In New York State, sports fans have had choices in terms of rooting interests for their Empire State-based teams.
In baseball, it was either the Yankees or the Mets; in football, the Giants, Jets, or Bills; in hockey, it was the Rangers and the Islanders; and in basketball, it was the Knicks, typically by a wide margin, over the Nets.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, could realistically say that they had shared loyalties for the New York teams in any of those individual sports. For example, no self-respecting Mets fans could ever admit anything other than full-fledged loathing for the Pinstripers from the Bronx.
During my formative years as a sports fan in upstate New York, I made my choices: Mets, Jets, Rangers, and Knicks. Sadly, since I became a bona fide sports fan in the early 1970s, the hated Yankees have won more championships (seven) than all of the other teams combined.
Since 1973, the Mets have won just one World Series, the Jets/Giants/Bills have won four Super Bowls among them (all by the Giants), the Rangers have but one Cup, in 1994, and the Knicks — well, the Knicks are still waiting for their first NBA title since Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier prowled the Madison Square Garden hardcourt in the spring of 1973.
That’s a long stretch of futility for New York State sports fans who weren’t Yankee lovers (although the Bronx Bombers have only one championship since 2000), but it’s got to be particularly frustrating for fans of the once-proud Rangers and Knicks franchises, because their stretches of futility have been primarily overseen by the same owner: James Dolan, a former Cablevision executive who became owner of both teams when Madison Square Garden properties were sold to Cablevision in 1997. Two years later, Dolan was given an increased role in overseeing the assets, which also include the WNBA team, the New York Liberty.
I haven’t been a fan of any of my former favorite NY teams since I moved to Boston in the mid-1980s, but if I still were a Rangers or Knicks fan, I would be up in arms over not only the owner’s antics and decision-making, but certainly livid over the lack of success of these franchises.
Let’s start with the Rangers. The Blueshirts have not only gone Cup-less since 1994, but have only that sole chalice in the past 81 seasons. That is mind-boggling to think about for an Original Six team that began play in 1927 and only has four championship banners total hanging in the MSG rafters (worse yet: the hated Islanders also have four, but they started play in 1972).
Since 1940, the Rangers have only three other Stanley Cup Final berths other than the Cup win in 1994, which is as many as the Bruins have just in the past decade.
But that stretch of ineffectiveness is not necessarily James Dolan’s fault, but his impatience is on full display given that New York is on its eighth head coach since 2000, and the current coach was hired three seasons ago, not from the pro hockey ranks, but instead from the Boston University program, where David Quinn in 2013 had followed the legendary Jack Parker at the Terriers’ helm following just one year as an NHL assistant with the Avalanche.
Let’s backtrack. The Rangers had, from 2012-’15, played in 12 Stanley Cup playoff rounds, and 76 total playoff games in that four-year span. They had gone to a Cup Final, two other conference finals, and had won a Presidents’ Trophy and almost a second. They were one of the best teams in the NHL — viewed to be on the cusp of greatness. But that came at a cost: from 2012 until 2017, the Rangers didn’t have a first-round draft pick, having traded all of them to bolster late-season drives for a Stanley Cup while their championship windows were narrowing. Not surprisingly, their bounty of up-and-coming prospects began to run out and the team’s fortunes took a turn for the worse.
It got so bad, in fact, that three years ago, the team sent out a letter to Rangers fans outlining the team’s plan to rebuild, and begging for patience. A year later, the team hired former Rangers goalie John Davidson as its team president, and he also pledged to stick with the long-term plan and do all he could to right the Rangers’ ship.
Now, just two years later, the team is clearly trending positively, with the youngest roster in the league and one that has featured eight players age 22 or under, including a pair of teenagers drafted when the ping-pong balls fell the Rangers’ way in the draft lottery.
But earlier this week, Dolan backtracked against the blueprint for the team’s future success, and with just three games left in a season that will see the fifth-place Rangers miss out on the postseason, the owner fired Davidson along with GM Jeff Gorton, a former Bruins exec who as interim GM in 2006 drafted Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, and Phil Kessel for Boston, but who has been with New York since 2007.
For Rangers fans, it was a punch to the gut, since the team seemingly had turned a corner despite this season’s disappointment, and all because an owner who has no business being a team owner in the first place couldn’t let people who were eminently qualified to make the best decisions, make them in the requisite amount of time.
You’d think that owning a franchise that has won one championship in 81 years would refrain from meddling in hockey affairs, but that’s James Dolan, and it’s not just a hockey thing.
Dolan’s stewardship of the Knicks has been even more embarrassing.
Since 2000, the Knickerbockers have employed 14 different head coaches, and while some were legendary coaches who came to Manhattan with great coaching résumés — including Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, and Mike D’Antoni, who together served just six seasons combined — and also a great number of those who were totally unqualified — including the likes of Isiah Thomas, Derek Fisher, and Kurt Rambis — sooner or later Dolan’s legendary intolerance would prevail, and he would move on to the next coaching flavor of the month.
Two of Dolan’s hirings were particularly ridiculous: on paper, hiring former Knicks star Phil Jackson, fresh off of his 11-ring career coaching the Jordan-led Bulls and the Kobe-led Lakers, made sense, but unfortunately, the Knicks hired Jackson not to coach, but to serve as team president and oversee the team despite never having served in the executive offices of an NBA team.
Jackson then hired one of his former players with the Lakers — Fisher — to coach the team, despite him never having coached at any level. Fisher went 40-96 and was done shortly thereafter, and Jackson, who was two years short of fulfilling a five-year, $60-million contract, was also shown the door a year later.
Then there’s Isiah Thomas. A Hall of Fame player for the Pistons in the 1980s and ’90s, Thomas was hired as the Knicks’ President of Basketball Operations in 2003, and was lousy at the job from the get-go, and two seasons later the Knicks had the highest payroll in the league, but the second-worst record. Instead of giving Thomas the boot after the 2006 season, they made him head coach instead, and he proceeded to lead the team to a 56-108 record over the next two seasons before being summarily canned.
Thomas was also accused of sexually harassing a female executive during his time with the Knicks, reportedly resulting in an $11.6 million payout ($3 million of which Dolan, as a defendant in the civil lawsuit, had to pay), but that didn’t stop the owner from hiring Thomas as president of the Knicks’ WNBA sister team, the Liberty, in 2015.
Yep, a guy who was accused of sexual harassment and cost his boss $3 million in punitive damages, subsequently gets hired to oversee the organization’s women’s team.
The Knicks at long last are a playoff team this season, their first postseason berth since 2013, but since 2001, the franchise has missed the playoffs 15 times in the last 19 seasons. Worse, Dolan as alienated fans and former players alike with his ignorance of complaints and criticism, his ineptitude, and his questionable decision-making regarding the team’s makeup and coaching staffs.
With one championship total for the Knicks and Rangers over the past half-century, it’s probably long past time for Dolan to get out of the sports-ownership business, but that, unfortunately, is out of the hands of the teams’ loyal followers.
Therefore, let the dysfunction at Madison Square Garden continue, unabated.