Ball Hog

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

With all the thrills of the Garden this season, with the cries of “M-V-P!” for Amar’e Stoudemire, with the first playoff appearance in seven years all but assured, it has been easy to ignore the fact that Jim Dolan still owns the Knicks. You almost forgot, didn’t you? The reason you almost forgot, the reason the word “Dolan” has been blissfully absent from your mind, is team president Donnie Walsh.

Walsh, who will be 70 next month, has spent the past two years moving Heaven and Earth to fix the franchise he grew up worshipping. Handed a moribund, overpaid, openly mutinous roster riddled with salary-cap debt, and with no reasonable end in sight, Walsh hired Mike D’Antoni (who turned down a job with the in-far-better-shape Chicago Bulls) and set about cleaning up a madhouse. His work has been, frankly, stunning. He traded away untradeable contracts (Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford), held on to the only player on the roster worth holding on to (Wilson Chandler), rid the Knicks of the virus known as Stephon Marbury, and brought in the Young Turks who would provide the backbone of the resurgence (Danilo Gallinari, Landry Fields, Toney Douglas). His free-agent bounty was not LeBron James, but it was Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton, two of the best players the Knicks have had since this city last cared. Spike Lee is again being interviewed by ESPN regularly. It has been a long time.

Walsh hasn’t been perfect. He admits it was a mistake to trade away another first-round pick last year in order to clear up salary-cap space for James and another free agent in the off-season, and his choice of forward Jordan Hill over Bucks star point guard Brandon Jennings in the 2009 draft still stings. Dolan’s decision to overrule Walsh on the signing of Allen Iverson last year was the correct one. And it’s worth noting that multiple reports say that the presentation Walsh and Dolan made to LeBron during the wooing process was the worst James saw.

But let’s not bog ourselves down with negatives. Walsh has cleaned up a monumental mess, has made the Knicks relevant again, has brought back to the Garden the electricity we all feared was gone forever, and, perhaps most impressive, has kept the organization limber and flexible enough to make more moves in the future. Even if he doesn’t land Carmelo Anthony (as of this writing, no deal had been done), he’ll win the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award. In a story earlier this month, Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski told how, before a Knicks win over the Pistons, former Knick Gerald Wilkins saw Walsh and took him aside. “Thanks for bringing the Knicks back,” he said. His sentiment is shared by every Knicks fan across the country. And for Donnie Walsh’s trouble, Jim Dolan may issue him a pink slip.

You see, the option to extend Walsh’s contract is up in April, and that contract expires in June. It seems obvious that Walsh should be awarded the keys to the franchise in perpetuity, in addition to those to the city and maybe one of Mayor Bloomberg’s private planes. The contract extension ought to be a no-brainer. Walsh has been able to end the Knicks’ previous dysfunction and put together a team the city is proud of, one that fans can laugh and dance and scream about, even when they lose. “Should we tell Walsh to go away?” should be as easy a question to answer as “So, should we smack Amar’e in the knee with a tire iron?” But Walsh hasn’t been extended yet, and may not be, because Dolan is still meddling. In no other organization in professional sport, save maybe for the Clippers, would a man who has accomplished what Walsh has accomplished still be waiting for his contract to be renewed. That’s when you remember that Jim Dolan still owns this team.

A comprehensive rundown of Dolan’s failings over the past decade and a half would take more space than is available here, so let’s just stick to the first page of the rap sheet. Dolan, the executive chairman of Madison Square Garden, the owner of the Knicks, and the lead singer of JD and the Straight Shot, has been described by Wojnarowski as “the unaccomplished son of a billionaire,” but in a sense, anyway, Dolan is anything but “unaccomplished.” Under his tenure atop the MSG executive hierarchy, the Knicks have gone from one of the NBA’s jewel franchises to a league-wide joke. He has presided over the Anucha Browne Sanders lawsuit (remember, his response to her initial sexual-harassment claim was to fire her) and sports’ most restrictive media-relations policy. He hasn’t given an interview to the press in four years, has threatened to pull the credentials of any reporter who criticizes him, and once ordered employees to eavesdrop and record reporters interviewing his players. Note that I have yet to mention the word Isiah.

These are not the actions of a secure, confident man. But they are actions. NBA commissioner David Stern has said the Knicks are “not a model of intelligent management,” but no one would ever claim Dolan is asleep on the job. Which is why Knicks fans, despite the modest but exhilarating successes of this season, have a right to get nervous when Dolan starts butting in again. Last week, the Daily News reported that Dolan, tired (like the rest of us, to be fair) of the daily Carmelo Anthony drip-drop of rumors and guesswork, called Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke to try to grease the wheels of a deal. (This Carmelo business has been making billionaires crazy these days; Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov flew across the Atlantic just to throw his hands in the air in disgust.) Reasonable people can question whether it’s a good idea to bring Anthony to New York. The answer, of course, depends on the price. And that’s where Dolan’s interference is the most damaging. For the better part of the season, Walsh played the Carmelo hand perfectly. He waited out the increasingly desperate Nuggets, holding the trump card the whole time: Carmelo wants to come here, and everyone knows it. The Nuggets could either trade him before the February 24 deadline and get something, however unsatisfactory, in return, or they could let him leave as a free agent this summer and get nothing. Walsh was doing what any good negotiator does: To achieve the best possible terms, he was pushing the guy on the other side of the table to the brink. Only then Dolan jumped in, apparently too impatient and afraid of letting a deal slip away to allow Walsh’s endgame to play out. This was curious, not just because Dolan likes to paint himself as a hands-off owner, but because, well, Dolan has a general manager. The move undermined Walsh and sent a clear signal: Forget the years of patient and effective work Walsh has done; Dolan, spoiled, impetuous, and controlling, was once again in charge.

Walsh has taken great pains not to discuss his lack of a contract extension in public, but he must be bewildered. What more is he supposed to do? But the Knicks had their previous problems for a reason. Dolan can only be hands-off for so long. Walsh has been an outsider to the Knicks organization since he arrived; it’s the primary reason he has had so much success. But Dolan has never run his empire as one that encourages a Socratic exchange of ideas. (Ask any MSG employee, after a couple of drinks, how warm, open, and nurturing that company is.) Now that the hard work is done—or fairly far along, anyway—having Walsh’s contract end in April is simply too great an opportunity to regain control for Dolan to resist. That’s his nature: Walsh has put the tires back on the car. Now Dolan wants to drive again.

So let’s take a look at the nightmare scenario, the one that happens if Dolan lets Walsh walk and the grown-ups are no longer in charge. The Knicks are unable, despite Dolan’s attempts, to nail down a trade for Anthony. They head into the off-season—having promoted clearly qualified, but not quite sure what he’s in for, Mark Warkentien to G.M.—uncertain and wobbly, wondering what happens with the NBA labor agreement. Desperate for a splash, Dolan and Warkentien overpay for free agents Tyson Chandler and Tayshaun Prince, and the Knicks finish next season essentially where they are this year: at .500. Then Amar’e Stoudemire blows out his shaky left knee, and the Knicks get really desperate and start trading for overpaid non-superstars like Joe Johnson and O. J. Mayo, giving them max contracts. And then we are back to the salad Randolph-Crawford days of yore. Isiah-land.

And if they do get Carmelo? Even with Anthony, Amar’e, and the rest of the foundation that Walsh has built at his disposal, do you really think Jim Dolan will be the wise, modest, steady-as-she-goes organizational leader that’s a signature of championship teams? Jim Dolan?

The Knicks have brought vigor and mirth back to the Garden this year. But this is not a renewable resource. This can go away. Let us not take it for granted. This is the pivotal moment. There is work left to be done. Jim Dolan should check his own worst impulses (as much as he can, anyway) and let Donnie Walsh finish the job he started. The Knicks finally have a good thing going. They need a steady hand to keep it that way. The clock is ticking.

You can write to Leitch at will.leitch@nymag.com.

Ball Hog