Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 5, 2020

Knicks Fans, Loyal To A Fault

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be on the road for the next ten days. Sunday’s post will be delayed until Monday. Instead of the regular Thursday / Sunday schedule for March 12th and 15th, there will be a single post at some point in that time period. The regular schedule will resume on Thursday, March 19th. As always, thanks for your support!

Leon Rose wants fans to remain patient. In an open letter to fans, his first public statement since being announced as the new president of the New York Knicks, the long-time player agent now tasked with turning one of the NBA’s most consistently disappointing franchise into a winner told the faithful who regularly fill the seats at Madison Square Garden “nothing about this is easy or quick so I ask for your continued patience.”

Although Rose’s language was unusually blunt, such a plea is often heard when a new leader – be it a coach, GM or executive – takes over a team long mired in failure, and it at least wins points for honesty. Better to acknowledge that a turnaround is going to take some time than to succumb to hubris and promise a quick return to glory. Fans of the Knickerbockers went down that latter road as recently as 2014, when Phil Jackson, a former Knick stalwart as a player and a Hall of Fame coach for the Bulls and Lakers, was hailed as a savior upon being named to the post Rose now holds. It didn’t take long for the promises to be proven empty even as the hosannas turned to catcalls.

Still, one wonders just how much attention Rose has paid to the Knicks in recent years. The question the letter raises is how much attention he paid to the travails of his new franchise while he was busy negotiating contracts for and tending to the needs of Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, and other big-name players Rose represented while at Creative Artists Agency. Or perhaps he was following the exploits of former clients like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, so somehow missed the stories of disappointment and defeat that have poured out of Madison Square Garden as regularly as the commuters emerging from the shadowy depths of Penn Station into the traffic jams of Seventh Avenue.

While there may be an admirable aspect to asking for patience, making that request of Knicks fans has an element of cruelty. Few fan bases in the country have kept coming back for more while being consistently abused for as long the group that inhabits the stands at MSG. It isn’t just that they are forced to watch a bad team. Make no mistake, the Knicks are frequently just that, and have done plenty of losing in the two decades since James Dolan took over the lead ownership role from his father. When the current season comes to a merciful end, it will be New York’s seventh straight year finishing below .500. But there are almost always franchises that post even sorrier records. At 19-43 as this is written, the Knicks somehow still have a better record than three other NBA squads.

But shoddy play on the court is often just a sideshow with this franchise. Losing records don’t provide half the drama of constant tales of front office intrigue and a revolving door of executive hiring’s. Rose is the eighth man to be put in charge of the franchise in the last twenty years, with one of that number – Steve Mills – filling the role twice. That suggests excellent job security compared to the post of head coach, filled by thirteen different individuals over the same time period. The coaching turnover rate is even more alarming when one recalls that Mike D’Antoni somehow managed to patrol the MSG sidelines for almost four full seasons.

Much of the turnover can be traced to Dolan’s constant meddling, which is regularly interrupted by his promises to leave the decisions to knowledgeable basketball people. Knicks fans long since learned to ignore such pledges. As if all that weren’t enough, there is even conflict with the fans, as the thin-skinned Dolan can’t tolerate paying customers who second guess his wisdom. Three years ago, the Knicks saw fit to have Charles Oakley, a former player still beloved by fans, arrested after a confrontation with Dolan. Then just this week Spike Lee, the team’s most famous fan and certainly one of its most loyal, was stopped as he entered Madison Square Garden through a doorway that Lee said he has regularly used for years. The dispute between the Knicks and the Oscar-winning filmmaker quickly descended into bitter public name calling, with Lee eventually announcing that he won’t be back in his usual courtside seat again this season.

Still, Lee acknowledged that he would return to MSG next year, and despite the losing and the carousel of coaches and executives he will be joined by the vast majority of Knicks season ticket holders. They grumble and groan and vilify Dolan on social media. They lament how the combination of dismal play and a circus atmosphere has made “the world’s most famous arena” a place that free agents studiously avoid, as was made plain during the most recent offseason. But through it all Knicks fans display a level of patience that makes Job look like an adolescent on a sugar high. Night after night they fill every level of the bowl at MSG. They tell each other their team is loaded with young talent, an easy and often empty boast heard at arenas housing many also-ran franchises. They speculate on how Rose, much admired as an agent, might turn his talent to managing the front office, even though it’s a role at which he has no direct experience. Like victims of Stockholm Syndrome, they deserve a better fate. But don’t count on Knicks fans getting one anytime soon.

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