Insanity rules at the Knicks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am


James L. Dolan's official title is president and CEO of Cablevision Systems Corporation and executive chairman of Madison Square Garden (MSG) Inc. His unofficial and far more apropos title is 'Thanks Dad'. In 1994, Cablevision was part of a group that bought MSG properties, which included the New York Rangers hockey team and the New York Knicks basketball team. That was also the year the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, the longest such drought in the history of the NHL, while the Knicks also made it to the NBA finals before losing to the Houston Rockets.

A few years later, in 1999, Cablevision founder Charles Dolan allowed his son to take over the sporting end of things and the reign of 'Thanks Dad' was effectively born. The Rangers were horrid until the past few years, while the Knicks under James have been absolutely and embarrassingly putrid. They were basically hated even in New York, an overpaid and unlikeable group of players under the auspices of an even more unlikeable owner. But remarkably, all that changed this year thanks to the emergence of a benchwarmer named Jeremy Lin.

In February, Lin was inserted into the slumping Knicks line-up in a desperation move at half-time in a game against the New Jersey Nets. Despite being covered by all-star guard Deron Williams, Lin scored 25 points and led the Knicks to a come-from-behind victory. Over the next 10 games he averaged 25 points and made a slew of assists to lead a moribund Knicks team to an 8-and-2 record. But you know all that because 'Linsanity' became the most viral craze most of us have ever seen in sports.

Within two weeks of starting his first game Lin was on the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row. His jersey was jumping off the shelves at a record pace and the market capitalisation for MSG increased by US$250 million on the back of him. Here in Asia, TV ratings for Knicks games were booming and fans in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan were ravenous for anything Lin related. The Knicks were suddenly relevant, in fact downright popular, in spite of themselves.

But I can't see how anyone ever thought this was going to work. Back in the midst of 'Linsanity' my most enduring thought was how will Dolan screw this up? It was a given he would because he is such a blight on New York sports.

He has made so many disastrous decisions it would be folly to think he would not make another with Lin because, despite having this gift from the heavens dropped in his lap, Dolan was not going to wake up one day and suddenly be competent. He is 56 with a track record of terrible choices so why should things be any different?

It wasn't. After singlehandedly making the Knicks interesting again, 'Linsanity' is no longer playing in New York. A restricted free agent, the Knicks had an opportunity to match a contract offer made to Lin by the Rockets and refused to do it, allowing the Taiwanese-American to walk for nothing and rendering his magical run in the Big Apple to the nostalgia bin.

According to his minions, Dolan felt he was 'deceived' by Lin when he went back to Houston for a more lucrative offer which would have meant the Knicks would now have to pay a significant amount in luxury tax if they matched the Rockets' escalating deal. From a basketball perspective, maybe Lin is not worth US$25 million over three years. Still, that remains to be seen and at 23 his career is certainly off to a promising start.

But from a business perspective, having Lin on your team for a mere US$25 million is the deal of the century. You will soon be seeing nothing but Rockets jerseys with Lin's No 7 on them all over Asia. And what about the MSG stock that rose by US$600 million since Lin's first start with the Knicks? It dropped 8.5 per cent when news emerged the Knicks were not going to sign Lin.

Still if this had been strictly a business or a basketball decision by the Knicks, the flunkies on Dolan's payroll might have been able to defend it with a straight face. But this decision was neither. It was simply a spiteful choice made by a spiteful man, one who happens to be a billionaire and that presumably allows him to believe that Lin, working under the contractual parameters afforded to him, was 'deceiving' the big boss.

The truth is Houston wanted Lin so why should they structure a deal that favoured the Knicks. This was not a negotiating ploy; it was an aggressive move to get their point guard and marketing lynchpin of the future. Now we will see what Lin can really do. Meanwhile, the Knicks can once again resume being an uninteresting collection of overpaid stiffs while their dwindling fan base will merely shrug and mutter two words: 'Thanks Dad.'