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Ball Hog

Putting Donnie Walsh in charge was what led the Knicks back to respectability. So why is Jim Dolan taking over again?

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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.


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