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Home Style James Dolan and his ‘friends’ don’t fool Knicks fans

James Dolan and his ‘friends’ don’t fool Knicks fans

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Steve Popper, USA TODAY Network

Published 6:37 p.m. ET Feb. 12, 2017 | Updated 1 hour ago

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NEW YORK — The game was just a few minutes old when James Dolan waddled out to his courtside seat, towered over by the “fans” around him. Latrell Sprewell walked in front of him, Bernard King and Vin Baker behind him. All that was missing was for the former players to covered in flashing neon lights beckoning the crowd to look here, and ignore everything else your mind is telling you.

Sprewell was persona non grata at Madison Square Garden since he was traded away in 2003 and returned two days before Christmas that year, scoring 31 points and punctuating them by running toward Dolan and screaming taunts and curses at him. But in an amazing coincidence, just days after Dolan had Charles Oakley dragged out of the arena Sprewell took a seat next to Dolan.

After the ugly episode with Oakley, banning him from the Garden, Dolan and his PR crew filled the seats with former Knicks to act as human shields – Sprewell, Baker, King, Larry Johnson, Kenny Walker, Gerald Wilkens, Herb Williams, John Wallace and Bill Bradley. As a counter, Spike Lee sat courtside with an Oakley jersey draped over his diminutive frame.

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The transparent effort to prove Dolan can play nice with former Knicks — although almost every one of these players preceded his arrival as Garden chairman — couldn’t cover up the ugliness that surrounds the franchise. The forced attempt at a show of solidarity actually overshadowed the Knicks playing one of their best games of the season and escaping with a 94-90 win over the Spurs, just their seventh win in their last 27 games.

“Well, I can’t tell you why I haven’t been back here, but I’ll tell you when I left, I was not happy,” Sprewell said in an interview on the ABC broadcast. “New York is like a second home for me. I love the fans here. The fans have embraced me. There’s no place like the Garden to play in. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play in the Garden? I was definitely disappointed.”

When Sprewell was traded, Dolan said that he didn’t have the character to be part of the Knicks. His behavior that day in 2003 drew the ire of the owner, who told reporters back then, “Somebody said to me he proved me right, that he doesn’t belong on our team,” — and the attention of the NBA, Spewell’s arrival now came with the Knicks in free fall, on and off the court. The Oakley spectacle was a distraction from the bizarre efforts of Knicks’ president Phil Jackson to prod Carmelo Anthony to waive his no-trade clause ahead of the Feb. 23 deadline.

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For much of the game the Spurs, in the midst of their eight-game, 7,300-mile rodeo road trip, looked sluggish and out of sorts. Through the first three quarters the Knicks shot 67% from beyond the arc while the Spurs were just 5-for-22 from three — and 37.7% overall. The Knicks held a 69-65 lead entering the fourth quarter.

LaMarcus Aldridge tied the score at 81-81 with 3:42 left on a sweeping hook across the lane. Derrick Rose gave the Knicks back the lead with an acrobatic drive, but when Patty Mills swiped a Rose pass the Spurs set out on a fast break. Mills tried to feed Danny Green, but Courtney Lee stole the ball back and threw it ahead to Anthony. With Spike Lee jumping up behind him, the closest person in a basketball jersey to Anthony, he calmly drained a three-pointer to up the lead to 86-81 with 2:46 remaining.

But Anthony fouled Kawhi Leonard attempting a three on the other end with with 2:10 remaining Leonard converted all three. Willy Hernangomez upped the lead to four again with a pretty reverse layup along the baseline. Leonard and Anthony then traded baseline jumpers, but Leonard missed from three this time with just under a minute left and Anthony, leading the Knicks with 25 points, provided the dagger, a 15-footer with the 24-second clock expiring and just 33.2 seconds remaining.

Even with the cover of the impromptu reunion the Knicks are not about to fool anyone into thinking that the Garden is suddenly a joyful place to be. Head coach Jeff Hornacek called the starting lineup an embarrassment Friday night, the team president isn’t talking to the star and the last alumni to stop by was dragged out in a long-simmering feud with Dolan.

A more apt image for the event was the Spurs and Gregg Popovich facing off against them than the phony set of friends Dolan lined up for the game. While the Knicks are bathed in chaotic dysfunction the Spurs are the most consistent, stable franchise in the NBA.

In Popovich’s 20 full seasons as coach the only time the Spurs didn’t win 50 games came when there was a lockout-shortened 50-game season and they won 37 and beat the Knicks in the NBA Finals.

“It’s easier to have a stable existence winning than losing,” Popovich said. “…I think in general winning makes everything — the grass looks greener and the sky is blue more often when you win a game than when you lose a game. But it’s important in this game to know that it’s just your job and if you can get that into your head, win or lose, I think your players kind of learn that they can move on, too.

“Whether it’s a turnover in a game or two losses in a row, whatever it might be, you just move on, because it’s your job, but really not the most important — it’s important, you’ve got to buy the groceries — but it’s not the most meaningful thing in your life. Whatever you believe in, your friends, your family, your kids, all that stuff, is way more important. I don’t think you’re going to lay on your deathbed and say, ‘God, I wish we’d have not gotten knocked out in the second round in ’74, ’89.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen. So if that’s not going to happen, screw it. Figure out something else to be excited about.”

Steve Popper writes for the Bergen Record. Email him at popper@northjersey.com

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