Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A season of Knicks losses boiling over with a fight nobody will win

NEW YORK — The New York Knicks, who were already raising dysfunction to an art form with bad basketball and head-scratching Twitter posts from their famous team president, moved further into the surreal Friday when the team's owner announced that he was indefinitely barring one of the most popular players in franchise history from Madison Square Garden.

The owner, James L. Dolan, can go years without engaging with the news media. But on Friday, he went on radio to say that Charles Oakley, a stalwart member of outstanding Knicks teams from the 1990s, had been indefinitely barred from the Garden as a result of an altercation on Wednesday night that ended with Oakley being led from the arena in handcuffs while fans chanted his name.

It was hard to find precedent for the Knicks' decision — former players are normally treated like celebrities, not told they will not be allowed in even if they buy their own ticket — but it fit the intensely dysfunctional image the franchise seems to be busy creating for itself.

Dolan, who announced the decision on Michael Kay's afternoon program on ESPN Radio, said he was taking the step to bar Oakley out of concern for the safety of the team's other paying customers.

"We need to keep the Garden a place that's comfortable and safe for everybody who goes there," Dolan said. "So anybody who comes to the Garden — whether they've been drinking too much alcohol, they're looking for a fight, they're abusive, disrespectful to the staff and the fans — they're going to be ejected and they're going to be banned."

Several times over the course of the half-hour radio interview, Dolan described Oakley's behavior Wednesday night as abusive and disrespectful. Dolan also said that Oakley "may have a problem with alcohol" and that Oakley needed to seek help to control his anger. If Oakley were to address his behavioral issues, Dolan said, the Garden would most likely welcome him back.

Oakley, 53, has long been estranged from the Knicks and has had an adversarial relationship with Dolan. But he has insisted he was not acting inappropriately Wednesday night when he sat down not far from Dolan to watch the Knicks play the Los Angeles Clippers.

Some fans who were sitting near Oakley said they had not seen or heard him being belligerent. Other fans suggested he might have seemed somewhat combative. But after security guards approached him, a shoving match ensued, followed by the hard-to-believe sight of Oakley being grabbed and led away.

The episode led to an instant outpouring of support for Oakley, both from the team's many frustrated fans and from current and former NBA players, who have long admired the tough work ethic that Oakley displayed on the court.

Given all the negative fallout that has ensued, Dolan was asked in the interview whether the organization now felt embarrassed.

"Well, I certainly think Charles should be embarrassed," he said.

Oakley, who was reached by telephone after Dolan's radio interview concluded, said that he had not listened to the broadcast but had already heard about some of Dolan's comments.

"Nothing they're doing makes sense," Oakley said. "I mean, this man, something's wrong with him. He crossed a bridge the first night, and then he's been crossing another bridge every day since."

Oakley, who has acknowledged that he had a couple of drinks before he arrived at Wednesday's game, declined to address Dolan's allegation that he might have problems with alcohol. "I don't talk about that stuff," he said. "I have no comment on that. I don't have to defend myself on that. The people around me know if I have a drinking problem or not."

Asked if he planned to pursue legal action against Dolan or the organization, Oakley said: "We'll see what happens. I'll talk to my lawyers and my team."

In any case, neither Oakley nor the many people solidly in his corner are liable to take kindly to repeated suggestions by the Knicks — the first came in a statement Wednesday night — that Oakley needs some kind of "help" for his behavior.

Indeed, Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, was the latest to weigh in after Dolan's interview. "Painful to believe that my last image of Oak at MSG is him dragged out of the arena," Roberts wrote on Twitter. "Is that how we remember our Legends? #NoBan."

Dolan said he hoped that Oakley would not be barred forever. He said he would love to honor Oakley at midcourt along with several of his former teammates — again, provided that he seeks help.

"But his behavior, it just doesn't work with that," Dolan said. "Until he can address it and get it under control, then we probably won't be able to do it. But yes, I would love if that would happen."

Because these are the Knicks, with troublesome issues all over the place, Dolan was also asked to address the ongoing Twitter chatter from Phil Jackson, the team's president, who has seemed intent on forcing the team's current star, Carmelo Anthony, to accept a trade to another team.

Dolan has had a reputation for meddling with the Knicks, but he maintained in the interview that he would continue to stay out of Jackson's way despite the dismal results he has produced in his nearly three years as team president.

Jackson has a five-year contract, and Dolan said that "whether I like the results, I'm going to honor that agreement all the way to the end."

As for Oakley, Dolan said it was clear to him that Oakley came to Wednesday's game with an "agenda" to be disruptive. Oakley never should have been allowed to take his seat, Dolan said, which he cited as one of his reasons for firing Frank Benedetto, the Garden's senior vice president for security, on Friday morning.

"That was just a situation where the person didn't work out and this was probably the last straw," Dolan said.

Benedetto, who previously served with the U.S. Secret Service, could not be reached for comment.

Dolan recalled how, during the first quarter of Wednesday's game, a security guard had approached him to relate that he and his co-workers were having a problem with Oakley. Dolan said he asked if they could wait to deal with the problem between quarters to avoid a big scene on national television. The security guard agreed with him, Dolan said, but the situation escalated.

"And I said, 'You've got to do what you've got to do,'" Dolan said.

He added, "It wasn't until it was pointed out to me that he was behind us, I sort of opened my ear and started to hear, and what I heard was terrible."

"He has a problem," Dolan said. "People need to sort of understand that. He has a problem with anger."

At one point during the radio interview, Dolan was reminded that he does not give many interviews.

"No," he said, "this isn't my favorite thing." But nothing involving the Knicks these days would come under that heading.

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