Knickleheads

Nobody ever wants to go on record when talking about James Dolan—but everybody seems to have a story about him.

The president and C.E.O. of Cablevision, which counts the Knicks, the Rangers and Liberty teams among their many properties, has what people politely refer to as a volatile temperament.

There’s the tale about the night Mr. Dolan fired a security guard who made the mistake of asking Mr. Dolan to show his ID before he entered the floor of the Garden. The guard “turned purple,” according to a source that was there, and apologized profusely, but to no avail.

Then there’s the one about the time that Mr. Dolan, comfortably installed in a luxury box, noticed a young fan sneaking past the ushers. That same night, John Fahy, the long-time vice president of event operations at the Garden, was unceremoniously fired.

Or Mike Saunders. He had been the team’s trainer for more than 25 years, a hire from the golden era of the Red Holzman Knickerbockers, who was demoted to a position in the front office, then fired without severance for reasons known only within the organization.

About the abrupt firings of Mr. Fahy and Mr. Saunders, MSG spokesman Barry Watkins said, “John and Mike were here for a long time, they were on the Garden floor for a while, but as a company we do not discuss the reason people left. We wish them very well.”

He disputed the story about the reason for Mr. Fahy’s dismissal. And he dismissed the story about the fired security guard who failed to recognize Mr. Dolan as a fabrication from a “former disgruntled employee.”

Unsurprisingly, the dominant emotion in the Garden these days is fear. “It strikes me as one of the worst places to work on earth,” said a reporter who covers the Knicks but, like most people contacted for this article, asked to remain anonymous. “No one seems happy with their job. The operating policy is just to avoid getting their head lopped off. The organization operates on fear and politics.”

None of which would matter if the Knicks, you know, won now and again. The team, once the city’s pride, has become one of the most derided teams in the league. Even with the highest payroll in the National Basketball Association, they finished last season in second-to-last place.

Which was nothing compared to the drama played out off the court. Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown was brought in to great fanfare in 2005, only to quarrel with manager Isiah Thomas through the press and through the players. By the time this season rolled around, the front office was negotiating an $18.5 million contract payoff to Mr. Brown, dealing with a sexual-harassment lawsuit involving Mr. Thomas and the organization, and trying to find a way to juggle the $41 million owed to players who are no longer on the team.

Some veterans of the New York sports scene say that it’s never been worse.

“They’re probably dead last,” Sal Marchiano, the 40-year New York sports-anchor veteran who works at WPIX, said of the Dolans. “They’re probably the worst owners I’ve seen.”

At a Monday-night game this week against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the booing from the hometown crowd didn’t start until the third quarter. Judging by the number of the No. 23 Cavaliers jerseys in the crowd, more New Yorkers had turned up to see the 21-year-old LeBron James rather than to support their losing team.

Despite the visiting star power, there were empty green-and-purple seats checkering the stadium—a clear indication that fans who used to sell out the 19,763-seat arena for every home game were now staying away. The Knicks would end up losing 101-96—their third straight loss at home, giving them an overall record of 2-6.

This year’s poor start is something that Mr. Thomas neatly sidestepped while talking to a small group of reporters before the game. For those who fondly remember the Jeff Van Gundy era, when the coach wore his despair in incomprehensibly large circles under his eyes, Mr. Thomas represents the polar opposite. Impeccably dressed in a blue striped suit, with a crisp white handkerchief tucked neatly into his pocket, fingernails that looked freshly buffed and shoes shiny, he speaks slowly and deliberately. He’s a study in quiet, tightly controlled energy.

“I think we got our players to the point now where they feel confident, and I think now they have the courage to go out and keep competing,” he said. “The next step is, now that they’re confident and competing, can we execute a game plan for 48 minutes, and that’s the next level that we’ll get to—hopefully.”

“How do you get that confidence back without winning?” asked a reporter, moments later.

“It’s just believing in what you do,” said Mr. Thomas.

The Long Way Down

The journey of the Knicks from being one of the top teams in the league to the bottom is just one symptom of a dysfunctional ownership. Cablevision is one of the more powerful companies in New York, with a basic cable service with 3.1 million subscribers and lots of revenue. But they are also a family business—with all the myriad problems that come along with it.

Mr. Dolan and his 80-year-old father Charles have publicly butted heads over the direction of the company, and have taken on highly publicized battles with the Mayor’s office over the proposed Jets stadium and competitor Time Warner Cable. Currently, they are under government investigation over a murky stock issue, including an episode reported by The New York Times in which stock options were granted to a deceased vice chairman after he had died.

The same article described a $19.2 billion leveraged bid by the Dolans to take their company private—a move that many speculate is motivated by a desire to avoid scrutiny from investors.

The mystery that has surrounded the Dolans’ basketball decision-making is characteristic of their organization as a whole. Members of the media unfortunate enough to have the task of finding out anything meaningful about them have found this out the hard way.

“This is a terribly paranoid organization from top to bottom, and they do everything they can not to allow anything to be written about them,” agreed Filip Bondy, a columnist for the Daily News. “You’ll find few anecdotes about Dolan because he’s so private. It’s a problem, and the lack of anecdotes is a part of the problem. We live in New York and we live off personality. If we at least had some personality, we could be somewhat distracted away from the team on the floor.”

When Mr. Dolan does meet with the media, which generally happens once or twice a year, reporters say that his lack of basketball knowledge is plainly evident, and that he is more concerned with non-sports issues.

Last March, in an appearance before reporters in Memphis, Mr. Dolan avoided any in-depth discussion of the team’s last-place performance and, in an unorthodox bit of fan relations, claimed a sort of bottom-line-based success for his organization.

“We’ve had our best year ever as a corporation,” Mr. Dolan told the assembled press about the company. “We’re leading in the industry in almost all categories … in terms of cable. The ones [shareholders] who are Knicks fans, though, are still unhappy.”

The cable side of the company has indeed done well under Mr. Dolan, enjoying double-digit revenue growth virtually every year since he became C.E.O. But those were certainly not the words of someone overly obsessed with the performance of the team.

“When you’re not accountable for your own mistakes and have no fear of losing your job, you’re in a position where it’s likely you’ll make more mistakes,” said Bob Gutkowski, the former president of the Garden who served before the Dolans came into power. “Nobody lost their job with the Larry Brown fiasco.”

A spokesman for Mr. Dolan challenged the notion that he didn’t look out for fans of the Knicks and Rangers. “Since neither team has made the playoffs he has put money into each franchise and didn’t raise ticket prices,” said Mr. Watkins. “If you’re going to paint him as this owner who fires people, I would hope you’d mention that. When he guaranteed the Rangers would make the playoffs and they didn’t, he rolled back ticket prices across the board, and as a policy he doesn’t raise ticket prices.”

James Dolan grew up one of six kids on the North Shore of Long Island, joining his father’s Cablevision company in the late 1970’s and finally becoming C.E.O. in 1995. There were hits—increased revenues, a concert for New York after 9/11—and there were misses. And then there were the Knicks.

After reaching the finals in 1999, their winning records started to dwindle. Popular coach Jeff Van Gundy abruptly quit a few months into the 2001 season; the coaches that followed, Don Chaney, Lenny Wilkins, Herb Williams and, most famously, Larry Brown, came and went in quick succession. The team has been plagued by costly, confusing decisions, from trading away future draft picks to building bloated payroll with little result.

New Leadership, Worse than the Old

And then there is Isiah, who took over this season as head coach after Larry Brown’s abrupt departure.

After Mr. Dolan fired president Scott Layden in 2003, he chose Isiah Thomas as a replacement. It was a splashy decision, but perhaps not the wisest. “Isiah Thomas obviously has no idea what he’s doing,” said Mr. Marchiano. “He has no track record, no good track record as a coach and an administrator, and they gave him the keys to the king’s castle. It’s always about the star.”

The same can be said about the organization’s player choices, which have left them with few options for reworking their high-paid, poor-performing cast.

“It’s definitely a long-term screw up,” Mr. Bondy said. “You can’t dig your way out of the N.B.A., especially when you trade first-round picks. It’s a real long way back from here,” he said. “I don’t want to depress people too much, but it’s not going to be a pretty picture for a real long time.”

For frustrated fans, belief in the organization is getting harder and harder to come by.

“I think [The Knicks] are heading in a terrible direction,” said 21-year-old Jason Steinthal, buying food at the half of Monday’s game. “Dolan doesn’t seem to get it.”

“The Dolans have zero basketball I.Q.,” added his brother Andrew Steinthal, 26. “New York is a city where basketball is something that people really know, and fans appreciate. In New York, bad business is frowned upon, and James Dolan is not a good business man.”

The founders of a Web site called http://www.selltheknicks.com actually organized a protest march during the draft pick, making noise when what should have been the Knicks’ pick went to the Bulls. “Basketball is still this city’s game and it has traditionally been that,” said Mr. Marchiano. “A knowing basketball crowd at the Garden will react to a foul before the referee recognizes it, but that’s back in the days when the average fan could afford to go. Now, I don’t go to the Garden on an off night to watch an N.B.A. game. I find it so unfulfilling.”

It isn’t just the Knicks, incidentally. The Rangers made the playoffs last year for the first time since 1997, only to be swept out of the first round in four games by the New Jersey Devils.

“With the Rangers, you see how they are quite capable of screwing everything up,” said Mr. Bondy. “The Rangers demonstrate even more incompetence than the Knicks.”

“It’s all reflective of ownership,” said Mr. Gutkowski. “If you take a step back and look at Madison Square Garden now from where it was, you’d have to say ownership has negatively impacted all pieces of the MSG franchise.”

During Monday’s game, there were a few passing glimpses into what could be. With the sullen Stephon Marbury and injured Steve Francis barely figuring in the action, the younger guys—Lee, Crawford, Robinson and Frye—managed at times to stir the laconic crowd. They moved with energy and with passion and managed to cut the Cavaliers 10-point lead down to one.

The crowd was on its feet.Spike Lee was courtside. For a brief moment, the Garden actually felt like the basketball Mecca it’s supposed to be.

But then, inevitably, Cleveland made a few neat baskets and sealed the Knicks’ fate. The crowd, silently, packed up their bags and picked up their umbrellas and headed off into the rainy night, shoulders slumped.

When a deflated-looking Isiah Thomas came back to the press room for his post-game conference, an exhausted voice from the back row whispered, “Where’s the confidence now?”