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Lord Jim
S.L. Price
February 12, 2007
For the NBA's most confounding franchise, the spotlight is on the tempestuous, blues-strumming owner--cable-television tycoon Jim Dolan--and a much maligned coach who will either build a winner or lose his job
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February 12, 2007

Lord Jim

For the NBA's most confounding franchise, the spotlight is on the tempestuous, blues-strumming owner--cable-television tycoon Jim Dolan--and a much maligned coach who will either build a winner or lose his job

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"He has lost all my respect," says Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo, whom Thomas traded at the end of the 2003--04 season. "He insulted me. The first day, he pulled me aside and said, 'I want you to go away on vacation.' When we play the Knicks, I cannot look him in the face." Thomas says he doesn't recall the incident. Mutombo doesn't care. He says, "F--- Isiah."

But the most surreal moment came when Dolan announced that Thomas would coach. The two men had met beforehand and, Dolan says, discussed the one-year ultimatum. But according to sources familiar with the day's events, including film director and Knicks fan Spike Lee, Thomas was blindsided when Dolan made the ultimatum public. "I asked Isiah, 'Did you know he was going to say that?' and he said, 'I didn't,'" Lee says. Told of Lee's account, Thomas all but sputters, "I don't know if I ... I think that day in terms of my reaction to kind of it being so public and everything else ... you know." He pauses, then finishes with, "Hey, it is what it is," and laughs. Definitely not joking.

When the subject of Sanders's sexual harassment suit comes up, Thomas's eyes narrow and the smile dissolves. "I look forward to my day in court," he says. "[The suit] is baseless and without merit." After an in-house Garden investigation found Sanders's claims "not supported," she was fired. Dolan was later added to her suit on grounds that her dismissal was retaliatory. In September the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, following its own investigation, found "probable cause" for a violation of Sanders's civil rights and backed her right to sue.

Meanwhile, Thomas fights daily for his professional life. He has won few raves for his front-office work over the last three years, but at 21--28 through Monday, the Knicks are well ahead of Brown's anemic pace last season (14--35). Despite some huge defensive lapses, Thomas's team is more cohesive and competitive. Yet he's walking a wire: just one rolled ankle, one long losing streak from falling into the abyss. "It's a sick kind of thing," Thomas says. "You don't want pressure, but you kind of like it. I grew up [in Chicago] having to walk outside of my house and you had to look at a guy and had to determine quickly if he's robbing you--and you can't make a mistake. It keeps you sharp."

Whether it makes sense to have a coach operate under such conditions isn't Thomas's concern. Dolan is the owner: It is what it is. "This is who we work for," Thomas says. "He calls the shots."

He shouldn't be alive. That's how bad it got for Jim Dolan, in his mind at least: endless liquor, all manner of illicit drugs. "Everything," Dolan says. "I was completely obsessive-compulsive, and I didn't like who I was at all. I kept trying to be somebody else, be what other people wanted me to be. That's impossible to do, so I medicated myself to death trying to convince myself I was somebody I wasn't. It was just horrible."

In August 1993 he bottomed out, and his father personally put him on a Northwest jet bound for the Hazelden clinic in Center City, Minn. Jim came through the fire of recovery, and the 12-step process boiled his worldview down to one brute fact: I've got to be me.

There's a shorthand formulation from antiquity that divides men into two categories, the fox and the hedgehog. "The fox knows many things," wrote the Greek poet Archilochus, "but the hedgehog knows one big thing." With his knack for working boardrooms and pressrooms, his embrace of innovations such as putting ads on pro soccer jerseys or offering free food at NHL games, Checketts, now part owner of Major League Soccer's Real Salt Lake and the NHL's St. Louis Blues, is a fox. Thomas survived Bobby Knight, Dennis Rodman and a host of mistrustful peers en route to the Hall of Fame as a player, and he has survived a host of disgruntled owners and his own reputation to climb into one of the NBA's premier front-office positions--a fox through and through. Dolan? He's thick and gruff and shaggy, but he's a hedgehog more because he was saved, he's sure, by one big thing. "It completely changed my life," he says of recovery. "I had to be honest with myself. And my honesty is completely intertwined with my sobriety. That's how I try and live my life: I try to be honest with myself and with others."

What Dolan means by honest, though, isn't so much about telling the truth. It's about being Jim Dolan--not some second-rate edition of his father, not some slick corporate suit who fills the air with false politesse--no matter whether people hate or love or fear Jim Dolan. Let the cards fall. Sure, the deck is stacked: He's the billionaire, the boss; his employees have no choice but to accept his ways. "If there's nothing else you appreciate about me," he says, "it's at least that you get to see the real me."

The real Jim Dolan, though, can be anything but pleasant. He cut his business teeth in the Darwinian world of 1970s cable television, a zero-sum game in which everyone was an enemy and monopoly was the goal. Saved by the 12-step process, he lards his speech with references to "sticking to the plan" and "following the strategy." When someone doesn't, there's trouble. In March 2001, Dolan was due to show up at Radio City Music Hall, which Cablevision also owns, to help review a dress rehearsal of an upcoming production. Trying to give the workshop a sense of occasion, Seth Abraham, then head of Radio City and soon to be president of the Garden, and Jay Smith, the show's executive producer, put on usher's jackets and waited along with cast members, Radio City staff and a clutch of Garden executives to greet Dolan in the lobby. Dolan, who arrived in a white limo, grew livid at the stunt. "Get in your suits!" he shouted at Abraham and Smith. "I'm controlling this process! I run this f------ company!"

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