NBA Q&A: Knicks Owner James Dolan

Posted by Unknown on Friday, November 22, 2013 with No comments
Courtesy of Mike Vaccaro

Mike Vaccaro: We’re inside Madison Square Garden, a place everyone knows you’re personally invested in, not only emotionally but also for $1 billion. With the political movement to relocate it, will we still be sitting here in 10 years?
James Dolan: Yes, I think we’ll be here. I think this building now — I’m obviously prejudiced — but I’ve heard from other people who would know that this is the best [arena] in the world. I’ve been traveling with the Eagles, I’ve seen 25 buildings the last four months, and nothing comes close to this. Some of them are very nice but this is in a whole other category. Putting history aside, just structurally, every seat in the building now, what the experience means. Even the seats way up there (points to upper rows) have a nice, clear view to the stage, have their own screen, it’s a pleasant experience, walk out of your seats into the upper concourse. You remember what it used to be like up there?
MV: Yes …
JD: Now it’s inviting. I do think it’s the best building in the world in the greatest city in the world. And why would you take that apart? We have to work it out.
MV: So you think the political climate will be such in 10 years that it will be worked out?
JD: It’s a long time and we’ll be paying, of course, close attention to it. Moving this place would be like moving the Empire State Building.
MV: I’m sure you heard the chants that have already started to fire Mike Woodson, which comes with the territory, naturally …
JD: Yeah …
MV: How patient will you be with him? He understood when he took the job the expectations that go with it. Will you give him a long rope?
JD: I have a lot of confidence in Woodson, and one thing I can say about Mike is he has the respect of all the players. They all respect him. And he treats them fairly and relatively equally, and that’s part of where the respect emanates from. And those are hard things to get from a coach. When a coach loses a team … that’s when a coach is kind of done.
MV: You’ve shown tolerance as an owner; [GM] Glen Sather had a lot of empty years with the Rangers before he showed success. Do you feel you’re more patient than an average owner?
JD: I really don’t compare myself with other owners. I’ll bet you I’m more patient than Mikhail [Prokhorov] is of his team. Mostly, I think it does not pay to be impatient, because you destabilize your team. It’s not like the players don’t want to win, it’s not like the owner doesn’t want to win; everybody wants to win, so it’s a question of: Can you get there? With Mike, I think he can get us there. Mostly, I think Carmelo [Anthony] can get us there, and the other players can get us there, they’re going to have to jell and I think Mike can do a lot to get that to happen. Because he has their respect.
MV: The Knicks started 18-5 last year and it didn’t end the way you wanted it to; at this point I assume you’d flip that script?
JD: You know what? I wouldn’t take last year’s team for this year’s team, because this year’s team is more designed to be a playoff team, whereas last year’s team was 18-5 but look who was playing: we had Rasheed Wallace who was doing everything for us, right? And we just started losing player after player … by the time we got to the playoffs that 18-5 team wasn’t the team that was playing in the playoffs. If they were I think we would’ve beaten Indiana.
MV: So this bad start …
JD: It’s going right according to plan (laughs) …
MV: A few days before training camp you changed general managers; why do that so close to the start of camp? Did something change from the start of summer to the end?
JD: I didn’t time it, per se, like that. I’m surprised other folks were surprised about this. The general manager’s work doesn’t really occur at that time of year. If you’re going to change general managers that’s probably the right time to do it. The next available trade date is Dec. 15. You’ve just finished free agency and all that. It’s a lull period. The timing didn’t really have much to do with that. It was more about an initiative I have going on with both teams that I hired McKinsey & Company [a Manhattan-based global management consulting firm] for, because as I’ve gotten to look at both our organizations, it’s become apparent that we really need to reprocess both teams. We were using a lot of — not old, but “classic” methods and now with technology, and what’s available to a team to help improve, I didn’t think we were taking advantage of those things.
MV: So in evaluating these business solutions you came to the conclusion Glen Grunwald was lacking and Steve Mills a better fit?
JD: I hired McKinsey in the summer, and Glen is more of a “classic” GM, and he just wasn’t the guy to lead this initiative for the team, and it had to be someone in that position who could do it because I wasn’t going to do it. It needed someone behind it, someone who understood it, and that just wasn’t Glen’s forte. I think he was a good general manager, he’s got a great eye for talent, he knows basketball well, but the job description changed.
MV: I assume you don’t read everything written about you, hear everything said about you, don’t spend time on message boards …
JD: To be honest with you, Mike, I barely read the paper. There’s just too much written … unless Barry [Watkins, MSG’s executive VP for communications and administration] says, ‘Here, read this …’ (laughs) If it’s on the back page, I obviously see it. And the thing is, whether it’s positive or whether it’s negative, it’s rarely insightful to me. My job is to know more than the writers.
MV: And you have sit-downs like this so infrequently …
JD: When it comes to criticism I always think, OK, let’s look back at which New York sports owner was loved by the fans when they owned the team? Do you know any?
MV: Well, people speak reverentially about George Steinbrenner …
JD: But not when he was there … (laughs)
MV: Not until the end …
JD: There you go.
MV: That said, fans have a visceral relationship with their teams, and a lot of the vitriol is aimed at the owner.
JD: Look, it’s all about wins and losses to the fans. They want to believe in their team. They want to believe their team has a shot at the championship. I think you, for example, understand the fan’s perspective, why a fan is a fan. They’re very emotionally involved. And when things aren’t going well they want to understand what went wrong and, inevitably, who’s to blame?
MV: The guy who writes the checks.
JD: Right. And in the end it’s all my responsibility. And when they see a player not playing well they wonder, “Why did we draft him?” or “Why did we trade for him?” and “What was the thinking?” and “Well that was pretty dumb.” And eventually it gets to the point of, well, this isn’t going to change unless somebody changes it and that’s when they look to the owner. Sometimes that isn’t emotionally satisfying for the fans and you get what you get.
MV: Do you think you’re a good owner?
JD: Yeah. I do.
MV: Why?
JD: I think I watch out for my fans. I try to give them a good product. I care for the teams. I’m emotionally involved and intellectually involved. I think an owner needs to be present. When an owner is not present that’s when things tend to go awry. The players, the coaches, the fans know there’s somebody in charge. They may not like what I’m doing but it’s much better than having nobody there. Nobody there just leaves you in despair.
MV: Are you a good boss?
JD: The teams aren’t much different than a lot of the other things I manage. If you’re the kind of person who likes your job, wants to continue to be better at it, wants resources, wants to continue to put out a better and better product, push the envelope, you’re going to like working for me. If you’re someone who says, well, I’ve accomplished what I’m going to accomplish, I want to sit here and do that, you’re probably not going to be as happy with me.
MV: For Knicks fans there’s one word that riles their passion more than any other: Isiah.
JD: Amazing, isn’t it?
MV: And you surely know the panic that ensues when a Glen Grunwald gets fired and people wonder, “Is Isiah coming back?”
JD: I can’t control what’s in other people’s minds. I can tell you that he’s a friend of mine. We speak, but not as often as we used to because he’s really involved in other things now. We’ll message back and forth once in a while. We used to talk a lot more often. He seems to be moving into another phase of his life, he’s not as basketball-centric, he’s doing a lot of charity work, he got his masters [in education, from Cal-Berkeley], he actually uses me to bounce business ideas off of …
MV: Do you still consult him, too, about basketball ideas?
JD: Not really. For Isiah, I don’t know that he’ll ever be able to work in New York. I just don’t know that he’ll ever get a fair shake, going forward in New York?
MV: Do you think that’s unfair? He did lose a lot of games here.
JD: He lost a lot of games! OK. Do I think he deserves another shot? Yeah. It just can’t be here. And I think he’s talented. I think he’s particularly talented at finding basketball talent. But I think he’s probably dismayed at this point. But I don’t see him coming back to New York. I couldn’t do that to him, and I couldn’t do that to the organization. He would probably do it as my friend but I couldn’t do it to him or his family. And you know what the press would do here. We’re interested in getting better and that situation would be such a distraction that it would actually hinder our ability to get better.
MV: If you could take a mulligan on the $100 million Amar’e contract …
JD: Nope.
MV: Because the first year was that important?
JD: We would not be where we are today without Amar’e. That summer, the summer of “The Decision,” there were a whole bunch of free agents, and the guys put their thing together in Miami, and Amar’e agreed to come to the Knicks, gave us a launch pad by which we could convince the other guys like Tyson [Chandler] to come, and ultimately Carmelo to come play with us. Do I think Carmelo would have come if we didn’t have Amar’e? No, I don’t think he would’ve. These free agents, when you get to this level of player — the Carmelos, the LeBrons, the Durants — the first thing they want before the money or anything else is to be on a winning team. They’ve got to believe they have a shot.
MV: So does it sadden you to watch him in a diminished state?
JD: I still have hope. You cannot ask for a guy to be more dedicated, more disciplined, than Amar’e. He does his rehab, he does his workouts, he does everything, he’s on it every day, and that’s worth a lot, too. If there’s justice in this world, his knee will heal up to the point where he can play more minutes and make the contribution he wants to make.
MV: A perfect irony — the Knicks’ last truly great moment came at the L.A. Forum when Bradley jumped into Reed’s arms and they beat the Lakers for the ’73 title. And now you own that building.
JD: I’m having a good time with it. It’s a significant move for the company; other than splitting off Cablevision and the transformation of the Garden, the most significant move we’ve made in 10 years, the company’s expanding to the west coast, focusing on growth, especially in the music and entertainment area.
MV: How important is music to you? Obviously you have the band [J.D. and the Straight Shot], you’ve been trailing the Eagles, you’ve opened for them. How much of that defines you?
JD: You are not what you own. Music is a big piece of who I am. I don’t own music. I create music, and I play it, but I do not own it. So if you want to get to know me, you’ll see music as a big piece of who I am.
MV: The Eagles come to you and say, “Come on up and play one song with us.” Which song do you pick?
JD: Whoa … I love so many Eagles songs …
MV: That’s the curveball question.
JD: They start off their show with a song called “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night” … maybe because I haven’t heard it as much as others but I love that song. And it’s just Glenn [Frey] and Don [Henley] sitting on amplifiers, playing guitars and to me that’s how I grew up playing music.
MV: You own the Garden now. But you were like a lot of kids who grew up around here and took the train to the Garden …
JD: The Old Garden, too.
MV: What does the building mean to you?
JD: I’m really proud of it right now. The money we put into it, this is a building that deserves this kind of investment and it’s a town that can appreciate it and actually expects it. People here have a high bar. And this place raises that bar.
MV: It does seem the Garden, as long as it has existed, has assumed a certain amount of responsibility for reaction.
JD: You have to do things here which sometimes, financially, don’t make sense, in order to honor what the place is. Things like 12/12/12, even to the point you’re bringing in an act that you have to stretch in order to get them here. You need to do all that to keep this place as iconic as it is now. So there’ll be more pictures on the wall. Hopefully we’ll have some of basketball and hockey teams, too. We’re doing our best to do that.
MV: Concerts are easier to guarantee than basketball games.
JD: Which brings me to a point (laughs) …
At this point, Dolan plays a snippet from his iPod of the recent concert at The Cutting Room in NYC. About to play a song called “White Bird” by It’s A Beautiful Day. Dolan, on the tape, says, “Welcome everybody from the Rangers game and thank you for bringing me a win. (applause) It’s too bad you didn’t come to the basketball game. (groans) Actually next game — we will win the next game, it’s guaranteed.”
That’s it. How that turned into what showed up in the papers the next day …
MV: Let’s talk about the Rangers a little bit. Is there a line of succession in place when Sather retires? Will he choose his replacement?
JD: Ultimately it’s got to be my call but I have a tremendous amount of respect for Glen and still feel very lucky to have him. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience and I don’t know if there’s anyone else in the NHL that’s better than him, but he’s got to be close to the top. His understanding of the game, his understanding of what makes a great player, and also he’s pulled off some trades I looked at him and said, “How did you do that?” As long as he’d like to stay I’d like to have him.
MV: A few years ago you took the mic at a postgame press conference and proclaimed the Rangers were on the right track for the Cup. Do you still feel that way?
JD: Yeah, I do. This is going to be an interesting year because we have a new coach and a new system. I’m heartened by what I’ve seen, it looks like the team is picking up on the coach’s strategy looks like they’re starting to jell, [Rick] Nash is coming back [Tuesday], we’ll see how that impacts the team. I like what I see. So much of hockey is playoffs, just like basketball, we’ve made the playoffs a bunch of times now but we haven’t … the closest we came was conference finals.
MV: While you’ve owned the Knicks and Rangers, the Yankees, Giants and Devils have all won championships, the Mets have been to the World Series. What do you feel when you see other teams’ successes?
JD: I don’t pay a lot of attention to the other sports. I’ve been here 15 years. So much of it is, it’s rare in a season when you see a team go through a season and dominate and go all the way through to the end. You want to be in those final four teams and then be hot, lucky, healthy … so the goal is to get there and then get the rest of the way.
MV: It seemed as if John Tortorella was on the brink of perfect New York stardom — no matter what, you had an opinion on him, good or bad. Are you sorry that didn’t work out?
JD: I miss John Tortorella. I’d visit Torts before a game and we would trade barbs for 10 minutes, he’d tell me about his [lousy] cable TV service and I’d be sitting there saying, “You can’t clear the puck out of your zone, what the hell’s wrong with you?” and he’d strike back and then play the game and I miss that. I’m developing a relationship with Alain [Vigneault] and he’s also a good guy, but Torts and I had a special relationship. It was fun for me. He banned me from the locker room for a while, all in fun. I miss that.
MV: What are your impressions of Mikhail Prokhorov?
JD: I don’t get to see him much but he clearly wants to win, which is a good thing. He’s the only guy paying more taxes than we are which is a club I wouldn’t necessarily want to be part of with him (laughs). I think he wants to win, I know he wants to win, he wouldn’t be putting the resources in that he is otherwise. But, I mean, he’s still my competitor. As a person I kind of know him, I’ve had lunch with him but other than that I don’t really know him well.
MV: One thing you share is that you’ve both expressed belief your teams can win a title this year. Do you really believe the Knicks can or was that just a usual declaration of high expectations?
JD: I think this team can win a championship.
MV: As presently constituted?
JD: I think there are a lot of teams that could win the championship this year. I think the Clippers can win. Are they going to? I hope not. I hope we win the championship. I think we have the pieces in place to do it. The skill level is there but there’s so much more to the game than that, and it’s really in the hands of the players. They have to believe in themselves, they have to put in the work, the effort, the discipline, they have to listen to the coach, they have to execute a strategy and put an effort in every game. And they have to get themselves to be the best team they can be at the end of March. It’s OK right now not to be the best team you can be. Last year by the end of the year we were struggling. I’d rather see it go the other way. I’m not happy, believe me, about the record where it is now. But the warts that are showing up now are things you can work on, things you can fix. Now you test the character of your team to see if it’s willing or able to do that, if the coach is able to do that, to make those fixes. Can they win the championship? Yes. They definitely can win the championship. There have been other championship teams that weren’t nearly as talented as this one. But they had something that this team needs to develop.
MV: There seems to be some question about the future of the Knicks City Dancers …
JD: Now you know why my band doesn’t play Madison Square Garden (laughs).
MV: How do you describe their status?
JD: When finishing the transformation we talked about all the other things we could do to make this season great for New York. We looked at our in-game experience for basketball and said “It’s tired.” So we went to a whole revamp and part was the Knicks City Dancers. We’ve actually invested more money into them, they’re working on new routines, they’ll be doing a lot more things that relate to Broadway and, hopefully, relate to New York, but it won’t be the old cheerleader squad. Honestly, we watched it the last couple of seasons, the women would go out there and they would perform and they wouldn’t even get applause. It just wasn’t engaging of the fan base. They will now be engaging. And they’re all talented enough to do this so it’s not a stretch for them. They’re not appearing as much right now but as they continue to work on their routines and their choreography you’ll see more and more of them. We try to get them in every home game but they’re going to miss some. But the in-game experience is what we’re looking at.