The most sickening part of Charles Oakley’s ejection from Madison Square Garden and subsequent arrest this week was the knowledge that any hint of contrition from James Dolan, let alone an apology, was an impossibility.
For years, Dolan has proven to be too powerful, too egotistical, too stubborn, too petty and too shameless to rise above ugliness, to extend an olive branch, or to consider how he or the Knicks organization reflect on the NBA, his ownership colleagues, and the players. As the entire episode played out from Oakley standing his ground, to being dragged out of the arena, to getting arrested on assault charges, there was never the slightest chance that Dolan would handle matters with discretion or respect.
Indeed, Dolan and the Knicks raced to shred Oakley’s reputation as quickly as possible, putting out a condescending statement that read, in part, “we hope he gets help.” In case anyone missed the reference, and no one with any sense did, Dolan told the YES Network during a Friday interview that Oakley, “may have a problem with alcohol, we don’t know.” Never mind that the beloved All-Star forward spent 10 seasons in New York and symbolizes the franchise’s most successful run since its 1970s heyday. Never mind that he was a celebrity, amidst rows of celebrities, attending a nationally-televised game. When asked to weigh Knicks history, public perception and basic decency against a personal feud, Dolan unsurprisingly chose to humiliate and demean Oakley before announcing that he was banning him the former power forward from Madison Square Garden, too.
As it turns out, Dolan’s only problem with the embarrassing scene was that MSG security had not been heavy-handed enough. As DNAInfo.com reported Friday, Dolan fired his chief of security, in part, because he believed Oakley, the third-leading rebounder in Knicks history, should never have been allowed to get to his seat in the first place.
Dolan’s decisions and statements are pathetic, abhorrent and evidence of poor leadership. They aren’t, however, surprising. Only a fool would still hope for Dolan to be better than this.
Adam Silver, on the other hand, is much better than this. On the commissioner’s watch, the NBA has reached labor peace with its players, booted out the disgraceful former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, disciplined Rajon Rondo for homophobic comments towards an official, and taken a strong stand for equality by relocating next week’s All-Star Game out of North Carolina due to the state’s “Bathroom Bill.”
But so far this week, the commissioner has fiddled while Manhattan has burned. Silver attended the Knicks/Clippers game on Wednesday, so he had a first-hand view on how Oakley was removed from the building and how the episode disrupted play. Theoretically, his attendance also gave him a jumpstart on handling the inevitable fallout. Who better embodies harmonic relations between the NBA executives and the league’s players than Silver? Shouldn't the league's chief executive, more than anyone else, want the focus to remain on the court—where Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin were going head-to-head—rather on the sidelines where security was hauling a former player out of The World’s Most Famous Arena?
Perhaps Silver had hoped to handle this behind closed doors, through quiet mediation. Unfortunately, the time for that already passed given Oakley’s many interviews and Dolan’s inflammatory comments. Silver simply can’t sit this one out. Not when LeBron James is backing Oakley “for president.” Not when NBPA president Chris Paul says he “[doesn’t] like the way [the Knicks] are trying to portray Oak.” Not when NBPA executive Director Michele Roberts says that it’s “painful to believe that my last image of Oak at MSG is him dragged out of the arena. Is this how we remember our Legends?” And not when Oakley's attorney is threatening legal action against Dolan for insinuating Oakley abuses alcohol.
Want to talk about a bad look? Earlier this week, the NBA issued a memo to its team warning against inappropriate Twitter posts that “can damage the reputation of the NBA.” On Friday, the league office suspended Suns center Alex Len and fined three players for their roles in a shoving match that was roughly 25% as rough as Oakley’s encounter with security. Right now, Silver and company look like cops handing out parking tickets and issuing warnings to jaywalkers as the bank gets robbed across the street.
Seriously, how many snarky Twitter accounts will it take to “damage the reputation of the NBA” to the same degree that Dolan has this week? How many NBA fans worldwide know who Troy Daniels and Tyler Ulis, much less care that they were jawing during garbage time of a blowout? Now, how many NBA fans worldwide watched replays of the Oakley incident and read Dolan’s below-the-belt assessments of Oakley’s lifestyle?
Back in 2012, former NBA commissioner David Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 when coach Gregg Popovich rested four players without warning during a nationally-televised game. Stern issued the sanctions to one of his league’s most successful organizations, and its best current coach, for taking a strategic approach to minutes that has since gained widespread acceptance as a best practice. Stern’s justification for the decision was that the Spurs “did a disservice” to the league’s fans and acted “contrary to the best interests of the NBA.”
Silver should apply that same standard to Dolan’s conduct as he weighs his next move. Dolan’s unnecessary treatment of Oakley, from the ejection to the public statements, serve no one but himself, and certainly not the league or its fans. And how can anyone believe that giving Tim Duncan the night off is “contrary to the best interests of the NBA” but a spectacle like what happened to Oakley isn’t?
The NBA has deservedly received plenty of praise in recent years for handling delicate situations well, encouraging its players to express their beliefs, and leading on issues of equality. This week the players—who have worked in recent years to improve health insurance benefits for former players—continued to hold up their end of the bargain by standing up for Oakley, pointing out the Knicks’ unacceptable statements in a respectful manner, and taking the court to do their jobs as professionals.
It’s time for Silver to do his. The NBA commissioner can’t wipe Joakim Noah’s contract off the books or undo the damage caused by Phil Jackson’s inept management, but he can act to bring Dolan into line with the league’s values and expectations.