Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 7, 2015

An Unwelcome Return

Fans of the New York Rangers are understandably glum. After compiling the NHL’s best regular season record their team entered the Stanley Cup playoffs as a favorite to reach the Finals, but a 2-1 loss to the Washington Capitals Wednesday evening put the Rangers in a deep three games to one hole in their second round series. But even if their team’s season ends far sooner than they had hoped, Rangers fans will still have one very big thing to be thankful for. At least James Dolan, chairman of Madison Square Garden Company that owns the arena and its two primary occupants as well as assorted other venues and sports teams, doesn’t pretend to know as much about hockey as he pretends to know about basketball.

Thanks to that small blessing, the hockey faithful have never been subjected to the constant torture that torments their basketball brethren. For fans of the New York Knicks the pain of a meddlesome and clueless owner has gone on for years. This week the agony was extended to supporters of the New York Liberty, the WNBA franchise owned by Dolan and MSGC.

The overwhelming majority of long-time Knicks fans would respond to news that Isiah Thomas was being welcomed back into the executive suite at the World’s Most Famous Arena with some variant of “you can’t make it up!” Surely Thomas, who left the Knicks seven years ago in a mess from which they have yet to recover would never again be considered for a role in the basketball portion of MSGC’s corporate structure.

But as mundane as life sometimes seems, everyday events have a way of being more incredible than the most fanciful of tales conjured by the most imaginative of writers. That reality is the source of the old maxim “truth is stranger than fiction,” as well as its contemporary cousin noted above. So there were the bold headlines at midweek, announcing the improbable truth that Thomas was returning as president and even a part-owner of the Liberty.

While his career as a point guard for the Detroit Pistons included more than enough highlights to earn Thomas a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame, his subsequent work on the sidelines and in the front office has been one long reminder that not every great player makes a great coach or general manager. His first stop in the front office of the expansion Toronto Raptors ended in mutual acrimony. He bought the Continental Basketball Association for $10 million, only to see it fold when the NBA started its own developmental league three years later. In each of three seasons as head coach of the Indiana Pacers, a team that had battled the Lakers in the NBA Finals the year prior to his hiring, Thomas’s squad was bounced out of the playoffs in the first round.

Then in December 2003 Dolan named Thomas the Knicks’ president of basketball operations. With ready access to Dolan’s checkbook Thomas soon was fielding a team with the highest payroll in the NBA. All of those fat contracts produced the league’s second worst record in the 2005-06 season. But the blame for that was assigned to coach Larry Brown, who was replaced by Thomas. Having handed over complete control of the team Dolan publicly demanded that Thomas make “evident progress.” His eventual response was the farcical prediction that he would lead the Knicks to a championship. Instead in the two seasons that he stood on the sidelines the team lost nearly twice as many games as it won.

After being booed out of New York Thomas proved equally inept as a coach at the collegiate level. In three seasons at Florida International University his teams went 26-65. In the midst of that dispiriting run, and to the vocal dismay of Knicks fans, Dolan attempted to rehire Thomas as a part-time consultant; but the plan ran afoul of NBA rules and was eventually dropped.

With Thomas doing nothing more than broadcast work for the past two years, there was no longer a bar to bringing him back to Madison Square Garden. Or at least there was none for someone willing to ignore common sense, and common decency. For the decision to put Thomas in charge of Dolan’s WNBA franchise is particularly grating.

In the midst of his previous tenure with the Knicks, a New York jury found that Thomas had sexually harassed Anucha Browne, a female marketing executive with the team. Dolan’s response to Browne’s initial private complaint was to order her fired, which ultimately resulted in the lawsuit against Thomas and Madison Square Garden Company being expanded to include the owner. On October 2, 2007, the seven-person jury returned the guilty verdict and found MSGC financially liable for punitive damages. A lone juror held out against ordering Thomas to contribute to the damage payment.

At the time the defendants protested their innocence and promised vigorous appeals. But in fact no appeals were ever filed, and within two months Browne received a settlement of $11.5 million. Thomas had promised to leave a “championship legacy” at the Garden, but the lawsuit revealed nothing more than a good old boy frat house atmosphere. To call Dolan’s decision to give Thomas the title of president and an ownership stake in the Liberty tone-deaf is an insult to every fan who can’t carry a tune.

From the arrival of the first European migrants the United States has been built on inspiring stories of starting over. This is not one of them. Tales of second chances often move readers with the awesome power of redemption. No such emotion is generated here. Not every fresh start is a good idea; and some second chances are one too many. A perennial candidate for the worst owner in sports has found a new way to insult and debase basketball fans in general, and the women among them in particular. So all things considered don’t feel too sorry for Rangers fans if their team winds up being bounced from the Stanley Cup playoffs shortly. As Knicks fans have known for years, losing isn’t always the worst thing that can happen.

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Responses

  1. “From the arrival of the first European migrants the United States has been built on inspiring stories of starting over. This is not one of them.”
    Love it! Great writing, as always.
    -Bill

    • Thanks so much Bill.

      Mike


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