On 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.
When I spoke with Mr. Isola, the News reporter, on Saturday afternoon on the Garden floor, he pointed to a media relations official watching us. “He’s taking note that I’m talking to you,” he said.
On Monday night before a game against the Jazz, six reporters were speaking with forward Malik Rose. Nick Brown, a public relations official for the Knicks, was recording the proceedings on his BlackBerry, in an email prepared for the Knicks’s head of P.R., Jonathan Supranowitz.
Sometimes, Mr. Supranowitz does the monitoring himself.
“I take notes, absolutely,” Mr. Supranowitz said. “A P.R. person must be present for every interview. That’s a Garden policy.”
(Even, apparently, for interviews with other P.R. people: Mr. Supranowitz typed into his BlackBerry while I was speaking with his boss, Mr. Watkins.)
Even if a reporter pitches a fluff piece on a player, it can’t be done alone.
“Once you give a one-on-one interview, they all want one-on-one interviews,” Mr. Watkins said. “Instead of being available all at once, that player or coach has to do separate interviews every day, and that’s just not something we can do. We want to make sure players and coaches and all executives can focus on the task on hand.”
This is not standard practice elsewhere.
“There are very, very successful teams out there that treat the media with dignity and respect and recognize that 90 percent of the time it’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” said David Waldstein, the former Knicks beat reporter for The Star-Ledger. “Every writer who covers the Knicks gets the impression that we are treated as the enemy.”
(Starting this season, The Star-Ledger eliminated the Knicks beat, opting instead to run wire copy.)
“We have three people here tonight,” said Mr. Vaccaro of The New York Post on Monday night. “That’s 16 inches of copy and 16 inches of free space for the Knicks to sell their product, for better or for worse. To make those three stories as difficult as possible to write seems counterproductive to me.”
“[The policy] works against them,” Mr. Hahn said. “It allows for more speculation.”
The team has been willing to create especially hellish conditions for reporters who run afoul of management.
Mr. Isola now looks back wistfully on 2000, a year in which the Knicks were defending Eastern Conference Champions and once again bound for the conference finals. “One time, [former Knicks President] Dave Checketts came out to Vancouver and took the media out on a boat, and it was catered. Walt Clyde Frazier came, and so did all the media people who were traveling. As we were on it, a bald eagle flew right over the ship,” he said, breaking into an enormous smile.
“On the same trip,” he continued, “I went jogging with Barry Watkins from Marina del Rey to Santa Monica and then back. At night, we all hung out together and watched the Final Four.”
The next year, Mr. Dolan’s third as the Garden’s chief executive, Mr. Isola recalled, the Knicks instituted their new media policy. He took a breath. “And now Barry Watkins—I haven’t spoken to him since February.”
Mr. Isola says it’s because he asked Mr. Watkins to stop sending security officials to follow him around the Garden. (Mr. Watkins would not comment on this.)
Whatever the cause, Mr. Isola’s excommunication has been complete. The press office doesn’t return his phone calls, and they don’t include him on e-mails, text messages or calls with basic information about games, practices or injuries. Earlier this year, when the Knicks made phone calls to each of the beat reporters to inform them that Isiah Thomas’s contract was being extended, every reporter got a call except for Mr. Isola.
Mr. Watkins declined to discuss specific reasons for the freeze-out. “What I would say,” he said, “is the N.B.A. has certain guidelines—or certain rules, actually, not guidelines, rules—that require us to make practices open and available and make games open and available for all the writers.”
“Frank loves the Knicks,” Mr. Hahn, the Newsday reporter, said. “They don’t see that. They think he wants to cause trouble, to get people fired. There are little things like having a security guard follow him. There are people who work there who always make a reference that they can’t talk to him, because they say they’ll get fired. It’s a joke, but you know they also mean it because it’s true.”
For working reporters at the Garden, typical meal options include a small plastic cup of Coke and a sandwich with ham, processed turkey, Swiss cheese and hard white bread, all for $8. When they’re at their floor seats watching the game, they’re given small fuzzy-picture TV’s to watch replays.
It’s a strictly no-frills operation.
“I guess it doesn’t matter what they do to us, the beat guys,” Mr. Hahn observed. “But you’d think they care a little more about presentation when other reporters come to town. They don’t.”
Of course, the reporters shouldn’t be there for the frills. The Knicks should be a good story, even when they’re bad. The spectacular crash-and-burn of a storied franchise, after all, doesn’t lack for narrative tension or drama.
But for the reporters assigned to cover them, there’s something worse about this Knicks team. They’re not so much bad as unbearable.
In a column on Sunday, Mr. Vaccaro wrote: “Take the Jets, who now sit at a relentlessly unremarkable 2-9 after Thursday’s brutalization in Dallas. They do not inspire much of anything within the souls of their fans. They’re just bad. … The Knicks? They inspire something else. They inspire anger. They inspire hatred. … There is an unmitigated loathing for this team, for the men who run the operation. … Knicks fans hate these Knicks. Hate them.”
On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Thomas—by way of appearing to accept responsibility for the ongoing disaster he has orchestrated—acknowledged the journalistic dilemma of having to chronicle the same catastrophe over and over again. “I gotta think that you are tired of writing the same stories that you’ve been writing for the last couple weeks,” he said. “We gotta give you something better to write about, something better to talk about, and a different subject.”
“I’ve been writing the same thing for six years,” Marc Berman, the Post’s beat reporter since the late 1990s, said. “That is so depressing.”
“I don’t know how many times I can use ‘chaos,’ ‘mayhem,’ ‘dysfunction’ to describe this team,” Mr. Beck said. “You feel like a broken record after a while. On a beat like this, you write 250 to 300 stories a year on a team, and occasionally you’d like the theme to change a bit. If you’re writing the same theme every day, it’s not satisfying.”
“I’m in shock now,” Mr. Berman said. “The sexual harassment trial was bad enough, and then to have a November like this, when you’re a national joke, for someone covering the team it’s depressing ’cause you want to write positive stuff. Soon the readers aren’t going to care anymore.” His voice got quiet. “In December, who’s gonna read my stories?”
The headline writers seem to have maxed out, too. After a particularly tragic 26-point home loss to the Golden State Warriors last week, the headline for the Times D1 sports story was, “Boo, Boo, Boo, ‘Fire Isiah,’ Boo, Boo, Boo!” On Thanksgiving, Mr. Thomas’s head was transposed onto the body of a golden-brown turkey, with the headline: “Stick a fork in Isiah … HE’S DONE.”
Knicks fans, however, are a resilient bunch. Six of the first seven games this year were sellouts, and, in a victory against the first-place Utah Jazz on Nov. 26, they actually stood and cheered at the end.
It was a reminder, however brief, of what it’s like to be in the Garden when things are going well.
After the Nov. 24 win against the Bulls, Mr. Isola sat in the stands with me at the Garden while the Knicks basketball court was in the process of being converted into a hockey rink.
“It’s really sad now,” he said. “There are very few nights where you can feel a buzz in the arena. The thrill is gone.”
He spoke about a colleague, Johnny Ludden, who recently stopped reporting on the Spurs. “He was covering the Spurs for nine years, and, when he left, ha-ha, they threw him a going-away party,” Mr. Isola said. “I leave the Garden sometimes and think, ‘Should I look under my car before I turn the ignition?’”
“You can get stale on the beat,” he continued. “I shouldn’t be doing it anymore after 12 years. If everything was status quo and if everything was great, I probably would be the wrong guy to have on it. But now I’m the right guy to have on it, because they’re trying to screw me over, and, by trying to screw me over, it kind of lights a fire in you a little bit. It makes you more motivated to find stuff out and expose what’s going on here.”
I told him it sounded as if he was sticking around out of spite.
“Absolutely,” he said. “They thought it would be the opposite—they thought they’d beat me down and run me off. I thank them for it.”