To truly understand the overwhelming public support for former New York Knicks forward Charles Oakley—who was arrested at Madison Square Garden earlier this week after an altercation with arena security, sparked by his past unkind words toward team owner James Dolan—you need to go into the wayback machine a few years: to January 2006.
Mark Messier, the most beloved New York Rangers hockey player of all time, was delivering a weepy speech moments before his Number 11 jersey was hung in the rafters of Madison Square Garden.
Twelve years earlier, “Mess” had guaranteed and delivered a victory in the must-win Game Six of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals—basically beating the New Jersey Devils single-handedly en route to the Rangers' first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years. His 25-year-long career ended by the 2004-05 lockout, fans hung on their tough-as-nails hero’s every throat-cracking word as he thanked the “Garden Faithful” for their passion and devotion. That is, until he thanked Rangers team owner James Dolan.
At the mere mention of Dolan's name, over 20,000 Rangers fans booed so loud and for so long you could barely hear Messier’s next few sentences.
That’s how much James Dolan is hated in New York: he motivated the entire Garden to lustily boo during Mark Messier’s jersey retirement ceremony.
Since taking ownership over the Knicks, Rangers, and the Garden itself in 1999, Dolan has found new and tragic ways to abuse iconic players, announcers, and the fanbase. His nearly two-decade run of infamy has solidified in the NBA’s consciousness that working with Dolan and the Knicks is career suicide.
The son of Cablevision founder Charles Dolan, James is a quintessential trust-fund baby villain, never positively distinguishing himself in any meaningful way but profiting handsomely despite serial incompetence, tone-deaf public relations, and a defiantly petulant arrogance.
As a young man, Dolan earned a degree in communications from SUNY New Paltz. In 1995, daddy Dolan made lil' James CEO of the family business: Cablevision.
Four years after that, James also had the Knicks, Rangers, and the Garden. And for 18 years the fans who continue to sell out the Garden every night have had little to hang onto besides pain and humiliation, while Dolan’s employees have suffered through numerous scandals—including a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former team executive Anucha Browne-Sanders, who settled with the Knicks for $11.6 million, which sadly was the most memorable result of Isiah Thomas’ interminable run as Dolan’s favorite failed Knicks’ coach and general manager.
To add insult to injury, the ethically challenged Thomas is now team president of the Dolan-owned WNBA franchise, the New York Liberty. Thomas' successor, the respected GM Donnie Walsh, worked for three years to rid the Knicks of bad contracts and stock up draft picks, only to be overruled by Dolan on the trade that brought Carmelo Anthony to New York, which quickly hastened Walsh's departure.
When Dolan took over the Knicks in 1999, they were in the playoffs for the 12th straight season, making an improbable run to the NBA Finals as an eight seed—the first and only time that has ever happened. In the 17-plus seasons since, they have made the playoffs only six times and have won just one playoff series since 2000. You have to try hard to be that bad.
Beyond just the spectacular mismanagement required to lose that much for that long despite being one of the most profitable franchises in the game, Dolan appears to be on a pathological mission to deprive Knicks’ fans from even occasionally reliving the team's relative glory days.
Dolan ended iconic broadcaster Marv Albert’s three-decade run of calling Knicks games for—wait for it—being critical of the team’s shoddy play. And that was way back in 2004!
Dolan has repeatedly refused to offer Hall of Fame Knick Patrick Ewing a job on the coaching staff, only going so far as to offer the legenadary big man a development league coaching job. Dolan hired native New Yorker and Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown in 2005—which Brown described as his “dream job”—only to give Brown a roster good enough to win 23 games and an $18.5 million buy-out at the end of the season.
Just a week ago, the Knicks were engaged in an unprecedented display of public sniping between the team’s best player Carmelo Anthony and team president Phil Jackson—who played on both of the Knicks’ only championship teams (1970, 1973) and has won 11 NBA championships as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
The whole situation casts a dreadful pall over the whole franchise. Yet in quintessential Knicks fashion, there appears to be no way out of this disastrously dysfunctional relationship, as Anthony was inexplicably given a no-trade clause when he re-signed in 2014, and Dolan has indicated Jackson has his full support despite the team sporting a 71-147 record since the Zen Master of Basketball took over that same year.
But the Carmelo/Phil war seems like a distant memory after the Oakley incident.
We may never know what exactly happened Wednesday night during the early minutes of the Knicks game versus the Los Angeles Clippers.
The always outspoken Oakley—who for years has been critical of Dolan's management of the Knicks and hasn't been invited to any events involving former players honoring the team's 70th anniversary—says he had just sat down in a seat he paid for, when he was almost immediately approached by Garden security.
For his part, Dolan told radio host Michael Kay today that Oakley had been verbally abusive "in a nasty way…with racial overtones, sexual overtones." Dolan added that Oakley is now banned from the Garden, but "it's not necessarily a lifetime ban," adding: "Anybody who comes to the Garden, whether they have been drinking too much alcohol, they're looking for a fight, they're abusive, disrespectful to the staff and the fans, they're gonna be ejected, and they're gonna be banned."
What we do know is that Oakley, who admits to having "a couple drinks" before entering the Garden but denies saying anything to Dolan, got heated when confronted by security, eventually shoving one security guard, which ultimately led to his arrest. It's inarguable Oakley shouldn't have put his hands on a security guard, but the Garden's decision to immediately release a statement saying they hope Oakley "gets help soon," compounded by Dolan's on-air speculation that Oakley "may have a problem with alcohol" might explain the passion behind the #FreeOakley movement, which overtook chanting fans at a Rangers game (that's hockey, folks) Thursday night.
Oakley might not have ever won a championship with the Knicks, but the fans remember him as he was: a rebounding machine, an intimidatingly physical player who gave up his body night and night out, a leader and stoic teammate on the last Knicks teams that really mattered.
Perhaps one day Dolan will earn cheers from the Garden Faithful upon announcing his sale of the Knicks and Rangers. Maybe then he can focus on his true passion: fronting the blues band J.D. and the Straight Shot, whose gigs, Sports Illustrated reported, Garden employees are reportedly expected to attend.
Until then, it's just another day of James Dolan scowling his way to financial success built on the loyalty of a rabid fanbase that knows it deserves better, but is too fanatical to actually hit ownership where it hurts: with apathy.