Sometime last Wednesday — as I watched Charles Oakley go face down on the Madison Square Garden floor and get handcuffed, or maybe it was the next day when I read another of the New York Knicks president’s cryptic, emoji-laden Twitter posts that might read better if I were stoned — this thought occurred:
Start running, because this building is coming down.
I don’t mean that just because of this Knicks’ season. The team of my youth lets go of seasons like a lobsterman tossing underweight crustaceans back into the Gulf of Maine. I mean the entire Kremlin-by-Seventh-Avenue apparatus run by the glowering James L. Dolan.
The Garden’s insistence in this case on not just booting Oakley — who no doubt behaved badly, pushing security guards and cursing — from his seat at the game, but gang-tackling and handcuffing him on national television, was bad optics raised to high art. The Kremlin printing press swung into motion. A Knicks Twitter post arrived: “Oakley behaved in a highly inappropriate and completely abusive manner.”
It ended: “We hope he gets some help soon.”
That one took my breath away. Dolan would return to this theme Friday, suggesting to the world that Oakley has drinking problems and an uncontrollable temper. Dolan, it should be noted, is a recovering alcoholic, and for facing down his demons he has nothing but my admiration. I have family members who are recovering alcoholics, and their lives are one long triumph and service given back to fellow alcoholics.
For a powerful man, a billionaire, and his corporation to repeatedly traffic in this sort of innuendo about a former player is bullying, not help.
Perhaps the Knicks’ president, Phil Jackson, or the assistant coach Kurt Rambis, who is a contemporary of Oakley’s, could have stopped by Oakley’s seat and tried to quietly defuse the confrontation. Perhaps Dolan might have taken a mensch’s shot and invited Oakley to his suite to talk it over. Perhaps, as worse was turning to worst, someone could have asked the Clippers’ coach, Doc Rivers, a fine man, to walk over and talk with Oakley, who was once his teammate.
In photos, Rivers can be seen taking a step or three toward the growing confrontation, his face pained.
There are probably 43 ways to try to defuse a breach of calm. The Knicks chose the 44th, which was to swarm him like a street-corner mug.
The Knicks seemed to realize two days later that they had taken a sledgehammer to their brand, as NBA stars such as Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul, as well as former players and television celebrities, rallied quickly to Oakley’s defense. So Dolan took to the air on ESPN’s “The Michael Kay Show” for one of his very rare interviews. Beforehand there had been speculation that he might announce a reconciliation with Oakley.
Dolan was having none of that. He opened by announcing that he was barring Oakley indefinitely from Madison Square Garden. Then he suggested over and over that Oakley was an alcoholic and emotionally troubled.
“He may have a problem with alcohol; we don’t know,” Dolan told Kay. “There are personality problems.”
Dolan appears to have expertise in these matters.
The media machine ground on. On Thursday, reporters were offered access not to employees who had seen Oakley that night, but to their anonymous statements. Reporters could not personally ascertain if those employees existed.
Late Friday, the Garden released videos of employees talking about Oakley’s misbehavior. Reporters still could not interview them and draw their own conclusions. I wonder about their candor, as they learned that Dolan had earlier fired his senior vice president of security, apparently for failing to bar Oakley from the Garden — as Dolan suggested on the radio — that evening and therefore having to jump him on national television. That move was good for a giggle. If you run your business like a medieval fortress, you can’t complain about how precisely your Earl Constable beheads objects of your disfavor.
Let’s turn now to the confounding Zen Phil. He was there Wednesday night and, as so often is the case, he appeared to be looking in, bemused, on his own absurdist theater show. I applauded his hiring two years ago. He was an older man trying to learn a new trick: running an NBA franchise. But he was a brilliant, iconoclastic coach and author who motivated and needled and massaged the prickliest of stars into one-for-all championship runs. And he had the ego and sense of self to make Dolan back off.
As it turns out, I was demonstrably correct only on the last point.
Jackson’s most fateful decision was to re-sign Carmelo Anthony and to grant his star’s demand for a no-trade clause. Anthony is forthright in the locker room, after infrequent wins and more frequent losses. Anthony was the pillar of the team’s one true playoff run of his time here. And he has a social conscience, speaking out on gun control, among other issues.
He is well into his 30s, however, and some nights his legs look as heavy as dining table staves. Too often he slows the offense to a torpor.
A savvy team president might go to his aging star and work out an amicable parting. A savvy team president might keep those talks private, seeing no point in running down an asset.
Jackson is not that man. No longer forced to meet with the news media daily, as when he coached, he prefers to cultivate an air of mystery, the enigmatic Captain Beefheart of this hair-on-fire administration.
He fires off obscure Twitter posts poking Anthony in one rib or another, suggesting his skills are eroding and his hoop IQ low. This week he took a mean elbow shot at a long-ago minor league hoopster, Michael Graham, who survived a tough childhood and now leads an exemplary life, with a business and a foundation.
On Thursday, Jackson tried to calm the waters. He did this not with a news conference, which is the vale inhabited by team presidents; he posted on Twitter again. He offered an emoji peace sign to a society “torn with discord. I’m against it. Let It Be.”
This would be adorable if Jackson were 11 years old.
Dolan, whose willingness to spend extravagant sums on terrible teams is not an issue, gave Jackson a five-year, $60 million contract. On “The Michael Kay Show,” Dolan emphasized that he’d never meddle with his nonchalant president. “He was the best man we could find to run the Knicks,” Dolan said of Jackson. “Whether I like the results or don’t like the results, I’m going to honor my agreement.”
The Knicks sell out night after night, and Dolan acknowledged that some fans had taken to booing his sad, underperforming team. He dismissed them as “a malcontent group that is very vocal.”
“Malcontent” is a Dolan love tap.
Did I mention this building is coming down?