Every New York sports organization is grandiose and deluded in its own way. The New York Yankees use plummy, pomping French horn music in television advertisements for season ticket packages; the tootling Fake Brahms perfectly sums up the Yankees’ ownership’s steakhouse-brained conception of class and excellence. The Brooklyn Nets busted out half a neighborhood when they moved to Brooklyn eight years ago and have cringily pitched themselves as the sixth element of hip-hop ever since. The Mets, poignantly, pretended to be a normal baseball team for a while, and the Giants and Jets respectively puff themselves up as proud traditionalists and brash outlaws when both actually function more like confusingly run and floridly unhygienic family-owned Subway franchises. All of them are embarrassing and unlovable in their own ways, but none of them are the Knicks. Nothing is quite like the Knicks.
This city alone offers all these different flavors of organizational delusion, and every league is rife with serially incompetent organizations and capricious and inept owners and proudly backwards institutional culture, but the Knicks are different mostly because there’s no subtext or even really any kind of pretense. Every bad sports organization can be spun up into a metaphor for the ways in which our society and culture are broken with relative ease, generally because there’s always some unaccountable rich person either stealing, scheming, napping, or screaming profanities indiscriminately where the leadership/stewardship part of the organization is supposed to be.
The Knicks dispense with the metaphor part. They are exactly what they appear to be, which is a valuable toy that a glowering and deeply unhappy child insists on breaking in public every single day. They’re not the avatar of Classically New York Toughness And Also Coolness that they aim to be, but what’s striking is that they’re also not a symbol for what it’s like to be abandoned or swindled or degraded or quantified-into-abstraction by power. They are just the basketball team owned by James Dolan, a sloppy and vindictive billionaire heir who is either deep in a bizarre second childhood or still struggling through his first one. He is a tragicomically vain and paranoid and exceedingly spiteful guy who never faces any real consequence for any of his many failures, and who never has anything better to do than chase whatever idiotic beef is troubling him at the moment. Again, metaphors fail—that all kind of sounds like Donald Trump, but only because Trump is a much more ambitious and overstated example of this very familiar and common type of lousy person. James Dolan is finally just James Dolan.
None of this is great, but there are times when it can be clarifying. Not the Dolan-related parts, really, because there is nothing to know about James Dolan that is not already known. That overtness, or that and his billions of dollars, is Dolan’s true superpower. Everything Dolan does only ever looks like exactly what it is; he always does those things for precisely the smallest and most obvious reason available. When Dolan decided to make a splash as a fundraiser in the House race in New York’s 11th Congressional District, it was not because he’s a Republican who supports Republican candidates—delightfully, his contributions are in the FEC’s database under MR. JAMES J. DOLAN—but because he’s James Dolan. Which is to say that he’s a man who was upset when Rep. Max Rose, the belligerently moderate Democrat who currently occupies the seat in the 11th, told a TMZ camera that he wants Dolan to sell the Knicks because he “drives the team into the ground, man.” (Before we go any further: yes the 11th District includes Staten Island.)
In a typically overt Dolan flourish, we know that Dolan was moved to donate money and ask his wealthy peers to donate money to Rose’s opponent because he said so in an email to those friends, one of whom forwarded that email to the New York Post. In the broad strokes, it is a remarkable achievement that anything that began with a Member of Congress complaining about the Knicks to a TMZ camera somehow became decidedly less dignified from there. But in its Dolan-y particulars, this story is even more perfect. Look at this shit:
“Max Rose thinks he can make our team and my ownership his political platform,” Dolan wrote in a personal email to friends last week that was obtained by The Post. “I need to let him know that we will not stand for this. The best way to do this is to help his opponent. He is in a tight race for the US Congress in Staten Island. … Please join me in helping Nicole defeat Max Rose for Congress.
“It will help send a strong message to all NY politicians that the Knicks will not be their political ticket to reelection. The most you can donate is $2,800,” Dolan added. “I cannot do this alone due to the limit on campaign contributions.”
The former New York congressman John Faso, who lost his seat in New York’s 19th Congressional District to Antonio Delgado in 2018, oversees a Republican PAC that received a $50,000 donation from Dolan after his blowup at Rep. Rose. Even here, the beneficiaries of Dolan’s bottomless wealth and bottomless spite seemed impressed by how stupid this all was. “Faso said Dolan got pissed off at Max Rose because he said something about the Knicks being a shitty team,” the Post reports “a source close to Faso” as saying. “And then Dolan turned around and wrote a $50,000 check to his PAC.”
As always with Dolan, this is an outlier mostly in how much clearer it is than the usual. Dolan is not supporting conservatives out of some deeply held principle or ideology. He’s not even doing it because he wants a tax cut or some reduced regulatory burden. He’s doing it because the Republicans have remade their broader political appeal as one endless blaring brown note of Trumpian grievance and spite, and because Dolan himself is an aggrieved and spiteful guy. “It’s not like we’re unaware that fans are unhappy with the Knicks performance,” Dolan told the Post, before complaining that Madison Square Garden has lost a ton of money due to the city’s COVID-19 lockdown. Dolan just found it “disrespectful” that Rose would mention the Knicks in the first place, he explained, before laying out his justification for getting more involved in politics.
“I think we’re going to start taking more aggressive positions, particularly in New York politics,” he said. “New York is really a one party city, particularly the city, I don’t think that’s healthy democracy. I think that you will see us be very pro-two party democracy and do more to help balance the scales.”
In a sense, Dolan is doing more in that declaration of being “very pro-two party democracy” than usual, and more than is strictly necessary. It is never anything but clear what he’s about, and why he does what he does. He is bullshitting there, of course, which he doesn’t ordinarily even bother doing. But this is the magic of the man, it’s the Dolan difference—even when he lies in the same ways that other members of his rancid peer group do, he somehow can’t help but tell the truth about himself.