When the Going Gets Tough, New York Knicks Owner James Dolan...Plays a Gig?

Leo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorJune 23, 2017

Madison Square Garden Chairman James Dolan, reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014, in New York. The Suns won the game 99-90. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

NEW YORK — It's NBA draft night, and James Dolan’s Knicks are on the clock—but Dolan is nowhere to be found.

Or, actually, it’s pretty easy to find him; it’s just that he’s nowhere near the Knicks. Instead, he’s up on stage at City Winery, a spacious, relaxed venue on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. Dolan, who has owned the Knicks since 1999, is the frontman of JD and the Straight Shot. At the same exact time as the Knicks weigh a critical decision with the No. 8 overall NBA draft pick, Dolan, wearing a red velvet jacket with a white shirt, open at the collar, is asking an audience of about 100 whether they’ve seen the movie August: Osage County, which features a song by his band.

A moment later, over at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski tweets that the Knicks will draft Frank Ntilikina. Nobody tells the team’s owner.

JD and the Straight Shot, a violin-driven blues-rock band, released the first of its five albums in 2005. The most recent is 2016’s Ballyhoo!. When it’s time to perform that album’s title song, Dolan pops backstage for a costume change and reappears, wearing a black top hat, a gray scarf and sunglasses, to detail the origins of the word "ballyhoo." This comes a few minutes before 9:00 p.m., just as the Nuggets and Jazz, two enviable franchises with impressive draft records, orchestrate an intriguing 11th-hour trade, the type the Knicks rarely make.

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Tonight is ordinary for the team in that regard, but it is otherwise surreal. During the NBA draft, when every NBA exec is on a phone, and franchise-altering decisions are compressed by The Clock, Dolan is surrounded by dozens of middle-aged men and women who look like they’ve probably never heard of Charles Oakley, let alone Malik Monk.

Moreover, recent events have made it especially bizarre to see Dolan here, now. During the past year, and particularly during the past week, the Knicks front office—assembled and trusted by Dolan—has been exposed as directionless and possibly a danger to the franchise itself. This has been billed to be the most important day for the franchise in at least 15 years.

Early on, it seems entirely possible that the Knicks might trade Kristaps Porzingis, once (and still) the great hope for New York basketball. Amazingly, should the Knicks receive a tantalizing offer for KP, Dolan will be unreachable as he rips through his lengthy set. The timing is hard to believe. (Dolan submits that his show was booked well ahead of time and that overlapping with the draft was an unfortunate coincidence. It is his only basketball reference.) 

One can’t help but lament the predicament presented to Knicks fans, like the two men who were ejected from the show for heckling. (One, critical of Dolan’s voice, cautioned him not to quit his day job, though he may have meant the opposite.)

If Dolan is here, performing, then he can’t meddle with the team, and his meddling has led to trouble in the past. But then, without him around, franchise decisions are left wholly to Phil Jackson, who might be trying to get fired so he can return to L.A. So, what’s worse: involving Dolan—who confesses to be “by no means an expert in basketball” and is pressing assault charges against Oakley, an all-time fan favorite—or letting Jackson operate unrestrained? It's impossible to say.

As is, Jackson is left to his own devices and keeps Porzingis in tow. At No. 8, Ntilikina is a solid choice.

Dolan, meanwhile, is escaping ownership of the Knicks for a night, as if the team were a burden rather than a coveted asset that reportedly increased in value by 10 percent last year alone and could be sold at any time. The band plays for two hours (including Dolan’s frequent monologues) and announces that a new album will release in September. 

The concert ends around the same time as the draft’s first round. Audience members are sent home with a pair of records, Ballyhoo! and a 13-track album from 2014 titled Where I’ve Been. As one contemplates the irreversible damage narrowly dodged by the Knicks and whether the team’s owner cares either way, it is easy to view Where I’ve Been through orange and blue lenses.

Take track No. 3, "Hard To Find," which calls to mind a certain pissed off unicorn. Tracks Nos. 7 and 12, "Going Nowhere Good" and "Fall From Grace," might literally be about the team. The Drift (Pt. I & II) has been New York’s answer to The Process throughout Dolan’s tenure.

But nothing captures the state of the New York Knicks better than the image printed on the front and back of the album. It depicts a dry, sun-beaten desert. There is a long trail of footprints that fades toward the horizon line, there disappearing into endless sand. The photo’s traveler, who is not pictured, has come a long way through brutal conditions to get to this point. And yet, if the camera could show what lies ahead, one imagines only more fruitless terrain.

Leo Sepkowitz is a senior writer at SLAM Magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at @LeoSepkowitz.