Tuesday, July 13, 2010

EMPERORS, LORDS, & THE NBA'S ROTTEN GARDEN

The consoling grace of squandering a week engrossed in the vacillations of a free agent whose "Decision," in the end, arouses only disgust and disappointment is that those, upon whom the NBA had palled for the last seven years, can now safely return to ignoring it for seven more.

During the winter's cold, dreary months, the Yankees needn't worry that another new York mistress will steal my heart. For no other team commanding my allegiance has won a Championship past my toddling years. And from the events of the last week, it would seem the Knicks aren't likely to fill that void anytime soon.

In the wake of Lebron James' rebuff, many a fellow Knick fan will wish to vent his or her dejection, frustration, and ire upon the athlete who spurned his team and to denounce him for the media circus "His Decision" excited. However justified the sentiment may be justified, its target isn't. Call the "King" what you will; but, he, at most, is the catalyst for our tribe's fury and vexation. Abject failure and risible ineptitude has characterized the Knicks since the time Lebron James attended high school in Akron. And the reasons for it lie in origins older than a single off-season and stem from causes more fundamental than the choices of a few free-agents.

Apprehending the latter begins with the following question: why does the colloborative decision of 3 millionaire athletes to work together generate an outcry while the conspiracy of 32 billionaire owners to cap their wage escapes mention? After all, LeBron James did not create the system where salary caps protect billionaires' pocketbooks, constrict the number of teams eligible to bid, and relegate others to decades of competitive oblivion. Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh did not create a system where one single team actually could afford 3 of the game's top ten players because no other franchise could offer either one individually or all three collectively more money. Nor, of course, did LeBron James create the economic regime that accounts for the same three or four teams representing their conference in the finals every year and for the same five franchises, over the last decade, winning the league's championship. In fact, since the NBA instituted the salary cap for the 1984-5 season, only 7 of the league's 32 teams have won a championship: the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, Spurs, and Heat. By contrast, over the same thirty-five year period, SEVENTEEN different Major League Baseball teams have won the World Series.

Critics nonetheless complain all the time about Major League Baseball's revenue disparities, competitive imbalances, and its players' inflated contracts. Yet the Miami Heat just accomplished a feat equivalent to signning Albert Puljols, Hanley Ramirez, and Joe Mauer and no one decries the NBA's financial system. Not even the Yankees have the financial wherewithal to match such gluttony, signing 3 of the game's best and youngest players to six year contracts while they're still in their prime. Of course, that's because, in baseball, Puljols, Ramirez, and Mauer earn an amount commensurate to their worth.

THE TYRANNY OF LITTLE LORD JIM
Sure, LeBron James may imagine himself the "King," but Knicks fans shouldn't let the presumption fool them. He is not the sovereign responsible for the Reign of Errancy that has cast a pall over the Garden and has turned the name "Knickerbocker"-- a name steeped in the pride and dignity of Dutch New Amsterdam-- into a word synonymous with epic pettiness, paranoia, and melodrama in the executive suite and chronic losing, failure, and farce on the court.

How else to characterize the stewardship of an owner who prizes subservience to success? How else to judge a CEO who rewards incompetent GMs because they are servile and ingratiating but who dismisses ingenious coaches and trades gifted players because they are outspoken and defiant? How else should we judge an executive as transfixed by his competitors' advertising billboards as their basketball talent? How else do we regard a businessman who decides the most effective way to forestall bad press isn't to address the ineptitude accountable for generating it but instead to intimidate the journalists responsible for reporting it? How else to perceive the son who stands to inherit a media empire but whose own father appoints him to manage an entertainment arena because there, he, ostensibly, can inflict less damage? (Little did the father suspect that his idiot son would generate so much unflattering press he'd come to personify his family's entire operation.)

Yes, James Dolan's sovereign idiocy has ruled Madison Square Garden for eleven years now. So pathetically deluded is the man, in fact, that he confuses necessity with courage. "It takes courage to play where the lights shine brightest," Dolan said about the Knicks' acquisition of Amar'e Stoudemire. Courage? Only if valor includes a surgically-repaired knee, a league-maximum un-insured contract, and a $100 million dollars.

Few failed, of course, to miss the veiled slight contained beneath the facile praise. Cablevision's entitled son may possesses a little more tact perhaps than Kwik and Loans' founder but they share the identical sense of entitlement. Like Dan Gilbert, Dolan intended to deprecate the character and to question the heart of a player who possessed the ability and the discretion to refuse him. After all, why should the NBA's most coveted player select a team that has accumulated the league's worst winning percentage since 2002? Why would he join a franchise that even with his own addition has little chance to win a championship? Why should he choose to play for an owner eligible to bid on him only by accident? Indeed, who knows that but for Anucha Brown Sanders' lawsuit and David Stern's plaintive urging, the man James Dolan recently dispatched as his emissary to court the King might still be running the Knickerbockers. God bless the sexual harassment suit! No, the only MSG entertainment, at present, that rightfully deserves the lion-hearted is the circus-- the Ringling Brother's, that is, not the Knickbockers'.

IN PRAISE OF VISIONARY TYRANTS
Of course, in his thin-skinned self-pity and vindictive paranoia, Little Lord Jim has inspired comparison with another infamous tyrant who haunted New York sports for decades. His recent death, no doubt, will inspire eulogies that soften or expurgate his worst cruelties and excesses; that exaggerate his nobility, generosity, and compassion; and that credit him with historical legacy he probably doesn't deserve. A sentimental distortion about which I've written before. (http://theyankeesrepublic.blogspot.com/2009/03/boss-turtleneck-last-yankee-king.html)

In fact, I can't help recalling that famous cover Sports Illustrated published in 1993 upon Steinbrenner's return to baseball following his second suspension.(http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/9370/index.htm)

Dressing the Boss in King George's garments titillated at the time, but perhaps Napoleon's garb would have been more symbolically apt. Sure, the Emperor conjures an image of the tyrant par excellence, the man whose appetite for empire no amount of conquest could sate. But Napoleon, in conquest, also heralded liberation. He emancipated peoples enslaved and disenfranchised for centuries by Popes and Kings, ushering the Enlightenment into the heart of benighted Europe and projecting East the liberty, egalite, and fraternity the Rights of Man contemplated.

Likewise, for all his abuses and depredations, Steinbrenner emancipated the professional athlete from the clutches of owners' exploitation, parsimony, and prejudice. Capitalizing on Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson's availability, he built the Yankees Empire but in doing so, also eliminated the last vestiges of the reserve clause's oppression and commencing the era of free agency.

A visionary leadership responsible not only for resurrecting baseball's preeminent franchise from the moribund futility to which CBS's neglect had consigned them, but also for inaugurating the team-owned, regional sports network and raising the value of his team by over a hundred times the amount he paid for it.

It was also Steinbrenner's founding and launching of the YES Network, in fact, that provoked his turf battle with Little Lord Jim. And the lawsuit the Dolans' instigated to abort the YES Network before its birth exemplifies much of the difference between Little Lord Jim and Emperor George III and the diametrically divergent fortunes their teams have enjoyed under their respective tutelage.

The Dolans, on the other hand, illustrate the insidious complacency and ruthless incompetence all monopolies breed. When faced with upstart rivals, monopolies don't endeavor to improve their own product to stave off the competition. They don't adapt to new cirumstances. They don't rejuvenate their infrastructure. They don't innnovate and invent new products or search out new revenue streams. Instead, they throttle the competition. They muster their political power to abort its inception or they throttle it through litigation. Tactics the Dolans have deployed over and over again, whether to derail the Stadium the Jets envisioned on the West Side Long Island railyards or whether to deny the YES network access on Cablevision systems.

It should surprise no one then that under Little Lord Jim's stewardship the Knicks entrusted their franchise to a charlatan who ensnared it in a salary straitjacket and slowly mortgaged its future while ownership did nothing. Celebrated coaches and talented players with the temerity to defy him Little Lord Jim fired or ordered traded. While to this day for his former GM's ingratiating smile and shrewd obedience, the Monopolist rewards him still. Rumors already abound of the charlatan's imminent return.

For seven years, the expiration date on LeBron James' contract read July 1, 2010. For seven years, "the King" spoke of transforming his star into an international icon and the fertile opportunities America's media capital presented. For seven years, the man galivanted about New York City effusing with affection for its vitality. For seven years, he attended Cleveland Indians games, flaunting a Yankee cap and touting the Bombers' commitment to excellence. For seven years, he acknowledged the thrill playing at Madison Square Garden represented.

Yet for the first five of those seven years, Little Lord Jim approved trade after trade and ratified contract after contract that made acquiring the one athlete that could transform his franchise's woeful fate less and less a possibility. Were it not for Anucha Brown Sanders' charges and David Stern's urging, indeed the False Prophet Isiah still might be nodding and smiling while the organization he led burned.

Credit Donnie Walsh for managing in two years to remedy enough of his predecessor's damage simply to offer him a contract. But qualifying for seat to bid isn't quite the same as winning the auction. And the five years of executive complacency and misprision that preceded Walsh unfortunately prevented him from offering the King the very thing the Emperor could offer Reggie Jackson thrity-four years earlier; could promise him indeed the very thing every professional athlete cherishes, above all-- the opportunity to win and to win as often as possible in the limited time his game gives to him. Who better than Steinbrenner to know about greatness and egomania and to woo Reggie with the narcissist's most coveted role-- the opportunity to play Messiah and to lead his team into the Promised Land after years of futility, ignominy, and aimless wandering.

Of course, the Little Lord Jim didn't entertain the possibility. No, the entitled son of Cablevision thought too highly of New York's innate appeal and to the promise he could offer of acceding to the billionaire's throne, just like him. Indeed, about what product does the cable billionaire know more or is he more equipped to sell than his own sense of entitlement? What could James Dolan possible know, after all, about "courage"?

THE CIRCUS IS COMING
You can, if you wish, choose to believe the Garden's premiere clown or its amateur conspiracy theorist and to excuse the near decade long reign of errancy that Donnie Walsh ended only yesterday.

It may rankle less to think that as Spike Lee claims, "it was rigged." That James, Wade, and Bosh conspired years ago to play together and intended from the outset, besides, to do so for the Heat and in Miami besides. From which it follows naturally that the Knicks are free from blame and maybe, it's true that after the years of havoc, Isiah Thomas wreaked, the franchise couldn't redeem itself. By 2008, the team couldn't recover quickly enough both to assemble a contending roster AND to secure cap room to offer three free-agents maximum contracts.

But one inconvenient fact belies the argument. Dwayne Wade didn't invoke his Larry Bird rights. He didn't sign with Miami for the additional $30 or so million the Heat could pay him. You see, were Wade, Bosh, and James determined to play for one of their three original teams precisely so the host player could reap the extra-money, then indeed, their collaboration would have foreclosed the Knicks. Only Dwayne Wade signed for $3 million LESS than Bosh and James ($107 million to $110). What this means is that had Isiah Thomas' Eddie Curry albatross not still encumbered the Knicks payroll, Walsh could have opened enough space in New York's payroll for all three players and would have occupied a position no less advantageous than the Heat. The Big Three might have decided, in advance, to play together but who says they necessarily decided to do so in Miami? Who says New York wouldn't have attracted them had the Knicks been in a financial position to crown them its Royal Family?

Of course, perhaps the latest dream the Garden is pandering already has persuaded you to renew your season tickets, to continue to tune to MSG, and to cultivate the hope that Carmelo and Paul will join Stoudemire to save the Knicks. And if you believe that, well, I have a team to sell you in Brooklyn. For at the Garden these days only clownish escapades, circus melodrama, and magic illusion seems to grow.

Thanks, but no thanks. While Kobe and James vie for supremacy and one of the NBA's Elite 7 franchises racks up yet another championship, I'll conserve the time, money, and energy and in the dark and frigid depths of winter, warm my heart beside baseball's Hot Stove, where free enterprise percolates, where competition sizzles, where balmy Bronx summers loom around the corner and where the Emperor's legacy burns forever bright.

For to err is Dolan; but to see the future is Stein.

1 comment:

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