Among my musical and political heroes growing up was Chuck D, frontman of the legendary rap group Public Enemy. Their album Apocalypse ‘91: The Enemy Strikes Black was among the most impactful musical experiences of my youth, along with Mozart’s Requiem and Tori Amos’ Under The Pink. In 2004 while I was in grad school in Buffalo, Chuck D spoke at a local university. He was incredible. Chuck spit truths in real-time rhythms and slants, his mother tongue all hearts and beats and slants. It was raw, revelatory and joyful to bear witness to.
After he spoke, I got to talk with him a few minutes. He’s from Roosevelt, a Long Island town near Uniondale, where I grew up (if your knowledge of L.I. is limited to Everybody Loves Raymond, the Long Island Medium or white bros looking to secede, understand Roosevelt and Uniondale are not that L.I.). We talked about the area (his daughters went to Turtle Hook, the junior high in my town). We talked sports and politics. He even said my “threads were dope.”
I idolized Chuck D, OK? (Hubie Brown voice) So when he told me he liked my clothes, those clothes become immortalized. If there were a me Hall of Fame, it would have requested the outfit right then and there. The hoodie I was wearing? I kept it for years after it was no longer a comfortable fit. Because it was the Chuck D hoodie. If I’m not proud of that illogic on my part, I’m also not ashamed of it. So what’s any of this gotta do with the Knicks?
Under James Dolan’s ownership, the Knicks have improved their winning percentage in consecutive seasons only three times.
2002: 30-52 (.366)
2003: 37-45 (.451)
2004: 39-43 (.476)
2010: 29-53 (.354)
2011: 42-40 (.512)
2012: 36-30 (.545)
2013: 54-28 (.659)
2019: 17-65 (.207)
2020: 21-45 (.318)
2021: 41-31 (.569)
Two years after the 2004 season, the Knicks tied a franchise-worst (at the time) by going 23-59. Two years after the 2013 season, the Knicks set a franchise-worst (which they’ve since tied) by going 17-65. Does this mean the recent turnaround is fated to fail? No. But there are reasons for concern, reasons having nothing to do with Leon Rose, Tom Thibodeau or anyone affiliated with the Knicks.
Dolan gets a lot of grief, some of which comes from incredible writers. Still, he’s hardly the only New York sports owner whose fans have him in their sights. My concern entering next season as a Knicks fan is their history under him handling success. The past doesn’t keep me from marching into the future — climate change has yet to kill my enjoyment of life on this boiling blue marble. But just like my lifelong dream of moving to the Pacific Northwest went on hold once I learned about the Yellowstone supervolcano and this year’s record hot temperatures in the PNW, there are reasons I don’t feel quite as free to dream about the Knicks the way I did in 1994, when the team had improved the prior two seasons. This is where Chuck D factors in.
Isiah Thomas is James Dolan’s Chuck D. Dolan idolizes him. If you’re too young to have seen Isiah as a player, trust your elders: he was an incredible, incredible player — not quite at the Magic/Bird/MJ level, but not far below.
Dolan seems obsessed with Isiah’s status as an all-time great NBA player. Nothing Thomas has done since retiring, whether in coaching or management, comes anywhere close to the measure of excellence he put up as a player. But I get it. As far as Dolan’s celebrity crush on him, I really do get it. Like, I think I’m a pretty good cook. Chuck D may not know shit about cooking. But if Chuck D was in my kitchen and told me to lower the flame or add more salt, I’m lowering the flame and adding more salt.
Throughout Isiah’s time running the Knicks from 2003-08, he made trades like he was some first-time long-time calling into Mike and the Mad Dog. The cap didn’t matter; roster flexibility didn’t matter; the smaller names didn’t matter. As long as he brought back the biggest name in the trade, it was a win. Certainly there is a logic to that thinking — basketball is impacted by individuals more than any other sport. LeBron James and Diana Taurasi can do more for their teams than Mike Trout or or Lucy Bronze can for theirs, simply because one of five is a bigger deal than one of of nine or 11.
But the NBA isn’t sports talk radio. Rosters, payrolls and all the human relations that go into building a team are more complicated than “biggest name = best move.” In 2004 Stephon Marbury was undoubtedly a bigger name and better talent than anyone the Knicks traded away for him. But getting Steph also meant acquiring Anfernee Hardaway’s terrible contract. It meant trading away a 1st-round pick that six years later became Gordon Hayward.
Eddy Curry was more of a known quantity than the two firsts the Knicks traded to Chicago to acquire him. Those picks became Joakim Noah and LaMarcus Aldridge, who ended up with much bigger names and games. Winning the back pages often has nothing to do with winning games, and not just in New York. Some of us are old enough to remember the White Sox adding Albert Belle to pair with Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura, and all the hoopla, and all the nothing that came from it.
There were many reasons the mid-2000s Knicks sunk. Allan Houston’s knees. Curry’s personal issues. Another was Dolan prioritizing Isiah over everyone and everything. Larry Brown clashes with Zeke? LB’s out. Steph and Thomas stop getting along? Adios, Starbury. Even after Isiah was gone, his influence over Dolan lived on. When the Knicks were improving in 2011 and Carmelo Anthony wanted out of Denver (or did he?), the Knicks could have waited for the offseason to add him to a team on the rise. He may have elected not to wait and sign with the New Jersey Nets instead, but looking at that sentence now, in 2021, do you see that happening? Donnie Walsh was content to call Melo’s bluff and Mike D’Antoni was pro’ly content not to make the deal at all.
But Dolan couldn’t pass up the chance to win the big name. So he put all his chips into the middle of the table and traded depth for the name on the marquee. Just like Hayward, the Knicks shipped off a draft pick who turned into an All-Star six years later. All the money and machinations that fueled the Melo era in New York led to one playoff series win.
A few months ago Dolan gutted the New York Rangers’ front office. He said one reason he did was because he’d heard from other owners that they were surprised the Rangers hadn’t had more success winning games the past few years. Never mind that the last people you should trust in a competition are your competitors. Never mind that the Rangers had committed to a rebuild, amassing a group of young, highly-talented players much of the league envied. Where others see sprouts and the miracle of life, Dolan sees a lack of blooms and interminable languor.
When is the last time we saw his fingerprints on a Knicks roster move? I dunno. So far the fans — and presumably the owner — are satisfied with the work that Leon Rose, Tom Thibodeau and Company have done. After a few fallow years, the harvest is replenishing. Cap space is ample. Draft picks grow full and fat on trees. The team is young and on the ascent. The owner is quiet. Eerily quiet. Just like the Yellowstone supervolcano. I feel the same about that natural disaster as I do about James Dolan.