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Madison Square Garden, the Basketball Macabre

Having an unsavory on-court product is one thing, and shoddy handling of its players off the court is another, but when the Knicks’ front-office incompetence bleeds into the stands, where does a fan turn for refuge?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On Wednesday night in New York City, a half-dozen or so slate-suited Madison Square Garden security guards and uniformed NYPD officers surrounded 53-year-old Knicks legend Charles Oakley as the team’s former enforcer lingered in the general area of team owner James Dolan’s customary seat along the left baseline. Dolan and Oakley have carried on a long-distance relationship of mutual acrimony stretching back several years. “The boss don’t like me,” Oak recently told The New York Times, before vaguely alluding to plans to sabotage the Garden majordomo.

Oak, besieged, became understandably surly, slapping away the grasping hands attached to the various size-XXXL Jos. A. Bank blazers as tennis legend and Queens native John McEnroe looked on. Dolan — who up to this point had been pretending to not know what was going on by earnestly sipping on a heated beverage — stood up to peer into the scrum unfolding one row back. Oak, roaring, pushed one of the suits away from him. The gray meatwall of guards pounced, wrapping Oakley in a tangle of arms and wrestling him off the floor as a national broadcast audience gleefully roasted the franchise from top to bottom.

To be fair, it’s a franchise that has shown itself, time and again in the Dolan era, to be sincerely and aggressively idiotic. The Dolan–Phil Jackson Knicks, in fact, are the worst kind of stupid — stupid while loudly insisting that they are smart. And they would prove it once again. Minutes after Oak was escorted from the stands and into the custody of the NYPD, the team’s crackerjack public relations department leaped to the defense.

“We hope he gets some help soon,” would be comical coming from a Twitter egg. From the Knicks’ official PR social media account, aimed at one of the team’s greatest players, it’s shameful. Not to mention so bluntly dumb as to defy the power of words to describe it. It’s like the PR version of a drunk who refuses to give up his car keys. Who, I wonder, besides low-to-mid-tier free agents just happy to keep the checks flowing, would want to sign with an organization that treats its legends so shabbily?

Clearly, many NBA players, active and retired, are wondering the same.

The Knicks claim that Oakley was acting belligerently from jump street. “There are dozens of security staff, employees and NYPD that witnessed Oakley’s abusive behavior,” Knicks PR tweeted the following day. “Every single statement we have received is consistent in describing his actions. It started when he entered the building and continued until he was arrested and left the building.”

I call bullshit. If 6-foot-8 Knicks legend Charles Oakley is in Madison Square Garden acting recklessly, everyone would know it. The dude is huge, very recognizable, and, presumably, didn’t sneak in through an air vent. Security, surely, would have been aware of his presence the moment he set foot in the property, as would the ushers, the person who scanned his ticket at the door, and every fan who walked by him. Why wait until Oakley got to his seat to confront him if “it started when he entered the building”? I know why — to embarrass him.

This, when taken with Phil Jackson’s continuing attempts to neg Carmelo Anthony into waiving his no-trade clause, is a profoundly bad look. Again — who would want to play here?

Oakley denies the Knicks’ account of events, saying in a videotaped statement that he was sitting quietly in his seat when he was suddenly surrounded. Who should I believe? It’s tough. Do I go with the story proffered by Oakley, who, while pugnacious, has never uttered anything but facts? Or do I buy Dolan’s position, which is based, per Knicks PR, almost entirely on the statements of his employees? Guitar James is, after all, the dude who was all too eager to strong-arm the Rockettes into dancing at Trump’s inauguration and who, to this day, denies the validity of the jury verdict that found MSG liable for more than $11 million in damages related to Isiah Thomas’s sexual harassment case.

How hard would it be for the Knicks to be just a normal bad basketball team? The raw materials for straightforward, vanilla shittiness are there. The team is 10 games under .500. The Kurt Rambis–designed defense practically guides opponents to the basket. And Derrick Rose’s hunt for a max contract combined with Carmelo’s resurgent ball-hoggery are stunting the development of Kristaps Porzingis. But no. The Knicks, because they are the Knicks, always have to add something extra. They are the Salt Bae of incompetence.

I ride with Oak on this one. But, when you win a fight against fools, what do you really win?