Here’s a good joke:
How do you take a professional sports franchise boasting one of the most loyal, intelligent, financially well-off fan bases anywhere, one situated in the world’s largest media market—the spiritual home of the sport itself—and completely destroy it?
Sell it to James Dolan.
You're right, it's not that funny.
Since assuming full control of the New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden in 1999, Dolan has presided over one of the most dysfunctional epochs in modern sports history, a circus of cynicism and malignant management almost impossible to fathom.
Sure, there were a few nice interludes: the team’s unlikely run to the NBA Finals as the Eastern Conference’s lowest seed in 1999, a 54-win campaign capped off with a first-round win over the Boston Celtics a season ago.
And that should just about do it.
No, the team's recent win streak doesn't change this.
All the while, fans are compelled to cast their gaze back upon the the title-winning teams of 1970 and 1973, an era whose heroes are imbued with the kind of mythic poeticism and rueful reverence typically reserved for deities.
Tomorrow we’ll be diving into the finer financial points of some of Dolan’s more egregious personnel decisions (spoiler: Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and Jerome James are all involved).
For now, we’ll be taking stock of one question in particular: Are Dolan’s Knicks the most inept franchise in American sports?
From Scott Layden to Amar'e Stoudemire, Frederic Weis to Stevie Franchise and about a million moves in-between, the Knickerbocker track record is a tough one to fathom, let alone challenge. But they have had some rather stiff competition.
The Detroit Lions
Like the Knicks, the Lions can trace roots back to their sport’s halcyon days.
Like the Knicks, the Lions and their long-suffering loyalists have had to endure endless episodes of flagrant mismanagement by regaling themselves with tales of championships now decades in the rear-view mirror.
Like their New York brethren, Detroit fans have been forced to weather a lion’s share of callous coaching and dreadful draft picks, all at the behest of a tone-deaf ownership more concerned with sizzle and splash than substance.
Since the 2008 season—the year the team set the modern standard for football futility by going 0-16—the Lions have managed to scratch and claw their way back to national relevance.
But even with a talented core built around the rifle arm of Matthew Stafford and the otherworldly wizardry of Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, the Lions’ propensity for gridiron guffaws always seems to surface at the most inopportune times.
Now, with yet another coach slated to take the reins (h/t to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun), the Lions are making good on a mantra more than familiar to denizens of Knick Knation: one step forward, two steps backward and down.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Another franchise steeped in sports lore; another history checkered with heartbreaking losses and lost decades.
Noticing a trend?
In terms of the Knicks’ now-legendary championship drought, the Maple Leafs provide perhaps the most temporally familiar timeline.
After capturing a handful of Stanley Cups during the early-to-mid 1960s—their last came in 1967—the Leafs have spent the interceding forty-plus years mired in hockey purgatory.
All the while, the team has watched as its Original Six counterparts—the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and even James Dolan’s New York Rangers—managed to raise Lord Stanley’s regalia.
In the process, the team earned itself one of professional sports’ saddest, and most appropriate, nicknames: the Maple Laughs.
Still, the team has at least managed to make itself part of the postseason conversation of late, having appeared in three conference finals and making the postseason 11 times since 1993.
Which naturally invites the question: Is it worse to instill hope of perennial playoff success only to fall short season after season? Or, like the Knicks, botch things so badly that springtime thoughts turn only to next year's redemption?
The Chicago Cubs
When talking franchise futility, “long-suffering” and “dysfunctional” aren’t necessarily the same thing, but in the case of the Chicago Cubs—now 105 years and counting since their last World Series title—the two have been virtually interchangeable.
If ever there was a team for which “cursed” can be used without flirting with hyperbole, it’s these lovable losers of Major League Baseball.
As with the Knicks, the Cubs boast both a loyal, hyper-engaged fan base and one of their sport’s most iconic venues. Every summer, the seats and ivy-fronted stands of Chicago’s Wrigley Field are packed to the brim with a baseball-loving brethren equal part frenzied and forlorn.
And every summer, the play on the field falls far short of heart-borne hopes, even as an ever-changing management squanders the sporting equivalent of legacy money on overpriced talent and overhyped names.
For two cities that share such a long-standing sports animosity, Chicago and New York can both take solace in housing teams that seem to find new and creative ways of parlaying storied pasts and blind goodwill into mendacity, mediocrity and a brand of melancholy wholly its own.
Seriously, have you ever seen such a sad mascot?
The Dallas Cowboys
So far, we’ve focused our attention on teams whose dysfunction is in many ways shaped by sheer history: the longer you’ve been around, the more opportunities you have to royally screw things up. And the aforementioned franchises have most certainly done that.
Sometimes, however, a team’s failures can be so spectacular that, even given stretches of impressive success, the dumbness and the discord dominate the narrative.
That, in a nutshell, is the Dallas Cowboys.
You wouldn’t expect a team that’s won five Super Bowls in a little over 40 years to appear on this kind of list. But Dallas’ recent woes help paint a useful picture of sports dysfunction at its most gaudy and gilded.
After assuming control of the team in 1989, Jerry Jones wasted little time in letting everyone know that the Cowboys were no longer America’s Team—they were his team.
Trading Herschel Walker? Unthinkable!
Firing Tom Landry? Better hope your house is mob-proof.
Hiring Jimmy Johnson? While you’re at it, why don’t you just start Tony Montana at quarterback?
But then a funny thing happened: Jones’ bat-guano gambles actually paid off. The Cowboys won three Vince Lombardi trophies over the next eight seasons.
By the end of the '90s, Jones had overseen one of the great NFL dynasties. And with a bottomless bankroll and the sport’s biggest fan base behind him, Dallas’s unprecedentedly hands-on conductor seemed certain to steer the gravy train forever onward and upward.
Which is the most dysfunctional pro sports franchise?
Eighteen years, a $1 billion vanity venue and zero Super Bowls later, the Cowboys have become the pariahs of the NFL, a cautionary tale of what happens when arrogance and avarice trump patience and prudence in the decision-making process.
The New York Knicks haven’t known high-priced failure at the level of the Cowboys. They haven’t been title-starved as long as the Lions, Leafs or Cubs.
The Knicks have never finished with the worst record in NBA history, gone 27 consecutive postseason appearances without making it to the finals, lost seven straight playoff games or hired Matt Millen.
But even if the Knicks’ answers to these sad superlatives don’t always stack up one-to-one, the breadth and scope of their failures—particularly in the James Dolan era—put them right at the top of the professional sports dysfunction scale.
Because if your team has made “truck sex scandal” part of the lowbrow lexicon; if your team’s flippant financial decisions give new meaning to the term “tone-deaf”; if your team forsakes season-saving manna and jettisons legends like trash bags from the nacho stand; if your team’s owner puts more thought and effort into a musical vanity project than the product on the court?
At that point, the joke's on you.