James L. Dolan, a Consummate 1 Percenter
FEB. 14, 2015
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver paused in preparations for the corporate branding orgy that is his league’s All-Star Game and tossed a spray of a bouquet at James L. Dolan, the owner of the Knicks.
“Jim is a consummate New Yorker,” Silver told The New York Post last week. “Jim got an unkind email and responded with an unkind email.”
I confess the lesser spirits of my nature collectively gagged. The back story? A loyal Knicks fan of six decades’ vintage sent Dolan a distinctly annoyed but nonvulgar email. Dolan responded with a demeaning screed.
“I am just guessing but I’ll bet your life is a mess and you are a hateful mess,” Dolan wrote to 72-year-old Irving Bierman. “In fact I’ll bet you are negative force in everyone who comes in contact with you. You most likely have made your family miserable. Alcoholic maybe.”
A billionaire owner responds to a customer with a grenade launcher? My bile rose until my better spirits tiptoed in and whispered: The commissioner is correct. Dolan is a consummate New Yorker, of the 1 percent variety.
Dolan breaks federal labor laws and fires union leaders with impunity; he mints money from a public cable monopoly; and he gets a property tax exemption worth $54 million this year for Madison Square Garden, a for-profit enterprise.
How cool is that?
His Knicks team, dollar for dollar, has been the worst team in the league for 14 years now, playing a grand total of four playoff rounds. The Knicks accumulated losing records in 11 of those years; this year’s team counts as the Hope Diamond in his loser’s tiara.
Dolan has hired and fired with abandon. Such behavior raised his carrying costs. He had to pay out $10 million per to pick up Phil Jackson, for whom in truth I hold some hope.
The N.B.A. rewarded Dolan with the All-Star Game, to be played at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night. (The N.B.A. handed the slam-dunk and assorted other contests to Barclays Center, that Taj Mahal that sits on land sown with publicly financed giveaways. The Nets’ owner, the Russian oligarch Mikhail D. Prokhorov, has chosen to remain offshore, perhaps because he wants to flip the Brooklyn team for a grotesque profit.)
My colleagues Louise Story and Stephanie Saul devoted the last week to writing of these wealthy sorts. They focused on the 1 percent housing project that is the Time Warner towers, where near every other floor appears to harbor a tenant working a hustle, often involving draining public treasuries in distant lands.
No one suffers consequences. I digress, but not too much.
The Communications Workers of America organized Dolan’s Cablevision workers. The workers voted to join a union, which is a fundamental American right.
Except not really. Dolan hangs out baseline at the Garden and slaps palms with his wealthy unionized athletes. In the low-rent precincts of his empire, where broad-shouldered men and women climb poles and crawl through basements, he prefers nonunionized sorts.
His officials labored to break the union.
Last year, a judge with the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Cablevision officials had threatened to reduce workers’ benefits and deny training if they unionized. The company unlawfully fired 22 technicians in Brooklyn who supported the union.
This struggle appears to have a happy ending. On Friday, the union announced, after more than three years, it had reached a tentative contract settlement with Cablevision. The fate of a union leader, fired for challenging management, remains uncertain.
The union declined to comment.
Let’s jog closer to Madison Square Garden. Some years ago, Dolan hired Anucha Browne Sanders to serve as a senior marketing executive. She earned big bonuses and raises. All seemed well, except not really.
She said Isiah Thomas, the former Knicks coach and executive, repeatedly called her a whore and used a misogynistic slur. Stephon Marbury, the point guard, also used the slur against her and had sex with one of Browne Sanders’s M.S.G. interns in the back of his van. The intern, Browne Sanders testified, had previously spoken of abusive behavior by Marbury’s cousin, who was employed at the Garden. As people do when they are cornered and demeaned, she sued. Dolan in 2007 testified on tape and in person. He might have possessed two left feet, so freely did he step on himself.
He sounded disbelieving when asked about the use of misogynistic slurs. "It’s not appropriate. It’s also not appropriate to murder anyone," Dolan said. "I don’t know if that’s happened here."
He fired her after she had complained of harassment, allegedly for pressuring employees to back up her story.
Did he talk to a lawyer? He gave a pained look.
“All decisions at the Garden I make on my own,” he said.
The jurors awarded $11.6 million to the defendant. They ruled that Dolan personally had to pay $3 million.
Credit goes to the N.B.A. Dolan was readying a protracted appeal. The former commissioner David Stern made clear his distaste for the frat house on 33rd Street and forced a settlement.
Dolan remained a no-apologies guy. The trial outcome was a travesty of judgment, his press office said.
I don’t want to fall down the same rabbit hole as Dolan did with Bierman, and come to uncharitable conclusions. I’d imagine Dolan is kind to puppies and little children, and he may sound righteous singing in the shower.
Dolan is a recovered alcoholic, and that is truly admirable.
On Friday, I called Bierman. Like most of us New York sorts, he has rooted for the Knicks with a vaguely insane passion. Talk about Willis Reed hobbling out onto the floor in 1970 against the Lakers, and you hear pins and needles in his voice.
“Then Clyde took over and said, ‘O.K., guys, it’s my game.’ ” Bierman is no fair-weather sort. But the last 15 years? Oy gevalt. “I’ve watched an awful lot of bad basketball,” he said. “You start to feel like a schnook.”
He found Dolan’s email and typed an intemperate email. You’ve “done a lot of utterly STUPID business things with the franchise,” he wrote. “Please NO MORE.”
Dolan wrote back, calling him a “hateful mess.” “Start rooting for the Nets,” Dolan wrote, “because the Knicks don’t want you.”
It’s worth noting, and I type out of personal experience, that a lot of us say stupid things. Did Dolan have second thoughts?
“I got sent a bad, hateful email,” the billionaire told the press Friday. “I responded, sort of tit for tat.”
I asked Bierman: Could you root for the Nets?
“Under no circumstances, ever,” he replied. “I don’t care who owns my Knickerbockers. I would adore the time when Dolan sells, but that’s up to him.”
Dolan, I imagine, will sit courtside Sunday at the All-Star Game.
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