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James Dolan Can’t Do the Right Thing—Even With Spike Lee

The Knicks owner just can’t help himself, which is why he’ll never be able to help the franchise. As long as JD is in charge, New York has no shot—let alone a straight one—at winning.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

They moved the deck chairs on the Titanic, and apparently they moved the entrances through which famous people are allowed to enter Madison Square Garden. At least the Titanic sank quickly—the Knicks have been taking on water for decades. Monday was hypothetically a good day for the franchise, as they announced a new team president and notched a surprising win against one of the league’s best teams. But Tuesday dawned, and James Dolan is still the captain—he paid a lot of money for that little hat—and as long as that’s the case, the ship is still going down, and all the changes will add up to nothing.

First, the good news. The Knicks’ new president is Leon Rose, a longtime agent at CAA with a roster of big-name players. The idea behind hiring an agent like Rose is that he has a proven history of establishing relationships with the league’s stars, and can finally convince marquee players to sign with the Knicks. (Of course, considering some of Rose’s former clients—from Carmelo Anthony to Julius Randle, from Frank Ntilikina to Eddy Curry, Andrea Bargnani, Renaldo Balkman, and Mardy Collins—one could be forgiven for presuming that Rose has been running the Knicks for quite some time.) And just hours after announcing Rose, the lowly Knicks went out and beat the playoff-bound Rockets, easily their biggest win of the season, with rookie RJ Barrett posting a career-high 27 points. What a day for a sad franchise!

But don’t worry, the focus soon shifted back to the Knicks’ dysfunction. During the game, a video circulated of Spike Lee getting into an argument with MSG staff. Lee, the team’s most prominent and consistently upbeat supporter, had trouble getting into the game Monday night, as he apparently couldn’t enter through the same door he had been using for the past 28 years. The issue appeared to be minor and fixable, especially after Lee and Dolan spoke at halftime. One could presume that Dolan was apologizing to the team’s longtime patron, and that things would be smoothed over. But that’s just not how the Knicks do business.

On Tuesday morning, Lee went on ESPN’s First Take to announce that he was done attending Knicks games for the rest of the season. He felt that Dolan and the Knicks were “harassing” him, and that the statement the Knicks put out the previous night about his conversation with Dolan was “Garden spin.”

However, the Knicks could not let Lee have the final word. They immediately released a statement that began with “The idea that Spike Lee is a victim … is laughable” and somehow went even farther downhill from there.

The Knicks, incredibly, even attached a picture of the entrance and a grainy photo of Dolan and Lee shaking hands at Monday night’s game. This was meant to serve as a mic drop—Lee had claimed he didn’t shake Dolan’s hand, and yet here were nearly 200 pixels proving otherwise. The note finishes by referring to Dolan simply as “Jim,” as if he’s our friend and not the vain billionaire who has concluded that the size of his bank account means he’s smarter than everybody else in the building.

This is the second high-profile feud with a beloved Knicks icon that Dolan has had in the past few years: Almost exactly three years ago, MSG security kicked fan favorite Charles Oakley out of the building and Dolan accused the stalwart of alcoholism. (Dolan, who has experienced alcoholism himself, likes to accuse basically anybody who disagrees with him of alcoholism.)

It is truly baffling that the team chose to go in on Spike, who has arguably been the face of the franchise for 25 years and counting. I’m a Knicks fan, and I can barely muster the energy to watch my doomed team—let alone witness it in person. Lee has stood by the franchise through thick and thin—mainly thin—and paid millions for the privilege of doing so. When confronted on ESPN with the cumulative $10 million bill for his almost 30 years of front-row seats, Lee simply said “I look stupid now!”)

If the Knicks had just said nothing, they probably could have gotten away with Monday night’s mistake. Sure, their most famous fan was mad on television, but one could have been convinced that this was just an entitled celebrity spouting off because he wasn’t treated like a king. But James Dolan’s Knicks are physically incapable of saying nothing (unless someone is asking tough questions). They couldn’t resist making a public statement painting Dolan as being in the right and his enemies as being in the wrong. Of course, the hyperbolic fury of the statement immediately made it clear that Dolan was the one off-kilter. Dolan doesn’t hesitate to expel anybody who criticizes the Knicks, but he also takes issue with people whose support for the Knicks is more prominent than his own. It took 25 years, but Dolan eventually got pissed off about how a universally respected director pays massive sums of money to loudly support his team.

Dolan’s decision to feud with Lee underlines why the hiring of Rose will ultimately be futile, just like the hirings of Phil Jackson and Isiah Thomas and every other person the Knicks have tabbed over the past two decades to right the ship. For years now, the Knicks’ rebuilding strategy has simply been to hope big-name free agents will sign with them because of the bright lights and supposed glory of playing in New York. Instead, those stars have famously avoided the Knicks because of the dysfunction that has infested the organization at every level, from the owner to the front office to the PR team.

The team can hire a brand-new front office and a brand consultant to try to make the Knicks seem “cool” again, but there’s nothing cool about a franchise whose ownership will ensure that the fan base will spend the morning after a big win pissed off and embarrassed. And as long as that’s the case, nobody will want to sign with the Knicks. I feel like I’ve written this story before, because of course, I have, multiple times. Every supposed cure for the Knicks ignores that Dolan is what actually ails them. Spike Lee has been kicked out of his deck chair; the ship still be sinkin’.