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Oedipus at the Garden

Chuck Dolan rejected Astarita’s testimony about the drug search. “That never happened,” he said through a Cablevision spokesperson. “It’s absolutely wrong.” The spokesperson added that “the source of that story . . . is suing the company, and no one should believe anything he says.”

Sitting in the office of his attorney, Jim Batson, Astarita also said about Jim Dolan: “He could be very generous. He allowed me and my family to go on three Caribbean vacations. He allowed us to use his yacht. Those were the best vacations of our life.”

When Chuck Dolan’s nascent cable company won the rights to wire all of southern Manhattan in 1965, most people scoffed at the idea that anyone would pay for television. Chuck saw it quite differently. He sensed that there was an appetite and a market out there for far more than a few measly TV channels, and he had prescient ideas about how to feed that market. With the 1972 airing of a polka party from Pennsylvania, he gave birth to the channel that would one day introduce us to Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano: HBO.

For all his foresight, though, Chuck Dolan was not always able to realize the long-term gains of his innovations. Years before HBO became the cultural juggernaut (and cash cow) it is today, Dolan lost control of it. He and Time Inc. had been partners in his original cable company, called Sterling Manhattan Communications, but Time Inc. didn’t have the nerve to keep investing in such a costly, speculative enterprise. So it gutted the company, jettisoning everything except the Manhattan cable franchise and HBO.

It was a punishing setback, but Dolan recovered. He organized a new company, which would become Cablevision, and used a big chunk of his own savings to buy back as many of the cable franchises as he could. But HBO, and its fabulous potential, had slipped out of his hands for good.

As Chuck made his way in the cable business, he and his family lived on Long Island, modestly at first in Massapequa Park, then more lavishly on the North Shore. Jim is one of six Dolan children, and he did not take after his father. He was a combustible kid who loved rock music and did everything he could to be around it, even if it meant working as a roadie for a garage band. This was a refuge from his demanding father, a world apart. “My dad is deaf in his left ear,” says Jim. “And one of his most famous quotes about music is, ‘You know, I really can’t tell the difference between Elton John and Frank Sinatra.’ He actually said that. And I’m like, Well, that’s pretty hopeless.”

Jim drifted through two colleges before landing at SUNY–New Paltz. It was there that he had an epiphany of sorts. He was taking guitar lessons from a gifted musician who had played for years but was still teaching college kids for $5 an hour. That did not look like much of a future to Jim, certainly not compared with Dad’s growing business. So Jim switched majors to communications, and a few days after graduation, went to work for the family company.

It was a ground-floor-up education. Jim peddled cable subscriptions, sold advertising time, knocked on the doors of delinquent customers. His father dispatched him to Cleveland, to launch an all-sports radio station. “He was very hands-on,” says Jim Glass, then the station’s general manager. Dolan would even quiz the station’s hosts “to make sure they knew what they were talking about.” It was clear Dolan would one day be CEO, says Glass. “There was no question he had the moxie and the understanding to do it.”

Jim was made CEO in 1995, while his father kept the chairman title. Chuck always stood by Jim, but he had a way of reminding people that he was the father and Jim the son. Asked why Jim was the son elevated to CEO, Chuck once said, “Mostly, it was because no one else wanted it.”

With Jim as CEO, the core of Cablevision, its cable service, has prospered. The company was ahead of the curve in providing high-speed Internet, telephone, and digital-TV service; Cablevision now collects more money from its subscribers than does any other major cable operator in America. It does not hurt that Cablevision’s service area covers some of America’s richest Zip Codes (Greenwich, Scarsdale, Great Neck), where premium packages are an easy sell. The cable service “is firing on all cylinders,” says Craig Moffett, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. According to Rattner, the former board member, “Jim deserves a lot of the credit for that.”

Jim Dolan also distinguished himself after 9/11, taking a leading role in organizing the “Concert for New York City” at the Garden and in ensuring that the money raised was properly accounted for.

But Jim Dolan has had his share of misadventures. Pursuing a goal of Cablevision as an integrated entertainment giant, he purchased the bankrupt Wiz stores and the Clearview Cinemas chain. The Wiz was a flop, posting losses of more than $250 million before it was liquidated, and Clearview has added little to Cablevision’s bottom line.

Then there are the Rangers, the Knicks, and the Garden. When Cablevision assumed full control of all three in 1997, it was considered a triumph for the company, a shiny Manhattan trophy that fortified the company’s sports programming, a critical component of cable television. And the teams would be fun for Jim, who grew up a passionate Rangers fan. Owning them was the realization of a dream.

The intervening years have been closer to a nightmare. The Rangers and Knicks have been afflicted with oddly similar pathologies; salaries are gigantic, but talent is thin and management scattershot. The Rangers haven’t made the playoffs since 1997; the Knicks have fared better, but are light-years away from serious contention. The sports world, not to mention the team’s hard-luck fans, has become bitterly critical of the Dolans. “Over the last six to eight years, they have been among the worst-run franchises in all of professional sports,” says Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports-industry consultant.

Isiah Thomas, whom Jim Dolan hired in late 2003 as president of the Knicks, counters that Jim deserves fans’ gratitude for his willingness to spend. “He can run the Garden in such a way that he can make a lot of money, but he has chosen to put the resources into the team,” Thomas says. “There are owners around the league who are not like that.”