Life in Knicks Hell

koblin cover touchup Life in Knicks HellOn Nov. 24, a little before noon, 16 bleary-eyed reporters shuffled into a tiny interview room a few feet away from the Madison Square Garden basketball floor. It had ivory cinder-block walls and dim fluorescent lighting that didn’t recall a media workspace so much as it did a detention cell.

They were attempting to interview the Knicks’s religiously evasive head coach, Isiah Thomas, who informed them, after a contentious exchange, that they indeed had the right to criticize the team.

Afterward, the reporters complained about what they viewed as a patronizing lecture. One called him a “psycho.” It was, in all respects, a typically bitter start to a day in the life of a New York Knicks beat reporter.

Not that it was always like this. After all, covering the Knicks was once one of the most coveted beats in the country.

“It’s Madison Square Garden, it’s New York City, it should be one of the top beats in New York,” said Newsday beat reporter Alan Hahn.

Instead: “It’s maddening. What it should be and what it is—it’s a shame.”

Frank Isola, the 12-year Knicks-beat veteran for the Daily News, said, “It used to be fun here. Now, there are some nights when you’re trying to talk your boss out of sending you here and maybe lie and tell him you’re sick or something.”

“I’ll admit,” said Howard Beck, The New York Times Knicks reporter, “that the beat makes me miserable.”

>> Time to Raze the Knicks and Start Again By Howard Megdal

The job, under the weight of the regime of Garden Chairman James Dolan, has become the most demoralizing reporting gig in the city.

It doesn’t help that the Knicks are such a lousy team: Their 2-9 start, before a recent two-game winning streak, was tied for the worst in franchise history; they haven’t had a winning season in six years; their star player, Stephon Marbury, feuded openly with Mr. Thomas; the team’s off-season was occupied by a sexual harassment lawsuit that led to, among other embarrassing episodes, Mr. Thomas offering his opinion on the difference between a white person and a black person using the word “bitch.”

But that only skims the surface. What really separates the complaints of Knicks writers from those of every other browbeaten city reporter—and reporters are definitely a whiny lot—are their unironic, and apparently accurate, tales of systematic repression.

“It’s the gulag,” Mike Vaccaro, a columnist for The New York Post, said.

“We all know what it’s like to cover a normal team,” said Mr. Beck, who previously reported on the Lakers for the L.A. Daily News. “Covering the Knicks is so much worse.”

“Some of the things they practice here are completely against what you’d expect a normal team to do,” said Mr. Hahn, a second-year reporter on the beat who said that he now misses his old job as a hockey reporter covering the provincial New York Islanders. “They come up with things all the time. There’s zero access to players. They would rather you don’t even write.”

The stories from the reporters are endless: layers of institutional paranoia, public relations officials who openly eavesdrop on private conversations with executives and players, the threat—and implementation—of cutting off reporters who are perceived to be critical of the team.

“Everyone is so worried about upsetting Jim Dolan, or getting fired, and as a result people aren’t themselves,” Mr. Beck said. “If you transplanted the same individuals and put them in another city, then they’d be far more interesting. They’d be themselves.”

To their credit, the Knicks’s press officials don’t deny Mr. Dolan’s unusually hands-on role in managing their downtrodden core of reporters.

“I think it’s fair to say that Jim [Dolan] is aware of, and a part of, the shaping of the media policy,” said Barry Watkins, the senior vice president of communications for the Garden.

The policy was instituted in the summer of 2001 (coincidentally, one supposes, the last year the Knicks had a winning record).

Two years earlier, Mr. Dolan’s first year as chairman of the Garden, the Knicks made it to the N.B.A. Finals. But partly because of squabbling between Head Coach Jeff Van Gundy and General Manager Ernie Grunfeld that made its way into the press, Mr. Dolan later described that season to reporters as “one of the worst years.”

“I believe our policies work for everybody across the board,” Mr. Watkins said. “If some particular people don’t like or don’t feel good about it, I can’t control what they think.”

Garden policy has meant that before and after every game, there is a media relations official—a minder, really—with a BlackBerry in hand who furiously types away while listening to reporters’ conversations. The notes that the official takes are then emailed up the chain of command.