Fifteen Years of Garden Ringmasters

The Rangers, the Knicks, and those who have run MSG since the century’s turn.

MSG renovations have been widely discussed. In regards to the stifling culture from within...not so much.

MSG’s physical evolution has been no secret. The shift in culture over the last fifteen years often goes untold.
(Photo courtesy of Face off Violations)

It was the summer of 1994. New York sports fans over the age of 30 remember it quite well.

The Rangers, mired in a 54 year Stanley Cup drought, won the ultimate prize. The championship ended the drought and cemented players such as Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, and Mark Messier as New York sports legends. In addition, New York was buzzing over the Knicks first NBA Finals appearance since 1973 – which still stands as the last time they were able to deliver on a championship. Despite losing a heartbreaking series in 7 games to the Houston Rockets, the Knicks were officially back on the map as a championship contender. For most young fans of New York sports, the ‘90’s are considered the glory days.

Those times, of course, are over. For the last 15 years and counting, Rangers and Knicks fans have been stuck with James Dolan’s poor decision making; resulting in the mediocrity both franchises have become too accustomed.

While the Rangers have returned to prominence, reappearing in the Stanley Cup finals last season and finishing with the best record in the NHL this season, the Knicks are still struggling. Could the key to Phil Jackson’s success be the blueprint of Glen Sather? Or, will he follow in the footsteps of unsuccessful Knicks General Managers and Presidents before him. The parallels run deep.

Sather and Jackson: Credible, but loyal?

The key question that surrounds Phil Jackson’s future success with the Knicks could be his loyalty to James Dolan.

In order to understand the parallels between Glen Sather and Phil Jackson, we must look back on the bleak moments of the Rangers in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s. Sather was hired in 2000 by Dolan and the Rangers as General Manager/President in similar circumstances to Phil Jackson’s hiring last spring. The Rangers were a mess entering the new century, and an opportunity to hire a “hockey genius” emerged. Sather won five Stanley Cups as coach of the Edmonton Oilers in the ‘80’s. The problem is, for the first five years of Sather’s tenure, it was a disaster. He struck out on big time free agents, overpaid for aging stars, and drafted poorly. Undoubtedly, the credibility of Sather’s resume allowed him to survive despite pleas from Ranger fans for his ousting. But, something else must have been at play for James Dolan to trust him through five miserable seasons – trading for washed-up names like Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure all while failing to make a decent first round draft pick.

It seems that the close nature of the relationship between Sather and Dolan allowed Sather to fail season after season, before recently, succeeding. If his first five years were a disaster, Sather’s last ten have been quite the turnaround. He drafted Marc Staal, Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast, and J.T. Miller since 2005 – all making major impacts on this year’s number one seeded team. Free agency and trade wise, Sather also hit a home run in bringing in big names such as Rick Nash and Marty St. Louis, as well as veteran leadership in defenseman Dan Boyle.

This precedent set by Sather, who came in with all the accolades as a big time coach and general manager, may be great news for Knicks fans who would like to see Dolan display that same patience with Phil Jackson.

Knicks Owner, Dolan. Knicks President, Jackson.

Dolan (left) and Jackson (right) during Phil’s introductory press conference in April 2014.
(Photo courtesy of Black Sports Online)

Phil and his predecessors – a brief history lesson

Like Sather’s early years with the Rangers, Jackson has made some questionable decisions in his first season with the team. Ultimately, to say Jackson has failed in his rookie campaign is fair, with the Knicks having their worst season in franchise history. Entering the season, the team looked promising. However, none of the risky off-season acquisitions panned out, beginning with his hiring of Coach Derek Fisher. Last May, he traded away one of the league’s best centers in Tyson Chandler – citing a “change of culture” – even though the veteran center was known as the vocal leader of the 54 win team from two seasons ago. Midway through this season, Jackson dealt two of the team’s most talented players in J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert – for two journeymen and a second round pick in 2019 – again, citing a need to change the team’s culture. This is proving to be a dubious decision; as Smith and Shumpert maintain a vital role in Cleveland’s championship aspirations.

Despite the highlights of poor decision making, Jackson’s tenure in New York isn’t up – it’s really just getting started. With upwards of $25 million dollars to spend this summer on free agents, and the 4th overall draft pick, Phil is in a prime position to build a winning team in New York not just for one season, but for the next decade. Building a perennial winner is why he was given an unprecedented $60 million dollars, and the next few months is an opportunity for him to make up for the botched trades and signings of the past year.

“Grunwald and Walsh are precise examples of established credibility (particularly Walsh), who were unable to pursue a long-term vision because of their clash with the MSG Boss, James Dolan.”

If the rebuilding efforts of Phil Jackson are to come to fruition, he must maintain the owner’s trust. Dolan, the most micromanaging owner in sports history, has shown he is willing to spend money on just about anything and everything. But, within this cash-throwing maze, he’s also displayed that it will take more than dollar signs for the Knicks to build a true championship contender. Phil Jackson’s most recent predecessors include two very well respected names in basketball circles: Glen Grunwald and the great Donnie Walsh. To many, their short tenure in New York seem to be a bit of mystery. Grunwald helped architect the 54 win team of 2012-2013 before being strangely ousted at the beginning of the next season. Walsh, regarded as a great basketball mind, clearly bashed heads with Dolan, most notably in the 2011 mid-season trade for Carmelo Anthony. Dolan wanted Melo at all costs; forcing Walsh to fleece the team in an effort to acquire Anthony at the trade deadline. On the other hand, Walsh wanted to wait until the off-season and nab Anthony that summer as a free agent – preserving the core of young talent featuring Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, and Danilo Gallinari. Grunwald and Walsh are precise examples of established credibility (particularly Walsh), who were unable to pursue a long-term vision because of their clash with the MSG Boss, James Dolan.

Paradoxically, there is the story of Isiah Thomas, prior to Grunwald and Walsh’s tenure. The hall-of-fame point guard turned Knicks GM was handed roster autonomy in 2003. We all know how that story ended – as the Knicks plunged into salary cap misery for the majority of the last decade.
Thomas’ loyalty with Dolan clearly remained mutual; and the owner never broke his bond with the former confidant. Now that Isiah is back in the fold, albeit to run the Liberty, the WNBA team of New York, there are rumors that Thomas could soon be back to his old tricks – like running the Knicks. As of now, Phil is still the head man in charge. How long will this last? It may be determined by Jackson’s loyalty to Dolan – just ask those who came before him.

The Unanswered Questions

At the end of the day, this is what made Phil Jackson’s hiring so captivating – he was able to step in from day one with established credibility as an eleven time NBA Champion. But, will he become a Donnie Walsh, and clash with Dolan? Will he become Isiah Thomas – earning Dolan’s trust only to run the Knicks into the ground? Or, will he be more like his hockey counterpart, Glen Sather, who failed time and time again before turning the Rangers into one of the NHL’s top teams?

For the sanity of Knicks fans worldwide, let’s hope Phil mirrors Sather, and Dolan allows a break from the Knicks’ catastrophically managed decade.

About Tyler Michels

Tyler is an NC State alum living in Raleigh, NC. Growing up in Northwest New Jersey, Tyler developed a love for New York sports teams, driving his desire to become a writer. In his free time, Tyler can probably be found on a golf course.

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