The sporting life of George Steinbrenner sits atop New York’s trophy case as an example for James Dolan. Despite, his past missteps and the formation (and premature coronation) of the new “big three” in Miami, Mr. Dolan can begin a perpetually winning legacy in Madison Square Garden and change the perception he tries to hard to control.
There once was a time when George Steinbrenner was the most publicly reviled and criticized owner in sports. Steinbrenner’s reign seemed to fall into the absurd when he got into a feud with Dave “Mr. May” Winfield and took his efforts at revenge beyond their baseball business relationship. The episode leading to his second suspension from baseball could have marked the end or signalled the continuation of a horrible reign. Instead, Steinbrenner, the competitive perfectionist, returned and transformed the Yankees into a world class champion and perennial contender for the games’ biggest honor. In the process of overcoming his past mistakes and learning how to build a winner, Steinbrenner set a modern standard as a winning owner.
No one can say that James Dolan does not care about the Knicks (or the Rangers). He is clearly willing to spend money to at least give the appearance that he is building a winning team. But beyond being prepared to overpay for names — Eddie Curry, Jerome James, Chris Duhon and Amar’e Stoudemire to name a few — Mr. Dolan seems unprepared to make himself or members of his organization accountable to a winning philosophy. Bearing in mind that our perceptions are skewed by a biased media, which is more concerned about developing villains for a daily diet of marketable story lines than whether our sports teams are actually winners, we still must be mindful of the obvious and the waterfall of leaks about how poorly the organization continues to be run despite financial successes. Dolan’s organizational decisions over the last ten years reveal that he values marketing — name recognition, media control — over winning. One must wonder what would happen if he refocused his priorities from controlling perceptions to shaping reality where the Knicks would be today.
Nevertheless, now is the time for Dolan to take control of his destiny and become the greatest owner in New York sports history. It is entirely possible although he probably made a serious error in paying Amar’e Stoudemire $100 million dollars to be the Knicks leader for the next five years. It is understandable, that after two years of utterly dismal play because of LePlan — horde money, dismantle a team, attract a King — that the Dolan did not want to appear to be an absolute failure after losing the LeBron shell game. It is understandable especially if one’s priority is perception over team building. He sorta kinda won the perception war, for a media minute, but now that he has saved face with a fan base that desires to remain hopeful, it is time to change philosophies and priorities. Now is a great time to think and be a winner instead of pretending to act like one.
No time is greater that now to become the best. What better time than to slay the dragon created by Knicks nemisis Pat Riley and superstars with enough foresight to take control of their destiny? What better time to build the team that will turn the Heat’s guaranteed success into an epic failure and a historical rivalry?
Dolan can do this by ignoring the fans who are conditioned to focus on OTP (other team’s players) and big names to build a team. He can do this by making everyone accountable for building a class organization that treats employees and players justly and humanely, by setting a standard for excellence that transcends perception, by a total disregard for the New York media in building a top notch organization. Dolan can take control of the Knicks destiny by eliminating the team politics that result in hirings based on friendships and relationships instead of skill and commitment to winning. He can do this by taking a chance on youth as the foundation — it makes sense in terms of dollars and culture. For three years, Oak city GM Sam Presti, a disciple of the Spurs, has shown the way. Kevin Pritchard, whatever his problem was with Paul Allen and the Portland organization, showed the way. For years, the Lakers showed the way. Even though the Celtics were built around the “Big Three” the foundation was youth. Paul Pierce is home grown — he was the Celts 10th pick in 1998. Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Big Baby Davis are youngin’s but key components of a championship caliber organization.
Big names will not do it, especially if they do not want to come to New York. Face it. As much as some New Yorkers are deluded by some imagined “center of the universe aura” players want to go to quality organizations not to sight-seeing destinations. Amongst players in the NBA, the Knicks ARE NOT currently a desirable organization. The KNICKS are better suited as a bargaining chip for players to obtain more money or better situations with BETTER organizations. LeBron had made it clear for two years that he wanted a winning organization over money; he made it exceedingly clear when he stated at the beginning of LeDecision Show that he wanted to go to a team that would win now. Despite hiring Mike D’Antoni, most players, especially the good ones, do not want to be in New York now. Players like Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Earl Barron despite playing for Mike only used the Knicks as leverage. And Stoudemire? Well, who else offered him $100 Million.
Not many people want to admit it, but Isiah Thomas had the right idea — it was his execution that sucked anal wind. Build with young talented basketball players who are inexpensive and can be shaped into tradable assets if they are not keepers. Build a winning culture that automatically enhances the value of all players, even those that don’t work out. Don’t overload with used players at the apex of their career. Their value will decline faster than a new Kia leaving the car lot. Don’t build a culture by waiting for OTP’s to do it for you — be a winner now. Stop treating players like garbage in disputes — the word gets around. Players talk to each other. (Wade, Bosh and LeBron never intended to come to NY together; watch the power CAA is gaining as it accumulates superstars to rep.) Giving Felton a two year contract was a great business move, but it is clear that he is a temporary fix like Duhon. The organization did not show commitment to Felton, but it must start to show commitment to somebody other than Herb and Allan Houston.
Dolan can still be the greatest owner in Knicks history. There was a time when champions like George Steinbrenner and John Wooden were losing more than they were winning. But losers only stay losers because they quit trying to win. We know Dolan will not give up, but he must quit valuing perception over reality, because controlling the way things really are is the only way to control how people see them. Be like George. Be a winner. We’ll see a winner.