Greg Armstrong was conflicted on Friday morning. He has owned Knicks season tickets for 25 years, and he makes the trek from Middletown, N.Y., for about 30 games each year. He has raised his children in this fandom.
And yet, Armstrong felt torn about whether to attend Friday’s game. He had watched as Charles Oakley was removed from Madison Square Garden two nights earlier and had heard the team owner James L. Dolan announce Friday afternoon on ESPN Radio that Oakley, a former Knicks star, had been barred from the arena indefinitely. Armstrong thought Oakley had been in the wrong, too, but Armstrong’s frustration with the franchise had built up after so many difficult years.
In the end, though, his allegiance won out. So he stood in the stands 45 minutes before a game that the Knicks lost to the Denver Nuggets, 131-123, with a blue No. 34 Oakley jersey, signed by the man himself two years ago, aiming to convey a message.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to come, and I’m going to make a stand,’” Armstrong said. “I’m going to put on my Oakley jersey in support of him and show I’m not happy with what’s going on.”
Armstrong was not alone. Friday night, the Garden was a place for Knicks fans to air their grievances as Dolan sat in his customary courtside seat.
It did not take long for the crowd to start chanting the name of the man who can now hear it only on television. The chants of “Free Charles Oakley” began midway through the first quarter and persisted throughout the game. There were variations, like “We Want Oakley” and “Fire Dolan.” It was clear that a significant portion of the crowd wanted Oakley there, and not Dolan.
The game itself offered no positive counterbalance. With the loss, the Knicks have dropped nine of their past 12 games. Their playoff hopes continue to dwindle, as they sit three and a half games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Carmelo Anthony scored 33 points on Friday, but he was overshadowed by Denver’s Nikola Jokic, who scored 40.
The team’s on-court woes had been on the back burner even before Wednesday. Instead, the spotlight had been on the team president, Phil Jackson, and his relationship with Anthony, who had reportedly been shopped around the league in recent weeks.
The tension between the two rose to another level on Tuesday after a Twitter post by Jackson was interpreted as a critique of Anthony’s playing style and will to win. In a follow-up post on Twitter, Jackson insisted that his earlier message had been misunderstood.
Dolan, however, did not wade into that morass during his radio interview Friday. He declined to comment multiple times during the segment about Jackson and his stewardship of the organization. Jackson signed a five-year contract in 2014, and Dolan intends to let him remain for its entirety. Dolan said he would not activate a clause that lets the Knicks opt out of the contract after this season.
“I literally turned over the entire basketball operations to Phil” and General Manager Steve Mills, Dolan said, adding: “That is where I am at. Whether I like the results or don’t like the results, I am going to honor that agreement all the way to the end. It is not over yet. My hope is that the team will become much, much better and that Phil will be successful.”
While Dolan admitted that he stepped in to acquire Anthony from the Nuggets in 2011, he did not want to get into the middle of Anthony’s frosty back-and-forth with Jackson. That would be “meddling,” he said.
There is no leashing Jackson, either, Dolan said. Jackson is in control of his own public and fan relations as part of their deal.
Yet, if the Knicks continue to lose, as they have in 148 of the 219 games during Jackson’s tenure, frustrations will continue to compound.
Friday was the culmination of a weekslong slog of bickering and unflattering headlines. The Oakley affair was a tipping point that may have more fallout than just bad publicity. Stars around the N.B.A. took his side on social media, and with Anthony’s ordeal playing out in public, even he admitted he was worried that the Knicks’ hopes of drawing stars via free agency might have been damaged.
“It’s just kind of this cloud over us right now,” Anthony said. “We have to figure out a way to get out of it. I think you have to be in it, and you have to be going through it, in order to understand it. From the outside looking in, it looks bad, and it’s even worse when you’re going through it.”
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