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Lord Jim (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday February 6, 2007 10:55AM; Updated: Friday February 9, 2007 3:14PM
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By S.L. Price

So maybe the common wisdom is right: Jim Dolan = Disaster. The New York Daily News just made him its Anti-Sportsman of the Year. Knicks and Rangers fan sites all but catch fire with incendiary rips of Dolan's stewardship. "He should stick to his band," Fahy says.

"Jim has tremendous passion," says Abraham, who left the Garden in 2004. "But if you're not careful, passion becomes zealotry. What he does well is bring a tremendous love of the Garden and its occupants. This is not a toy to him." Asked if he thinks the Knicks can ever win with Dolan as their owner, Abraham pauses and then says, very carefully, "The Knicks can't win as they are presently constituted."

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Yet Abraham is right about Dolan's love for the teams. If the man has a soft spot, it's for talent. Dolan loves playing guitar because, he says, "I don't play basketball, I don't play hockey, I don't hook up television sets, I don't produce television shows. I'm an executive who manages those things, and I think what I do has a lot to do with how successful they are. But I don't actually do anything." Players play, however, and for those with great talent, Dolan will do plenty.

"You couldn't ask for a better owner," says former Edmonton Oilers and Rangers great Mark Messier. "He'll do anything in his power to create an environment that's exactly what a player's looking for: state-of-the-art facilities, willingness to spend money to try to win, the way the team is treated. There's not a better place to play in the league, period. He's taken a bad rap. Jim would do anything for a championship ring with the Knicks or Rangers and has proven he will. Almost to a fault."

Wayne Gretzky, who played for the Rangers from 1996 to '99 and is now the Phoenix Coyotes' part owner and coach, calls his experience with Dolan "tremendous. He would call players in if they had family issues, or their wives were pregnant or somebody was sick, and he would personally get involved. That's someone who genuinely cares."

Mutombo says he's "shocked" by Dolan's continuing support of his $29 million hospital project in Kinshasa, capital of his native Democratic Republic of Congo. Not only did Dolan put Knicks and Garden resources at Mutombo's disposal when he played for New York, but also, in 2006, two years after Mutombo left the Knicks, Dolan was still clearing space on MSG Network and Cablevision systems and on the JumboTron during Knicks and Rangers games to run hospital fund-raising ads. "Incredible," Mutombo says of Dolan. "Every time I need money, I just have to make a phone call and ask him."

In 2005 Dolan took a particular interest in Vin Baker, the four-time All-Star whose career was derailed by alcohol abuse. He met with Baker five times during the one season Baker played for the Knicks, sharing his own struggle, acting less like a boss than "like a person in recovery, like a sponsor," Baker says. In the summer of '04 Dolan stunned Baker by showing up at his golf tournament in Hartford. "I had no idea he was coming," Baker says. "I gave him a great big hug. He was just checking on me."

But then, in those instances Dolan was dealing with people who respected him and his "process": sticking to whatever plan he laid out. In response to the tabloid face-off between Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy and general manager Ernie Grunfeld during the 1999-2000 season -- which, Dolan says, "blew the organization apart" -- Dolan instituted media training for all Garden employees who might deal with the press and an ironclad rule against team personnel criticizing others in the organization. The result is the hovering presence of Garden public relations staffers during all interactions between press and personnel, and a Big Brother reputation unsurpassed by any other team in sports. The first time former NFL coach Bill Parcells called one Knicks coach, he asked, "Is this a clean line? Have you had your phone checked to make sure it's not bugged?" The coach giggled uneasily. "I wouldn't be laughing," Parcells said. "They're listening in."

"They're more paranoid about what's written in a 50-cent newspaper than they are about handing out $5 million a year to somebody who can't play," one former high-ranking Garden official says of Dolan's staff. "Winning the media game is more important than winning the game."

Which brings us to Larry Brown. In October the Knicks and Brown agreed to an $18 million settlement on the remaining four years of his contract -- effectively handing Brown an absurd $28 million for coaching one season, badly -- and agreed to never talk about each other again. In retrospect it's amazing that either side ever thought their relationship could work. The 65-year-old Brown had a well-known history of bashing his players in the press, and Dolan, who soured on Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby in 2002 because they walked out on media training, was just as infamous for his intolerance on the matter. Brown's nonstop lineup changes and his public critiques of players Trevor Ariza, Nate Robinson and especially Marbury made Dolan furious. By the time Brown was fired, the air was thick with Knicks-spawned tales about Brown undermining Thomas by calling teams with proposed deals, refusing to speak to Thomas and, finally, demanding that Dolan buy out half the roster and start over.

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