It was 366 (thanks to that pesky Leap Year Day) days ago today that James L. Dolan, son of media mogul and Madison Square Garden impresario Charles Dolan, landed his limousine or chauffered town car on the metaphorical deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Standing in the for the podium on the 4.5 acre deck of the Navy's air craft carrier - which was returning from a the 290-day deployment in the Middle East - was a podium in a conference room at a training center in Westchester County, New York. The doughy and manicured Dolan was out of his element at the suburban practice facility just as President Bush II was comically out of place in a flight-suit or aboard the deck of an active air craft carrier off the coast of Southern California.
And, though there was no "Mission Accomplished" Banner draped across the room in which Dolan spoke one year ago today there might as well have been one when he said that "I believe we have clearly seen significant and evident progress." He was speaking about the New York Knickerbockers when he uttered those words and in hindsight this statement was every bit as ridiculously rose-tinted, full of jingoism and purposefully misleading as President Jr. Bush's telling the servicemen and servicewomen aboard the Lincoln and the countless masses watching his orchestrated speech on live television that "Major combat operations in Iraq had ended."
While the ramifications of these two falsehoods are different in every conceivable way (after all, one is about a well-paid team playing a game invented by a school teacher in Massachusetts and the other is about death, havoc and destruction across the globe that knows no distinction between school teacher and scoundrel), the nature of the two statements and the natures of the two men who uttered them are not so different. Dolan and Bush II: Two sons forced upon us by circumstance and lineage, brought to us by hard-working, accomplished fathers and the last vestiges of royalism on these shores. Though both are buoyed by a willful disregard for criticism, compromise and the effects that their actions have in any minute past the one in which they are made, these two men are still most defined by their sense of entitlement. This sense of entitlement combined with their respective thirsts for success in the arenas which their fathers once tread led them each to see a mirage of victory and competence in a desert of failure, peril and squandered opportunity. In one case the proverbial desert was very real. It was Iraq. Thankfully, in the other case it was not. Thankfully only basketball games and not lives are lost when Dolan makes a mistake in judgement or in all-informed unilateral move. Thankfully, his father had not been a politician.
No, Charles Dolan, lil' Jimmy's father, was no politician. He was the founder of HBO and the man responsible for the world of premium cable television that we know and love today. He also owns Cablevision, the nation's fifth largest cable provider and owner of Madison Square Garden and the professional sports teams who make the building their home. It is this piece of the empire that his son was dealing with one year ago today and that he has most publicly ruined.
On March 12, 2007 Jimmy Dolan told an assemblage of reporters that he was extending the contract of head coach and team president Isiah Thomas because “we’re a much better team. ... I think we have a great future. I think we’ve clearly improved, even from the beginning of this year. I also think that Isiah has done a good job since he’s taken over as G.M. in 2003.” He would go on to say that he felt so strongly about the job that Isiah Thomas had done in compiling a 29-34 record to that point in the season that he “needs to be recognized now.”
And, by “recognized now” he meant give him a contract extension for many years and many dollars in spite of the fact that he had repeatedly said he would make all decisions on such matters after the season had concluded. That impatience and rush to see present success where only the possibility for future success (mixed with equal possibility for failure) existed has gotten us to where we are today.
One year to the day after Dolan had his very own “Mission Accomplished” moment the Knicks are a nationwide joke and one of the least competitive teams in a league that is enjoying a renaissance entirely without us. Let’s take a look back at the year since Isiah received that contract extension:
March 23, 2007 Less than two weeks after Dolan surprisingly extends Isiah Thomas's contract, the Knicks sign Kentucky center Randolph Morris fresh off the NCAA Tournament. This move was touted by the club as the extra 2007 lottery pick that would make up for the one we were about to surrender to Chicago as part of the Eddy Curry trade. With Curry seemingly a success on the floor and another promising young big man in the fold people in New York were starting to buy into Thomas's vision.Of course, hindsight being another form of vision, we now know that Curry would regress to his middle school days and Morris was inexplicably buried on the bench for most of this season.
March/April 2007 Perhaps inspired by Dolan’s timely recognition of their head coach, the Knicks surge to a 4-15 finish to the 2006-2007 season, for an overall record of 33-49. Not only do they surrender the 8th spot in the standings almost immediately after Thomas receives his extension but they manage to finish seven games out of that final spot with three other teams between them and the eighth seeded Orlando Magic.
June 28, 2007 It's draft day and the Chicago Bulls use the Knicks #9 draft pick to acquire Joakim Noah. Meanwhile, the Knicks draft 6-9 swing man Wilson Chandler out of Depaul with the 23rd pick. However, the real news of the draft is that the Knicks acquire Zach Randolph, Fred Jones and Dan Dickau from the Portland Trailblazers in exchange for Steve Francis and Channing Frye. There is immediate suspicion as to how Randolph can co-exist with the emergent Curry, but Isiah assuages such plans with talk about his vision for a dominant front-court.
Randolph's gaudy numbers (23/10) also go a long way in helping sell this deal to a skeptical press corps and fan base. The Knicks also acquire Demetrius Nichols from Portland in exchange for a 2008 second-round pick. Nichols will be waived before the season begins and that draft pick remains in Portland in the able hands of their GM, Kevin Pritchard.
Though the Nichols aspect of this trade was a bust almost immediately it would take longer to sort through the rest of the deal. In fact, we're still sorting. Without Randolph dominating the offense the Blazers emerged as one of the surprise successes of the first half of this season. And, though the Zach-hole continued to get his numbers in NY there was much talk that he was at least partially responsible for Curry's regression and the team's struggles. Based on results alone, this trade was a slam-dunk for the Blazers and (at very best) a toss-up for the Knicks. Of course, one of the (many) reasons it couldn't be a slam-dunk for the Knicks is because Zach Randolph is not actually capable of jumping high enough to slam dunk. As the trading dealine approaches eight months after the trade, Randolph's is reportedly shopped aggressively by the Knicks. There are no takers. This probably tells you all you need to know about the deal.
July and August 2007 New Yorkers are freed from the Knicks in order to worry about the fact that the Yankees look like they're going to miss the playoffs.
August and September 2007 New Yorkers are freed from the Knicks in order to worry about the fact the Mets are in the midst of a historic collapse that will result in them missing the playoffs.
September 11, 2007 The Anucha Browne Sanders Trial gets under way. Sanders had formerly been the Knicks' vice president of marketing. In short, she accused Isiah Thomas of sexual harassment and James Dolan and Madison Square Garden of wrongful termination. Her day in court has finally come, reportedly, because Dolan and MSG refused to reach a settlement to avoid a public trial. In a very, very public trial, Thomas and the entire Garden are hammered by Sanders and her legal team. A portion of Thomas' video-taped deposition shown during the trial offered up such gems as: 1. Thomas trying to explain the difference between a white man and a black man calling a black woman "bitch." 2. The not-too-surprising revelation that Isiah doesn't care about us ticket holders was revealed classily when Isiah allegedly told Sanders, "Bitch, I don't give a f--k about these white people."
September 12, 2007 Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury, forced to be a witness at the trial, testifies that he did have sex with an MSG intern. In his truck. The two were outside of a Mount Vernon strip joint at the time, and the sex was consensual. How romantic. The intern will later testify and corroborate Steph's version of events. She will also later receive a promotion. Nice. Marbury's naive and embarrassing honesty on the witness stand may have been the beginning of the end of his relationship with his coach.
October 2, 2007 A federal jury returns a verdict in favor of former Knick employee Anucha Browne Sanders. She is awarded $11.6 million in damages.
October 30, 2007 When asked about the sorry state of one of his league's flagship franchises NBA Commissioner (and New Yorker) David Stern said: "It demonstrates that they're not a model of intelligent management. There were many checkpoints along the way where more decisive action would have eliminated this issue."
November 12, 2007 In perhaps the worst motivational ploy since a Bucks assistant coach told Vin Baker that whiskey with a beer chaser would improve his low-post game, Isiah Thomas has young, gullible Eddy Curry inform team-captain Stephon Marbury that he will likely lose his starting spot in the team's next game in Phoenix. An enraged Marbury almost comes to blows with his head coach aboard the chartered flight. Because, of course, Isiah decided to have a younger teammate give this news to Steph aboard a plane. That makes far more sense than breaking the news himself while standing on solid ground and looking his best player in the eyes. The newspapers report that Steph has gone AWOL from the team the next day when he is absent from the next morning's shoot around. Eventually we all find out in the Post that Steph has returned to New York. He misses the game against the Suns, which the Knicks lose. He returns to the team while they're in Los Angeles to play the Clippers. His teammates vote that he should be benched for the game due to his actions yet Isiah plays him 34 minutes in the game, which the Knicks lose. The team is fractured and the point guard and coach are barely masking their disdain for one another.
It will later be said, by Steph, that he had permission to leave the team and was not just missing as was widely reported and intimated by his coach. This will not be the first time that Steph takes a hit in the media for an absence that may have been suggested or even mandated by his coach.
November 20, 2007 After returning home from their winless and locker-room-splintering road trip the Knicks put forth a listless effort against the immensely exciting and entertaining Golden State Warriors. Isiah and Steph are booed lustily during the team introductions and Steph is booed every time he touches the ball in the first quarter. The large crowd is as fired up as a UNC crowd with JJ Reddick in the building. Meanwhile, Baron Davis is amazing and Stephen Jackson shows he has a better feel for the big moments in a game than anyone on the Knicks roster. The "Fire Isiah" chants begin in earnest in the fourth quarter. The chants are easily audible on television and the feeling in the crowd was that we could make a difference.
November 29, 2007 We were all reminded that we could NOT actually make a difference just nine days later. In a nationally televised game on TNT the Knicks are thrashed in historic fashion by the Boston Celtics. They lose the Boston Massacre 104-59. Kenny Smith, one of the commentators for TNT admits that "I've never even seen someone get beat at darts this bad." The lack of effort on defense in the early stages of this loss is unforgivable and inexcusable. The game validates the previous day's statement by esteemed Knick-killer Reggie Miller. In an interview he had said, "Right now, [the Knicks] are a league-wide joke. It's sad because they are an historic and iconic franchise. But people think they are late night comedy jokes." And, this is what he thought BEFORE the game.
December 2, 2007 The Knicks are playing the Phoenix Suns at the Garden. The game is surprisingly close heading into the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, the 'Bockers ultimately fall short as the Suns pull away down the stretch. Moments after leaving the hardwood Stephon Marbury is informed that his father had passed away. His father had been in attendance at the Garden that night and had been rushed to the hospital via ambulance during the second half while experiencing chest pain. He died shortly thereafter. This all happened during the game and neither Isiah Thomas nor anyone on his staff passed along any of this news to the player until after the game had finished.
December 10, 2007 Madison Square Garden and New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas reach a settlement with Anucha Browne Sanders in her sexual harassment case. Terms of the settlement of not disclosed but it has got to be a whole lot of money. And, much more than the $6 million she would have settled for before the case ever went to trial or the $10 million she had been asking for in the original lawsuit.
December 17th, 2007 A 23-year old Knicks fan is ejected from a game against the Indiana Pacers for holding up a hand-written sign reading "Fire Isiah." Several similar things will occur in the coming weeks.
January 12, 2008 It is reported that Stephon Marbury will likely undergo season-ending surgery on his ankle. He has missed a lot of basketball in the aftermath of his father's death and his relationship with his coach is clearly past the point of no return. Many around the League wonder if Steph has played his last game in a Knicks uniform.
January 24, 2008 In perhaps the most revealing statement about how far the Knicks have fallen in the eyes of those around the NBA, Clippers head coach Mike Dunleavy cites the Knicks as something that he won't let his ballclub and franchise become:
"I would only make deals to help our future - anything else is suicide. Anything else and you become the New York Knicks. If you want to take on big contracts and long-term deals . . . that's not the direction I would go."
For years the Clippers were the fool's-gold-standard for sports franchise ineptitude. Not anymore. There's a new sheriff in town and his name is Isiah Thomas. Or, is it Jim Dolan?
February 14, 2008 Not exactly filled with the spirit of St. Valentine's Day Isiah Thomas throws Eddy Curry under the bus, claiming that the popular brand of small-ball taking the league by tiny storm makes a big man like Curry obsolete. Less than a year ago Curry was the "franchise" player around whom Isiah's team would be built. He was the focal part of his vision. Today, he is useless to Isiah. Sometimes it can be hard to maintain the passion in any relationship. Even on Valentine's Day.
February 20, 2008: For my money this 84 - 124 loss to Philly is actually the worst loss of the "Mission Accomplished" Year. The Knicks are routed by the Sixers who are in many ways the exact opposite of this year's Knicks. They are under-talented and over-achieving. The game, not being nationally televised goes mostly unnoticed save for the fact that "Fire Isiah" chants have traveled down the turnpike and can be heard from the mouths of Philly fans. And, you thought they were heartless?
February 26, 2008 Hall of Fame Knick Earl Monroe chimes in on the gap between the team’s talent and performance: "I still think they got a tremendous amount of talent on this team. It's really baffling to me the team's not performing the way I thought they would perform."
March 3, 2008 MVP candidate Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets are in town to face the Knicks. Though the Garden is surprisingly near capacity I struggled to find someone to attend this game with, eventually convincing one of my brothers to come with me for the ticket price of two beers. Even at this price it's a tough sell.
Once in our seats we saw the Knicks find ever more creative ways to lose basketball games. The game was close in the early minutes of the fourth quarter yet Isiah decided this was the opportune time to feature the wrong end of the bench. Little used Randolph Morris, Malik Rose, Mardy Collins and Wilson Chandler all find themselves getting into the game. Together. It becomes transparent that Isiah is either throwing the game or looking to get himself fired when he removes Nate Robinson from the game in the waning moments. The Knicks need a bucket and a stop and Isiah removed the team's leading scorer that night and the only player who had shown any ability to stay in front of Chris Paul. With Nate off the floor Paul ices the game for New Orleans.
March 5, 2008 For the second night in a week the Garden is packed because of who the Knicks are playing. The Lebronaliers are in town. Once again, the Knicks hang tight with a better team until the late stages when poise, practice and coaching take the day. Actually, on this day Lebron James was the one who did most of the taking. He scored 50 points, with many of them coming in the late stages. The Garden crowd, hungry for watchable basketball and likeable players, applauds LBJ and serenades him with chants of "MVP."
March 9, 2008 It is made public that beleaguered and B-level center Eddy Curry likely needs surgery to repair torn cartilage in his knee.
March 10, 2008 In what may rank in the Top-5 worst losses of the season the Knicks are steamrolled in Dallas. Isiah Thomas sends rookie small forward Wilson Chandler out to contest the opening tip-off. This level of seriousness pervades the Knicks performance and there are down 28 in the second quarter. This is their seventh loss in a row, giving them their 3rd straight seven-game losing streak. The Knicks have lost 28 games by ten points or more and 9 games by 20 points or more.
March 12, 2008 We all celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Isiah Thomas's contract extension by beginning plans on a massive walk-out during the team's last home game on Monday April 14th versus the Boston Celtics. You in?
(this story was originally published on my blog www.whatwouldoakleydo.com)