The Donald Trump of the NBA Wages War on Spike Lee, His Team’s Biggest Fan
In alienating his team’s most die-hard fan, New York Knicks owner James Dolan has finally hit rock bottom.
Dolan J. Trump is a parody Twitter account—a mashup of the New York Knicks’ petty, spiteful, and incompetent owner James Dolan, and the 45th President of the United States. For those who enjoy that sort of thing, it does a wonderful job of aping Trump’s thunderous, all-caps social media missives, save for the fact that his spittle-flecked rage is aimed at New York basketball beat reporters and not The New York Times. Funny stuff, to be sure.
The humor really hits home on a day like Tuesday, when the team chucked gasoline on a simmering feud with Spike Lee, the Oscar-winning director and possibly the world’s most famous Knicks fan. By the time the dust kicked up by all the accusations and counter-accusations had settled, the director had sworn never to set foot in Madison Square Garden again. (Next season, maybe.) Not after the Knicks had publicly called Lee, a truly devoted Knicks die-hard, a shameless liar trying to gin up drama.
The most exhausting—or endlessly amusing, for non-Knicks fans—aspect to this cringeworthy diaper-filling contest? None of it was remotely necessary. In another, slightly less stupid universe, the Knicks had the opportunity to score a much-needed and exceedingly rare public relations win, even, instead of yet another in a series of self-inflicted wounds.
All they had to do was offer a few gracious words, even if Lee’s outrage was unwarranted and histrionic. But no. No team in all of sports more closely resembles the personality of their owner than the Knicks: paranoid, endlessly resentful, and either unable or unwilling to let any perceived slight slide. Dolan J. Trump account notwithstanding, comparing anyone to Trump is lazy and inevitably fails. (Despite ordering The Rockettes to perform at the inauguration, another reason the comparison doesn’t work is that Dolan lacks an army of MAGA chuds who’ve got his back—every Knicks fan with an operating cerebral cortex realizes he’s a delusional twit.) But the gag works because of days like Tuesday, when the Knicks behaved in as Trumpian a manner as anyone not working in the Oval Office.
The idiocy kicked off Monday evening, when a video of Lee shouting at Madison Square Garden personnel began circulating online. Evidently, for years, the 62-year-old filmmaker and season ticket-holder has avoided the inconveniences of entering the arena with the rest of the hoi polloi. Instead, Lee has been allowed to mingle with employees and the credentialed press in a separate entrance. Security personnel told Lee that this privilege would no longer be afforded, and he had to exit and then re-enter MSG. Lee got mad, claiming no one had informed him of the change in policy. “No one told me. No one told me,” Lee said in the video. “If you want to arrest me like Charles Oakley, go the fuck ahead.”
Eventually, Lee made his way to his usual courtside seat, and that appeared to be that. Reader, it was not.
According to Lee, while heading home he saw a statement the Knicks’ PR team put out claiming the issue regarding the entrance had been amicably resolved. Lee grew upset once again, and so on Tuesday morning he unpacked all of his feelings on ESPN’s First Take:
At halftime of Monday night’s Knicks-Houston Rockets game, Dolan himself approached Lee, presumably to make amends. During their brief confab last night, Lee claims Dolan told him “now you know” about the change in entrance rules. Therefore, Dolan was “harassing” him, Lee said. “How is it the wrong entrance if I’ve been using the same entrance for 28 years! It’s Garden spin!”
Oh and Lee also confessed that he pays $299,000 for two courtside season tickets, during which time he’s suffered through more shitty basketball than any normal human being should be expected to tolerate. Looking back, Lee said it makes him look like a “mamaluke,” Italian slang for a stupid, foolish person.
All of his remaining tickets have been given away, though he may return next season. Let’s pause here for a moment. Imagine you are running the PR shop for a business concern valued at $4.6 billion. How to respond, here? One option might have been to apologize to the superfan and say he’s welcome back whenever he so desires. Maybe you think that’s a crock of horseshit, and Lee is pitching a hissy fit over what appears by all accounts to be a minor inconvenience? Why not extend an olive branch, and reverse the perception that the team is incredibly thin-skinned? Reader, they did not.
“The idea that Spike Lee is a victim because we have repeatedly asked him to not use our employee entrance and instead use a dedicated VIP entrance—which is used by every other celebrity who enters The Garden—is laughable,” the Knicks said in a statement posted to Twitter shortly after Lee’s ESPN segment aired. “It’s disappointing that Spike would create this false controversy to perpetuate drama.”
Just to hammer the point home: the Knicks seized on a single claim made by Lee on First Take. Namely, that he and Dolan never shook hands. As evidence, they posted a Zapruder-level photo presumably culled from security footage showing Lee and Dolan mid-handshake:
Naturally, by Tuesday afternoon Lee fired back at the Knicks. “What’s laughable is how the Knicks are the laughing stock of the league in sports,” said Lee. “That’s what’s fucking laughable.” While he confessed to being wrong about that handshake, Lee is sure it’s all a vast conspiracy:
Lee is clearly milking this for all its worth, and hell, the Knicks may even be in the right regarding the employee entrance. It doesn’t matter.
What does matter is they have once again reinforced the perception that any beef will inevitably be escalated and vengeance exacted and that the team is incompetent. There’s a very good reason this perception exists. They sicced security on a fan yelling “fire Dolan” in November and again in January. Yet another fan was escorted from the arena in May 2019, and Dolan alleged the fan had cleverly set out to “ambush” him. After Charles Oakley was dragged from the arena in handcuffs, Dolan called him a drunk. (A lawsuit filed by Oakley was recently dismissed.) Fans who’ve heckled Dolan either via mail or on the street also have substance-abuse issues, per Dolan. And that’s just paying customers. When former NBA player Richard Jefferson lobbed a joke about the Knicks, the PR department swung into action, issuing a forceful, strongly worded denial.
But most of Dolan’s bile has been saved for the local and national press, all of whom have been treated like his sworn enemy going back decades. Of late, he’s tried to exact a pound of flesh from New York Daily News reporters and WFAN radio hosts for (rightly) saying and writing true things about his cartoonish, failure-strewn tenure as owner. When the tabloid reported on Dolan’s involvement with an astroturfed lobbying group, the Knicks official PR Twitter account posted headshots of two obscure Tronc executives, for some bizarre reason.
Professional athletes, including high-priced free agents who might want to ply their trade in New York, pay attention to this sort of thing.
Take Al Harrington, who toiled for the Knicks from 2008 to 2010, and grew up in Orange, New Jersey. Like Lee, he rooted for the team as a kid. Playing at MSG represented a “dream come true,” he said. Getting embroiled in a flame war with Lee, was, “Stupid… so stupid.” Prior to his stint at MSG, he was confused as to why the team couldn’t attract any free agents of note. From his own front-row seat, Harrington came to realize “this shit can’t get right,” said Harrington. “The organization, for some reason, just has a funk around it.”
Monday marked the first day that ex-CAA agent Leon Rose had been named president of basketball operations. Job one is dispelling the perception held by Harrington, and convincing the rest of the basketball world that he’s the one in charge. Tuesday’s PR gaffes rendered all that null and void within 24 hours. What’s even more exasperating for Knicks fans (like me) is that if they’d taken the high road, if they engaged in some light bowing and scraping, think of the headlines that would have generated! The press would have marveled at Rose’s ability to temper Dolan’s worst instincts, and proclaimed that he clearly had been empowered to fix the Garden’s stifling, toxic culture. Those insisting that a “culture of fear” pervades MSG, as Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Macri tweeted, with employees at all levels of the company terrified of pissing off the boss, might have been forced to reconsider. Not now. Not when Rose has yet to open his mouth about any of this, and Dolan is, by all available evidence, directing their PR efforts.
And anyone still wondering why the worst NBA franchise of the 21st century can’t reverse course, this is exhibit A. (Sell, the team, Jim.) Honestly, it’s exhausting, feeling as if nothing will change, that awful men will continue to spout bile and wreck formerly functional, even beautiful things. Yet the conniption fits and the mindless incompetence will have no impact on the constant stream of profit, and the idea they’d ever face any repercussions is bound to provoke more peals of laughter than anything Dolan J. Trump might post.
Why anyone (like Lee and I) would continue to fork over dollars and emotional currency remains a mystery. Or maybe Lee had it dead right: We’re all mamalukes.