NEW YORK — What did one cigarette-smoking, Knicks-clad twenty-something say to the other on a February evening in the blustery shadow of The World’s Most Famous Arena?
“Over the last 15 years, you know who’s the only team team with a worse winning percentage in the league than the Knicks? The Timberwolves.” They exchange nods, then drags. “How sad is that?”
It's thirty minutes to tip-off. The Knicks have not yet dropped their fourth straight game at the hands of the Nuggets, have yet to allow the best young European big man in the building to drop a career-high 40 points, and are on their way to to scoring nine straight fourth–quarter baskets and still somehow lose by eight. Something bigger is notably amiss.
"Dolan's an a--hole,” one elderly scalper in a black Knicks jacket says to the other, standing on the corner of 32nd and Seventh Avenue. "It's Charles F—ing Oakley!"
Despite couples taking selfies in front and parents ushering happy kids inside, all is not well at Madison Square Garden. Hours earlier, oft-maligned owner James Dolan publicly banished Oakley, the Knicks’ preeminent on-court bodyguard during the '90s. That was 20 years ago. Since then, the owner and player have long been at odds, with Oakley’s special brand of candor rankling Dolan’s soft feathers and the Knicks effectively wiping the former All-Star from the franchise’s lengthy history. The beloved bruiser, now 53 and gray, was made unwelcome at the Garden well before things escalated Wednesday night.
During that game, Oakley was removed from a seat he apparently purchased just rows behind Dolan on the baseline. He was arrested in the middle of the game and taken to jail, after some shoving and pushing with arena security. Both sides have doubled down on their versions of the story, the Knicks calling him belligerent and Oakley maintaining innocence. LeBron James, the NBPA and a host of star players have stood publicly behind Oakley. Dolan, in return, has run a smear campaign, insinuating in Friday’s radio interview that Oakley has issues with alcohol and “personality problems” while playing the victim. “We hope he gets help,’ the team’s initial statement read. The Knicks sent media members a release with 16 separate testimonies from arena staffers regarding to Oakley’s actions. The company line was clearly drawn.
The Knicks fired their chief of security after the incident, presumably for letting Oakley even get close to Dolan. “Man, I wasn’t even here that night,” offers one black-clad guard outside the arena. He chuckles and shakes his head. “I dunno what really happened. I don’t know. No comment.” He claims he’s not much of a Knicks fan to begin with. “I like football.”
Carmelo Anthony will tell reporters later Friday night that there’s a “black cloud” over the team. Oakley’s situation is the latest blemish in a weirder-than-usual season, even by New York standards. Remember Derrick Rose’s bizarre disappearance? It feels like a distant memory amid rumors of Phil Jackson passive-aggressively trying to force Anthony out over the past month. Tonight, Dolan’s feud with one of the fan base’s emotional avatars has shrouded all other narratives. While it’s too cold outside for an observer to determine if any layered-up Garden-goers are donning Oakley jerseys, it’s not hard to imagine a sea of Oak’s throwbacks defiantly filling up the place sooner than later.
“I think they did him wrong,” says another scalper, sixty-something, hawking tickets outside the mouth of Penn Station, just below Madison Square Garden’s central doors. He pauses to offer his two cents. “[Security] initiated first contact. He has the right to say what he has to say! Fans yell stuff at players all the time. I’d have done the same thing.”
The scene is more toned-down at Brother Jimmy’s, a faux-southern barbecue spot kitty corner from the arena on Eighth Avenue, where people finish pregame drinks and meander into the Mecca. Someone in an old J.R. Smith Nuggets jersey eats wings at the bar. Two guys let out a "Free Oakley" chant. One is a transplant from London. The other is a lifelong fan from the Upper East Side and self-proclaimed ‘Phil Believer,’ ready to dump Melo for Austin Rivers and a first-rounder and just move on.
“Dolan is the best owner in sports at making a worse situation even worse,” says Daniel Steinberg, 25. “There’s no need to go on the radio and bring it all up again. I think Charles Oakley is frustrated just like we all are. It’s unbelievable, it’s our 70th anniversary, you see players getting honored like Gerald Wilkins, lesser talents than Oakley, all because of Dolan’s ego. It’s a shame.”
Back at the main entrance, a few angry fans stand by a handful of bored-looking cops, making for a minor spectacle. TV cameras circle around 35-year-old Jared Handler, wearing a Rangers jersey and holding a sign hashtagged #OakWalkout on one side, with some Dolan-based profanity on the other. “I wanted to come out here a while ago, it just took this situation…” He stops for a quick photo op with an eager woman.
“So, I was disgusted with the franchise, as a diehard fan, seeing year after year of just losing,” he continues. “Seeing how Charles Oakley was treated, I couldn’t take it anymore. For the greater good, I think the only way to really send a message is if everybody could rise up and leave Dolan in his seat, walk out in the fourth so the league knows people care. And that that’s not the way you treat an ex-Knick that gave his heart and his soul, the love, the passion and the fire that’s just not there anymore.”
Another fan with a Knicks hoodie pulled over his bright red face pauses a pro-Oak chant to dish. The New Jersey native says he works in local media, so would rather not divulge his name. But more importantly, he has a conspiracy theory of sorts.
“The ban that they put on Oakley, the fact it wasn’t in effect before he was kicked out, then why was he kicked out in the first place? If he was going nuts like that, if he was doing anything wrong, people would have had their iPhones out, they would have been recording it. The first thing you see is him being surrounded by people and being accosted at MSG—which is his home, which he gave 10 years of his life for. It’s unbelievable, man.”
“I sort of bought tickets in protest,” he says. “I don’t want to go in here, but I’m going to. And that’s what the problem is: James Dolan will never leave, because we’ll always sell out.”
It is difficult to find a happy Knicks fan out here, not even with Kristaps Porzingis facing Nikola Jokic and the Hernangomez Bowl about to start. New York will fall apart in the third quarter and forget to defend in the fourth. Late-comers pile in as Free-Charles-Oak-ley and F— James Do-lan echo through the entryway. Seated atop taller shoulders, a small child claps along to a beat everyone can appreciate.