players such as Marbury.
Dolan is keeping a close watch not only on Thomas but also on players such as Marbury.
Todd Plitt/Getty Images

By S.L. Price

One night in September 2000, on a makeshift stage in a resort ballroom on Sanibel Island in Florida, Cablevision Systems CEO Jim Dolan stood before a captive audience of subordinates -- six or seven dozen senior managers from Madison Square Garden and its sports properties -- and began to sing. It was a lark, one of those gags designed to blow off steam after a day of meetings. Still, barely a year had passed since Dolan had taken full control of the Garden and its two main tenants, the New York Knickerbockers and the New York Rangers, and many in the room had had only glimpses of an owner who, for his entire adult life, had been overshadowed by his father, cable-TV pioneer Charles Dolan. The tales of Jim's drug-and-drink-addled past, his volcanic temper, his shifting moods, were already legendary, fueling the image of a spoiled boy who had been handed the keys to perhaps the most prized property in all of U.S. sports. No one expected a song.

Yet there Dolan was, fronting a band consisting of Garden employees in Hawaiian shirts and belting out a parody of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. In the audience was Garden president Dave Checketts, who had helmed the most profitable run in Garden history: 10 years of record attendance and revenues that coincided with the exorcism of a 54-year championship curse on the Rangers in 1993-94 and the Knicks' rides to the '94 and '99 NBA Finals. Now there was talk that Checketts, whose relations with Dolan were strained, would bolt to Salt Lake City to rescue the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics. So Dolan was wooing him in a Long Island accent ravaged by years of substance abuse, the boss channeling the Boss.

Dave, this company rips the bones from your back:
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap.
You should have got out while you were young....
Because I have something to tell you: I'm Chuck Do-lan's son!

Some in the audience cheered. Looking back, most see the moment as a highlight of Dolan's speckled tenure at the Garden. The disastrous trade of future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, which would hamstring the franchise financially for years, wouldn't happen for another two weeks. As the music rolled on, Dolan sang that he wanted to be Checketts's friend, offered to rewrite Checketts's contract, even made fun of his own diminutive (5'6") stature. "It was a great moment," says one executive in the crowd that night. "He showed a human side, and everybody was really relieved."

But some also found the moment startling. Dolan was lampooning himself, yes, but he was also bellowing his power with a pride that could be taken as menacing. After all, he ended his musical valentine with a warning:

Someday, Davey, I don't know when,
We're going to get to that place where we really want to go,
And we'll have some fun.
As long as you remember:
I'm Chuck Do-lan's son!

Nine months later Checketts left to start his own sports media and entertainment company. Since May 2001 Dolan has been the undisputed king of the self-styled World's Most Famous Arena, neither franchise has won a playoff series, and the Garden air is thick with bad feeling. Dolan is reviled by New York fans and media for piling up overpriced talent to no avail. The Rangers, aided by the outside discipline of the NHL salary cap and by a stellar year from Jaromir Jagr, showed a bit of playoff life last season before sinking back this winter into bland inconsistency. Meanwhile, for the Knicks, '06 was perhaps the most spectacularly awful year in NBA history.

Consider: Last January team president Isiah Thomas, after amassing the league's highest ($123 million) and most underachieving (14-30) payroll, was accused of sexual harassment by then Knicks vice president Anucha Browne Sanders, who charged that the married father of two twice told her he was in love with her and suggested trysts "off-site." Last spring the team's first-year coach, Larry Brown, engaged in a tabloid-fueled ripfest with his star player, guard Stephon Marbury, over Marbury's role on the team. In June, after letting Brown dangle for 40 days following the season, Dolan dismissed him and came dangerously close to suggesting that the coach had engaged in fraud by never intending to finish out his contract. Then Dolan announced that Thomas would coach the Knicks and, at the ensuing press conference, declared that he had just one season to demonstrate "significant progress" toward winning a championship. "If we can't say that, then Isiah will not be here," Dolan told the team's beat writers on June 26 as a stunned Thomas looked on. "It is his ship to steer, to make go fast, to crash."

Coaching has never been the most secure profession, but it's unheard of for an owner to publicly place the head of his president and coach on the chopping block. "That was a pretty bizarre situation," Miami Heat president and coach Pat Riley says of the Knicks' coaching shuffle. "I've never seen anything like it."

Not content to supply the NBA with the year's worst front-office scandal, ugliest player-coach conflict and most clumsily handled coaching change, the Knicks, on Dec. 16, also engaged in the worst brawl (a 10-player melee with the Denver Nuggets seemingly sparked by Thomas), prompting the league to suspend seven players and levy $1 million in fines and Denver coach George Karl to label Thomas "a jackass." Before the smoke cleared, though, the number 1 question was what impact the fight would have on Thomas's future, highlighting yet again the franchise's uniquely bizarre nature. In the ultimate players' league, these Knicks revolve around two men who never touch the ball. But whether Thomas lasts six months or six years, Dolan seized center stage when he handed Thomas the ultimatum. For the first time, publicly, the Knicks were all about Jim Dolan -- and to some who have worked for him, it didn't come as a shock.


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