For the briefest of moments, the banner—like the five decades prior—remains cloaked in black.
Beneath it, barely visible save for a spotlight's lone glow through the dark, stand 15 players clad in tracksuits of orange and blue, heraldry to the long-suffering New York Knicks.
The MC bellows in baritone, but nobody hears him. They’re watching the banner, watching as the ripcords pull back the black sheath to reveal the real reason for their being here, the numbers and letters behind the opening-night bash:
2020-21 WORLD CHAMPIONS.
Scores of roars—“juice,” they used to call it—shake the Mecca and the million memories within it. The fans cry. The players cry. The coach cries.
Three-and-a-half miles and dozens of blocks away, the soggy shards of ticker tape bind to curbs and cracks in the concrete. Canyon of Heroes, they still call it, four months after the "Madison Square Guardians" made the demons leave town.
Back at the Garden, the rings set to fingers, a final MC shoutout for the figure standing just off to the banner’s side, far enough to escape the spotlight. "The Giver," they call her, because that’s as close to the opposite of "The Owner" as it gets.
The Owner was James Dolan.
A slow and steady coup
Few executives in professional sports have been the subject of more railing ridicule than Dolan—Forbes staple, Cablevision heir, ironfisted owner of Madison Square Garden (MSG) and the New York Knicks.
Since 1999—five years after Paramount Communications sold MSG; the year James Dolan was given de facto control over the building and its tenants—the Knicks have posted six winning seasons, making it past the first round of the playoffs exactly once: last year, when New York was bounced in six games by the upstart Indiana Pacers.
For a team with two NBA Finals appearances and 10 consecutive winning seasons between 1991 and 2001, such a precipitous decline was hard to fathom.
How, exactly, could a franchise with that kind of historical clout and monetary means meet such a malicious fate?
The short answer: a unique brand of shortsighted cupidity, whereby avarice trumped talent, big names bested building from the bottom and the unwavering fealty of Knicks fans was routinely abused.
The long answer: Where to begin?
Frederic Weis. Allan Houston. Stephon Marbury. Steve Francis. Antonio McDyess. Michael Sweetney. Tracy McGrady. The reasons and the rationale may have varied, but the results have been invariably the same: poor foresight, poor judgment and a complete lack of a forward-thinking backup plan.
Even the team’s recent success—three consecutive winning seasons and playoff appearances to match—has felt more like an outlying respite than a glimpse of glory to come.
All the while, Dolan has exhibited a tyrant’s tendency to champion those who have failed him (Isiah Thomas) while shunning those who—despite death-defying acts of basketball heroics—dare cross his path (Jeremy Lin).
Even the most ardent Knicks loyalists would freely admit that Dolan—guitar-wielding guarantor—was and remains New York’s biggest impediment to a cultural about-face.
That Dolan has failed to parlay perennial riches into perennial success isn’t, in and of itself, the problem.
Avoiding the media for nearly a decade; purging management for mysterious reasons; bringing back building blocks of a shattered regime—these are the behaviors that lead fanbases astray and invite the kind of outside scorn that compels you to bunkers in the first place.
There’s just one small problem: When you’re making this kind of money in a city with this many people, how much incentive is there to go the extra intellectual mile for the sake of building a sustainable contender?
Not much at all.
For Knicks fans, what little hope remains is tied tautly to a single, age-old adage: Every man has his price.
Entitled and entrenched
According to a report published by Forbes in 2012, the family of Charles Dolan—James’ father—is worth an estimated $3.3 billion. Not a bad chunk of change, to say the least.
In Cabelvision and Madison Square Garden, James Dolan has built an almost perfect picture of vertical integration, an economic term used to describe an entity wherein one person controls each and every aspect of the underlying business.
The venue (MSG), the teams (both the Knicks and the New York Rangers), the media (MSG Networks), the ancillary entertainment (Radio City Music Hall and the Rockettes)—Dolan owns them all, thus boasting an expanse of control unprecedented in American professional sports.
To pry the whole kit and kaboodle from his lick-picking hands would require an offer not even James Dolan would dare refuse.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that that person—billions to his or her name and a business sense guided by a desire to recapture New York's humbled basketball moxie—really does exist. How would he or she right a ship so often given up for sunk?
Enter The Giver.
Power to the people
If there is one superlative Knicks fans take to heart over any other—accurate or not—it's this: They’re the smartest basketball fans anywhere.
They know Dolan is an idiot. They know the true path forward isn’t paved with stars paid beyond their merit. They know that the culture has to change before the real crème de la crème will come.
Sometimes, that means knowing when to cut your losses.
The Giver wouldn’t hand out draft picks like club promos, all for the privilege of overpaying unproven or overvalued talents.
The Giver wouldn’t forge arbitrary friendships with former greats, hand them the reins, fire them and still feign loyalty long after they’re gone.
The Giver doesn’t concede authority and influence to a talent agency or give them first dibs on who fills out the team or front-office roster.
Because The Giver deals in something that James Dolan never learned to practice: patience.
Patience means not signing Amar’e Stoudemire to a max contract just because you missed out on LeBron James.
Patience means not giving up the farm—and the future—for Carmelo Anthony when free agency is four months away.
Patience means not taking your rivals' gambits as a green light to give away three draft picks for a draft-day disappointment.
Patience means actually communicating with your first-round pick, not practicing psychological warfare.
Most of all, patience means respecting your fanbase enough to know that—for as desperate and jaded as they are—nothing would ring sweeter than something built to last.
The painful way forward
Sadly, it starts with Melo. For as gifted of a player as Anthony is, it’s become increasingly obvious that he—closing in fast on 30 and biting down in more minutes than should be feasible—could ever be the cornerstone of a championship team.
A second or third fiddle? Without a doubt—but only if Anthony is willing to take a pay cut and join a team either on the cusp or trafficking in a different desperation. (The Chicago Bulls? The Los Angeles Lakers? The Knicks, if LeBron James decides to join him?)
Once Melo walks—if he walks—the Knicks will have a few other financial hurdles to tackle: trying to unload Amar’e Stoudemire’s even more onerous contract and dealing Tyson Chandler to a team one frontcourt piece away from contention (the Oklahoma City Thunder, for example).
Should the 2014-15 season end with the Knicks in the lottery, they’ll at least have their draft pick. With it, New York can hopefully capitalize on a class which—while not of this coming summer’s stock—should produce its fair share of promising prospects.
When the Knicks find themselves sufficiently in the black come the summer of 2015, the approach should be the polar opposite of what it was in 2010: trying to land LeBron and, barring that, resigning themselves to reasonable contracts and another season whose hope hinges on Draft Day.
Before the Knicks know it, they could be looking at a situation not all that different from that of OKC's a few years ago: young, flexible and with a frenzied fanbase behind them.
Add that Giver to the glam, glitz and gilt bottom line of a team bankrolled in Manhattan, and you suddenly have all the makings of a franchise finally prepared to assume anew its loftiest tag: the Mecca of Basketball.
Maybe then the Garden's duo of dusty banners will finally find its third.