By David Roth
The people who sit courtside at Knicks games have a higher Q-rating than those in the four-figure folding chairs that line other NBA floors, but that's about all that separates Madison Square Garden's courtside crowd from the rest. There is always one older man paying a sort of dolorous over-attention to the game, and a younger woman doing the same to that man; in New York, the old man is Woody Allen and the woman is his wife Soon-Yi. There is always some super-hyped scamp in a gargantuan replica jersey, leaping and romping and gesticulating and generally acting like a methamphetamized gremlin; this is a nine-year-old in Orlando, and Spike Lee at Knicks games. The guy trying to look like Justin Timberlake is, at Knicks games, actually Justin Timberlake. All that and Matthew Modine. It's a heck of a town.
Except: there's that other guy.
He stands out, and not just because he looks, from his seat in that pocket of poreless affluence and recognizable features, like someone who waited hours to get tickets for the Queensryche show at the civic center. There's that, but the black-clad audio technician who spent Sunday's Knicks loss pointing a parabolic microphone at Carmelo Anthony stood out mostly because of that microphone he was holding, a gray dish with a sensitive stamen sprouting from its center that transmitted every word said to or by Anthony to a DAT recorder in a truck outside the arena. The recordings were then brought to Knicks owner James Dolan, for review.
Dave D'Alessandro of the Newark Star-Ledger, who has covered basketball extremely well in these parts for a long time and broke this story, seemed legitimately at a loss as to why Dolan would do this. But it all comes back to Dolan himself: the man who wanted to listen to two hours of Anthony calling out screens and grumping at refs, but more importantly the man who felt entitled -- even obligated -- to do so. That guy. The scowling scion of the company that makes up the less-popular half of New York's widely unloved cable television duopoly, the front-man in his vanity-project blues band (not a metaphor), and arguably the worst owner in sports.
The famous people sitting courtside at Knicks games are not necessarily doing so because they love the Knicks. They probably do, or at least enjoy this year's highly enjoyable Knicks team, although even Spike Lee found something better to do during the Knicks' low ebb of the last decade.
Those who remember those times will not fault Matthew Modine for this: there was Larry Brown on the bench slowly turning into a medical illustration of a peptic ulcer, there were Stephon Marbury's wild mood swings and progressively less mild decline, there was a supporting cast of limping long-ago All-Stars and replacement-level Indiana alums put together at great expense by the grinning, rapidly unraveling Isiah Thomas, who also oversaw a grope-y, disgraceful front office culture that somehow combined crippling horniness and crippling paranoia. But those famous people are mostly in those seats because those seats are located in New York City, and because the Knicks are the team that plays in New York. They are there, finally, for the same reason James Dolan is: good fortune, and proximity. Knicks fans, like Lakers fans, might want to borrow some of the ambient fabulousness of their famous fans. But Dolan's sour permanence and multiple toxicities serve as a resoundingly un-fabulous reminder of how power works and doesn't work in sports.
There are some explanations as to why Dolan might have ordered the not-so-surreptitious recording of his most valuable player, although none of them have come from Dolan's front office, which has refused to comment on any of it. But there was Anthony's heated reaction to some Kevin Garnett trash talk last week, and the one-game suspension Anthony received for it. Dolan might have ordered the recording to demonstrate to the NBA that Anthony is being targeted for verbal abuse; he might have ordered it because he seeks evidence that Anthony is at fault. It could have been for one of the NBA's familiar mic'ed-up/sounds-of-the-game/coaches-screaming-DEFENSE-as-if-that-could-ever-be-illuminating television segments, although the lack of notice to the visiting team and general sketchy semi-secrecy suggests that it isn't. It matters, up to a point, but it's not at all clear that it really matters to Dolan. If his petty, secretive, bullying and mostly disastrous last decade with the Knicks suggests anything, it is that the order -- giving it, and seeing it followed -- is all.
During the end of the Isiah years, a portrait emerged of Madison Square Garden as a uniquely dysfunctional place. The team was terrible, but terrible in a listless, joyless, self-thwarting way that seemed increasingly to reflect the paranoid anomie of the front office. This was a stretch, maybe; sometimes a lousy basketball team is just a lousy basketball team. But it's difficult to imagine a front office like the one that Dolan runs -- harshly retributive and wildly unaccountable; lawless and micromanaged; gnawingly paranoid and defiantly backwards -- producing a winning team, let alone one that played with anything but the sluggish, churlish vexation of those old, bad Knicks squads.
The roster and culture changed after Dolan reluctantly parted ways with Isiah, as first Donnie Walsh and then Glenn Grunwald disinfected and then rebuilt the roster. This year's model is typically expensive -- Dolan, who famously forced MSG employees to take vacation days if they were unable to get to work after Hurricane Sandy flattened the area's transit system in October, is not at all afraid to spend money on players -- but had about it the unique lightness and thrumming energy that all good basketball teams share. Coach Mike Woodson, who replaced Mike D'Antoni after D'Antoni tired of life under Dolan's thumb and quit, appears to have figured out how to use Anthony in a way that no coach previously had.
In breaking Anthony out of his familiar on-court isolation, Woodson opened the game for the players who would otherwise have been consigned to standing and watching. Basketball players, who are after all human, need air to breathe, and the once-smothered team took great gulping breaths and gave fans some legitimately breathtaking moments early in the season. Those Knicks were a good and happy basketball team, but they were also an endearing one: enigmatic tattoo collector J.R. Smith; mayo-complected sharpshooting savant Steve Novak; re-animated fortysomething veterans Rasheed Wallace, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas … all of these players were suddenly alive and present in a way they hadn't been in years, or ever.
It didn't last, although the Knicks' recent three-game losing streak was certainly no proof that the good times are gone forever. The NBA season is long and difficult, and while the Knicks are regressing and receding towards the mean at the moment, that doesn't have to mean anything bad. There is a great deal of talent on the roster, and that the team ever played as happily and as well as it did just a few weeks ago suggests that the joy of the season's first months (which felt, at the time, as much a part of the team's unexpected dominance as unsustainably good three-point shooting or those surprisingly sparky veterans) is not necessarily lost. Losses, injuries, goof-o kerfuffles and bad superstar decisions: these are things that happen. The Knicks will survive this: they are pretty good, and could well get better. But.
But, their boss is their boss, and the things that define Dolan -- that involuted monomania and arbitrary authoritarianism, crass pettiness and hyper-reactive negativity and a toxic combination of wild ignorance and stubbornness -- are the opposite of and antidote to that necessary joy. They can smother a team, crush those delicate dynamisms; the wreckage of this team's recent past is proof of this. For a basketball team to win, it must be open. There has to be fluidity in form and on-court content, there has to be a flexibility and resilience and adaptability. If the Knicks win, they will win happily; if they aren't happy, or happy enough, they won't win. This may not be true for all teams, but it seems to be true for this one.
And if the Knicks lose that -- if they wear down under the force of Dolan's Dolan-ness and become the atomized, inward, negative, thwarted thing they were during Dolan and Isiah's lost decade -- they will lose, and more than just basketball games. It will be a sad thing, if also, maybe, a predictable one. After all, James Dolan has a seat right there in the front row, too.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's “Daily Fix” blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.