James Dolan’s War with Spike Lee Means Bad News for the Knicks

Image Credit: Bobby Bank/Getty Images

$10 million spent on courtside tickets over 28 years. Those figures are what famous movie director and New York Knicks superfan Spike Lee says he has dedicated to watching his favorite basketball team play. And all it took to put that investment of time, money, and patience at risk was an entranceway.

On March 2, during the Knicks’ home game against the Houston Rockets, a video was put on Twitter catching Lee arguing with security at Madison Square Garden (the video contains NSFW language.) The argument stemmed from Lee being told not to enter through the employee entrance which, according to Lee, he has used to enter the Garden for the last 28 years. However, on this night, he was told to leave and re-enter through the VIP entrance two blocks down.

“I’m being harassed,” said Lee on ESPN’s First Take the following day regarding his treatment. “I’m done for this year. I’m done.”

Once Lee went public with his discontent, the Knicks needed to release a PR statement about the incident. The goal sounded simple enough: give the team’s side of the story, smooth things over with Lee at least a little bit, and keep some semblance of goodwill. Of course, nothing with the Knicks the last few years has even been simple.

“The idea that Spike Lee is a victim because we have repeatedly asked him to not use our employee entrance and instead use a dedicated VIP entrance…is laughable,” said the Knicks in their PR statement. “It’s disappointing that Spike would create this false controversy to perpetuate drama.”

The statement read more like a regime-wide reaction to Lee calling them out on national television than anything. It stands as either a master class in trolling, or a shameful act of hubris and immaturity. Either way, it creates a greater disservice to a team already dealing with multiple black marks on its reputation.

What’s even more concerning is that Lee isn’t even the first famous fan of the team to fall out with Dolan and the Knicks. Just a little over three years ago, former Knicks power forward Charles Oakley was arrested and charged with three counts of assault at a Knicks game. Once again, Dolan found himself at the heart of the controversy as he was directly involved in a verbal altercation with Oakley. Shortly after the incident, Dolan not only banned Oakley from Madison Square Garden, but accused Oakley of alcoholism, anger issues, and speaking in negative racial and sexual overtones.

The ban has since been lifted, but Oakley has been at odds with Dolan since the incident. Unsurprisingly, he had no problem speaking about the current feud between the Knicks owner and Lee. “It’s a plantation over there,” he said on Golic and Wingo about Lee’s treatment, which has drawn parallels to Oakley’s own incident.

If Dolan treats his team’s celebrity fans and former stars with such disrespect, how do you think he treats the everyday Knicks fan? Somehow, the results are even worse. In 2015, Dolan responded to a self-proclaimed lifelong fan’s email urging him to sell the team by accusing the fan of being an alcoholic and telling him to “start rooting for the [Brooklyn] Nets because the Knicks don’t want you.” In 2017, he got in the face of another fan wanting Dolan to sell the team, shouting and proceeding to call the fan an a**hole. Last year, another fan that confronted Dolan was banned from Madison Square Garden for life, claiming that the fan ambushed him. Most recently, in the Knicks’ first game since the incident, four more fans were ejected for starting a “sell the team” chant and were interrogated by security for fifteen minutes. Seeing the pattern yet?

What Dolan is doing with these fan interactions is exhibiting one of the hallmarks of a failing owner: an inability to take criticism and learn from their mistakes. Telling Dolan to sell the team or pointing out his failures will lead fans to being treated as personae non gratae. The truth is, however, that the team has struggled since Dolan took the reins. Since Dolan took full control of the Knicks in 2000 and the team went to the Eastern Conference Finals that season, they have been stuck in a never-ending free fall. The team has only made the playoffs five times, winning a series only once. Only two draft picks in the Dolan era (David Lee in 2005, Kristaps Porzingis in 2015) have been All-Stars. Meanwhile, they have made several free agent mistakes with the likes of Eddy Curry, Jerome James, and Joakim Noah all declining during their time in the Big Apple. The team is now on its 13th coach and ninth general manager in that span, a sign of zero front office stability. Sure, he’s helped create one of the more diverse working environments in the NBA, but that’s a small kernel of hope buried deep under an avalanche of despair.

Adding all of these factors to Lee’s story, and it’s not wonder why fans appear to be turning on Dolan and the Knicks. On March 4, in the team’s first game since the incident, Madison Square Garden hosted 16,588 fans as the Knicks faced the Utah Jazz. It was the lowest recorded attendance for a Knicks game since December 2006, which speaks to the significance of this latest act of egotism and petulance.

What makes this whole situation that much worse isn’t the fact that fans and media have made Lee out as a sympathetic figure and painted Dolan as the bad guy, but the fact this it is so easy to do. It feels a little unfair to Dolan and the Knicks, but when your reputation has been sullied by a multitude of PR disasters like this, it always feels like there’s more to the story. Regardless of what the fallout from this whole incident is, this battle between team owner and celebrity fan is the latest chapter in a series of miscues that Knicks fans have had to endure for the last two decades. The fanbase is turning apathetic. The media is censored. Coveted free agents like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving chose to go to the other New York City team in the Nets. First Take host Max Kellerman even went as far as to tweet that the Knicks were now going to have to directly compete with the Nets for territorial supremacy. For a once-proud organization like the Knicks, that is unacceptable.

Dolan has tried his best to block out the cries from fans to sell the Knicks. With this Spike Lee saga now hanging over his head, they will only get louder.


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