It was a vicious sneak attack disguised as an expression of concern.
“I think Charles has got a problem,’’ James Dolan said, his gravelly voice trying its damndest to channel empathy, an emotion he has no real relationship with. “He has a problem. People have got to sort of understand that, he has a problem with anger. He’s physically and verbally abusive. He may have a problem with alcohol. We don’t know.’’
Dolan, the owner and driving – or destructive – force behind Madison Square Garden and its once-revered teams, was talking about Charles Oakley, a man who on a nightly basis literally gave his blood, sweat and tears in service of the New York Knicks, and if you don’t know him or were unacquainted with his history, you might be fooled into believing his motives were in some way pure.
After all, Oakley had become violent in a confrontation with MSG security guards Wednesday night before being wrestled to the ground and dragged out of the building in handcuffs before a crowd which no doubt thought all the worst things they could ever see at the Garden were happening right in front of them on the basketball court.
So now here was Dolan, on a radio show, trying to explain why an icon of the last good Knicks team – the one that had made it to the 1994 NBA Finals only to see John Starks shoot them right out of it – had been treated as if he were an armed terrorist. And why, from that day forward, he would no longer be allowed to set foot back in Madison Square Garden.
To do so, he cloaked his words in the language of compassion, which would have gone over just fine except for two minor details: James Dolan has never shown the slightest hint of compassion. And he has used this technique before, and for the same reason, because it is a lot easier to attack one of your critics than it is to rationally respond to their criticism.
I don’t know whether Charles Oakley has a drinking problem or not. But I do know that James Dolan has a criticism problem, and a predictable pattern of response to it.
You need only go back two years, to February 2015, to run across the last time James Dolan has publicly used this line of attack against someone who dared point out his shortcomings.
What prompted it was the following email from a 73-year-old Knicks fan named Irving Bierman:
“At one stage I thought that you did a wonderful thing when you acquired EVERYTHING from your dad. However, since then it has been ALL DOWN HILL. Your working with Isaiah Thomas & everything else regarding the Knicks. Bringing on Phil Jackson was a positive beginning, but lowballing Steve Kerr was a DISGRACE to the knicks. The bottom line is that you merely continued to interfere with the franchise.
As a knicks fan for in excess of 60 years, I am utterly embarrassed by your dealings with the Knicks. Sell them so their fans can at least look forward to growing them in a positive direction Obviously, money IS NOT THE ONLY THING. You have done a lot of utterly STUPID business things with the franchise. Please NO MORE.’’
Respectfully, Irving Bierman
Here was the response from James Dolan, talentless scion of a wealthy family who was given control of an NBA team, an NHL team and arena to keep his clumsy hands off the real family business, which was cable television:
You are a sad person. Why would anybody write such a hateful letter. I am.just guessing but ill bet your life is a mess and you are a hateful mess. What have you done that anyone would consider positive or nice. I am betting nothing. In fact ill bet you are negative force in everyone who comes in contact with you. You most likely have made your family miserable. Alcoholic maybe. I just celebrated my 21 year anniversary of sobriety. You should try it. Maybe it will help you become a person that folks would like to have around. In the mean while start rooting.for the Nets because the Knicks dont want you.
Of course, there was nothing “respectful’’ about Dolan’s reply, but plenty that was extremely ugly and despicable – the stated view that anyone who would dare criticize his mismanagement of the Knicks had to be either drunk or hateful, or both.
This was especially galling considering that James Dolan admittedly had had his own substance abuse problems, the overcoming of which generally imbues a person with empathy for fellow sufferers. And it was especially revealing since the intensity of the response was way out of proportion with the criticism that provoked it.
(I can attest to Dolan’s extreme reaction to criticism from personal experience; I was quite critical of him during my time as the lead columnist for the New York Post, and when he bought Newsday, where I had moved to in 2005, one of his first acts was to make my life miserable enough to try to force me to quit. I beat him to the punch by going to ESPN to cover the Yankees.)
Fast forward to Wednesday night. By his own admission, Oakley has been a strident critic of the Knicks and their owner, but then again, who hasn’t? Since Dolan assumed full control of the franchise in 1999, the club’s record is 627-815. They have appeared in five playoff series over the past 17 seasons, lost four of them, got swept in two of them, and their post-season record over that span is 7-18.
But there is more to the Oakley-Dolan animosity, something that goes back to perceived slights from the owner to the player, who unlike Starks and Allan Houston and Patrick Ewing and Clyde Frazier has never been offered a job within the organization. According to Oakley, Dolan snubbed him at an NBA All-Star Game. According to Dolan, Oakley once asked for, and received, comp tickets from the Knicks to game in 2009 – and proceeded to verbally whip Dolan from his free seat throughout the game.
Whatever the reason, the antipathy between them is real, and while no one knows for sure what precipitated the incident Wednesday night, there is no justification for a man as big and powerful as Charles Oakley to be punching or strangling much smaller security guards.
Nor is there any justification for the owner of the New York Knicks to be making vicious and unsubstantiated charges against an individual, be it a dissatisfied fan or a disgruntled former player. But that is the way of the bully – use the bullhorn, in this case, a New York City radio station, to level damaging and unsupported charges against someone who is not there to defend himself. It should be noted that while Charles Oakley was charged with aggravated assault and criminal trespass, he was not charged with any alcohol-related offenses.
No, that was just a convenient weapon for James Dolan to pull out of his bag of dirty tricks in his misguided attempt to demonize Charles Oakley in the eyes of a fan base that knows both of them too well to fall for any of that.
As the unsightly drama was playing out on the Garden floor Wednesday night, a normal person might have sought to defuse the situation by reaching out to Oakley backstage, listening to his criticisms, and offering some of his own. Perhaps the two could have reached an understanding and avoided a PR nightmare that the Garden is destined to lose.
But that would have required maturity, tact and empathy on the part of James Dolan, a man who has shown himself, again and again, to be in possession of none of those qualities.