Rebounding: Knicks Fans Protest James Dolan, But Can Phil Jackson Save the Day?

The foe was formidable: James Dolan, scion of the Cablevision and HBO family fortune, owner of Madison Square Garden and

phil-jackson-knick1The foe was formidable: James Dolan, scion of the Cablevision and HBO family fortune, owner of Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks. Worse, in the wet and the gray of a lingering New York winter, it was not what you would call good marching weather. But this was not the really distressing news for Knick fans protesting years of basketball incompetence last Wednesday. The actual threat to the rally’s revolutionary zeal was a sense that the demands had already been met.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="nofollow noreferer" href="">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

The fans had gotten Phil Jackson, basketball savant par excellence, who was officially appointed Team President the day before the protest—timing that did not seem accidental. From 1989-2011 Mr. Jackson won an astonishing 11 championships as head coach of the Bulls and then the Lakers; that’s three three-peats, a record unrivaled by any other coach in professional American sports. Before coaching Mr. Jackson was a player himself, a dependable big man on the Knicks championship teams of 1970 and ’73—their first and their last national titles.

Mr. Jackson attributes this legendary success to his peculiar brand of self-help spirituality. In his book Eleven Rings, Jackson enumerates 11 core principles that include “The Road to Freedom Is a Beautiful System” and “Turn the Mundane into the Sacred” and “Let Each Player Discover His Own Destiny.” Both a fierce offensive tactician and a New Age mystic, Mr. Jackson may be best thought of as a kind of Californian samurai.

So Knick fans had gained a leader easy to believe in; but for many, this didn’t rectify 15 miserable years under Mr. Dolan’s thumb. The Knicks had a winning record in only five seasons; semblances of a strategy crumbled under a regime of ad hoc hirings and firings. In 2005 Larry Brown was given $50 million for five years, the priciest coaching contract in NBA history, only to be fired after one losing season. Severance package in hand, Mr. Brown walked away with $28 million for 82 games. This year the Knicks have the league’s second-highest budget, most expensive tickets, and tenth-worst record. Carmelo Anthony, the superstar who has single-handedly kept the team in contention, is publicly wondering if he should sign elsewhere in the off-season.

Thus, a few dozen unplacated fans assembled outside Madison Square Garden to demand their voices be heard. Would they burn former general manager Isaiah Thomas in effigy? Pledge to a Basketball Court Oath? Issue a fatwa against corporate ticket holders?

No, mostly they would share their grievances with a swarm of cameramen and journalists who descended on the scene of the protest. Brian Platero, of Middletown, NY, complained that the Knicks’ many failures have begun to affect the rest of his life. “Particularly this season,” he said. “I’m depressed, I’m miserable.” The next day Mr. Platero was pictured in The New York Times with a “Don’t Trust Dolan” sign.

The protest attracted some true obsessives; the scholar among them was Mark LaGuardia, sporting tortoise shell glasses and a Bernard King jersey tucked tight over his more sensible hoodie. Mr. LaGuardia said that Mr. King—a stupendous scorer for the Knicks in the early ’80s—first got him interested in basketball. “He played on some interesting teams that looked like they could maybe push the Celtics,” Mr. LaGuardia said.

If Mr. Dolan interferes with Mr. Jackson, as he has with so many other managers of the moment, Mr. LaGuardia says he will boycott the team. But he has also grown used to making such pronouncements and betraying them. “I’ve said over the years so many times—I’m just walking away, I can’t—and then I keep coming back because I can’t stop myself. It’s a guilty pleasure.” Mr. LaGuardia was speaking for many fans who see rooting for the Knicks not as a hobby so much as a curse.

Some less philosophical protesters were more theatrically inclined. Halfway through the rally Karina Guerrero, one of the protest’s organizers, led a contingent of fans wearing sheep masks into the fray. They ripped them off in unison. “It was a symbolic thing,” said Ms. Guerrero. Whether sports fans are anything more than either doting or disappointed sheep remained an open question.

While the protest struggled on in the cold, a steady stream of men in suits entered Madison Square Garden for the Wednesday night game against the Pacers. Paul Doughty, a regional sales manager for a German manufacturing company, had corporate tickets and was taking Bill Gildin, his broker, to the game. Doughty thought the protesters were wasting their time. “Waddya gonna do?” he asked.

The protestors seemed to be confounded by that very question: short of buying the team themselves, what could they do? Anyway, the Knicks-Pacers game was starting. “Fuck that,” said somebody in the crowd. “Let’s go drink and watch the Knicks.”

Rebounding: Knicks Fans Protest James Dolan, But Can Phil Jackson Save the Day?