James Dolan rose from his stool on a makeshift stage in the bowels of Madison Square Garden on Feb. 23 and shuffled to the podium to introduce Carmelo Anthony, the unstoppable small forward for whom the New York Knicks had just dealt half of their starting lineup to anoint as the team’s latest savior.
“While we have always respected Carmelo as a player, when we met the other night—I enjoyed that meeting, liked him a lot—it was clear he wanted to come to our city and play for our franchise,” Dolan said.
The emphasis was his.
After monopolizing the five boroughs for the past five decades, Dolan’s Knicks are suddenly on the defensive.
Crowding the city’s basketball spotlight is an outsize Russian billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov, who, last May, purchased the lowly New Jersey Nets—the vagabond stepchild now bound for Brooklyn—and declared, in all his Bond-villain blandness, that he would “turn Knicks fans into Nets fans.”
As Anthony dangled from Denver and the Knicks demurred on sealing a deal, Prokhorov made a last-minute, over-the-top offer that included the Nets’ best player, its top prospect and four first-round draft picks, all in the hopes of denying the Knicks their biggest swap since Bernard King in the early 1980s, and luring the Brooklyn-born Anthony back home.
Dolan, in turn, went all in, throwing in a package of young talent that seemed to belie the patient, piece-by-piece approach that had dragged the franchise back to respectability under his resident basketball guru, general manager Donnie Walsh.
“The Nets are trying to hang in the ballgame, that’s why we had to give up so much,” said Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who sat in the front row alongside other Knicks legends during Anthony’s introductory news conference.
“There’s clearly a rivalry going,” said Robert Boland, a professor of sports management at New York University, who said the greatest threat to any franchise is losing the exclusivity of its market. “It seems that Prokhorov is not going to let this thing go without a battle. He’s going to fight in the streets for this one.”
He already has, actually.
Shortly after buying the team, Prokhorov plastered a 225-foot billboard of himself and co-owner Jay-Z—under the headline “The Blueprint for Greatness”—in plain view of the Knicks’ offices at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, and rented his own office space at Aby Rosen’s Seagram Building in midtown.
In October, Dolan returned the volleys with a massive billboard of star forward Amare Stoudemire—under the banner “BROOKLYN REPRESENT”—just a few blocks from the Nets’ nascent arena at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards.
The budding rivalry stands to be one of the more colorful conflicts in the annals of New York sports.
Dolan is squat, with a big belly and a bush of brown hair above a face straight out of a Thomas Nast cartoon; he grew up on Long Island, where he now lives with his wife and children, and is a proud teetotaling 12-stepper.
Prokhorov is a slender 6 feet 8 inches, with a physique carefully refined by twice-daily workouts, who calls his 21,500-square-foot mansion on the outskirts of Moscow his “bachelor pad,” and in 2007 was detained for 88 hours in France for allegedly flying in Russian prostitutes. He frequents Moscow’s clubs but claims never to have consumed more than a single sip of vodka.
Dolan nixed his dreams of being a rock star while a student at SUNY–New Paltz, but still toils in a blues band, J.D. and the Straight Shot, and was an avid sailor and competitive yachter before giving up the sport a few years ago.
Prokhorov did an obligatory stint in the Soviet Army as a youth, and still enjoys shooting AK-47s; he eschews yachting for a 300-pound jet ski.
Dolan mostly shuns the media, running what has been characterized in the past as a draconian press operation that closely monitors nearly every word uttered by Garden employees and bounds departing ones with strict nondisclosure agreements.
Prokhorov claims to have funded an opposition newspaper in the mining town he controlled—just to keep a healthy dose of dissent—and, at times, he might be too revealing for his own good. Last year, he showed off his favorite Kalashnikov rifle to 60 Minutes, and before an interview last month, he challenged a reporter to match him in the eye-hand exercises of Tescao, a Tibetan martial art.
(A Knicks spokesman said Dolan and other Garden officials were unavailable for comment. Prokhorov was heli-skiing in British Columbia; a spokesperson said he was unavailable to speak.)
Dolan was groomed from a young age to take over his father’s Cablevision empire, selling subscriptions and decamping to Cleveland to start a sports radio station, all while preparing to succeed his father as CEO.
Prokhorov was reared in a small apartment in Soviet Russia, and his first business venture involved stone-washing jeans to sell during perestroika, followed by a rise through the ranks of post-Soviet banking before coming to dominate the Russian mining market.
They share at least one common trait: Both want to rule New York’s basketball market.
Dolan would very much like to counteract the past decade of futility, one that left an impression that he was more concerned with the parent company’s bottom line than with hanging new banners from the Garden rafters.
“He’s had such a negative reputation for so long, in terms of what the Knicks haven’t done in recent years, I think he knew above all else that he had to get this deal done,” said Wayne McDonnell Jr., a sports business professor at NYU, of the Anthony trade.
For Dolan, adding Anthony helps the entire MSG empire. It boosts the television ratings, ups the in-stadium advertising fees and helps book the luxury boxes—all of which help to offset the nearly $800 million in renovations the arena is undergoing.
The challenge for Prokhorov is to somehow chip away at the prestige, and now the buzz, of Dolan’s monopoly.
He has brazenly guaranteed a championship within five years, and—even as the team watched Anthony slip away—he crowed about the Nets’ impact on the deal. “I think we’ve made a very good tactical decision to force Knicks [sic] just to pay as much as they can,” he told CNBC, even before the trade was officially completed.
A few hours before the Knicks’ news conference to introduce Anthony, the Nets announced a new star of their own: Deron Williams, acquired in an out-of-nowhere swap with Utah that was certain to crowd the next day’s headlines.
The Knicks’ official position is to feign a lack of concern. “While we always respect any competition, the Garden will always be the Garden,” the company said in a statement.
And, on the night of Anthony’s debut, the Garden was very much the Garden again, for the first time in recent memory.
In the concourse, fans pulled brand-new “Anthony” jerseys over their shirts, and the crowd stayed on its feet for the layup lines, snapping cell-phone shots of Anthony in his new uniform.
Then the arena went pitch black, Diddy’s “Coming Home” floated over the PA, and a quotation from Anthony flashed on the scoreboard. “I was born May 29, 1984, in Brooklyn, N.Y.”
If Prokhorov has any hope of capturing the city’s affection, he must first conquer Brooklyn, which could prove a rocky beachhead.
The rosiest scenario has the Nets replacing the bygone baseball Dodgers as the borough’s pro sports heroes, but the prospect of a glorious homecoming is quite a bit more complicated.
“For someone like me, who’s a Brooklynite through and through, it’s going to create dilemmas,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, who was born and still lives a short bicycle ride from the new arena site. “Because I’ve been a Knicks fan all along, and I guess I’ll have to wait until they arrive and see what happens. But my inclination is to stick with the Nets”—he shook his head—“with the Knicks.”
The team’s arrival has already suffered years of bad press, thanks to the protracted battle over the $4 billion development at the Atlantic Yards site in downtown Brooklyn. Before a series of court rulings resolved it and construction started in earnest last year, the battle pitted neighborhood activists, many of them newcomers who spawned the borough’s gentrification, against the team’s former owner Bruce Ratner, the site’s developer.
The bitterness lingers.
Eric McClure, the founder of Park Slope Neighbors, said the only thing that might possibly draw him to the arena was “a Beatles reunion.”
“Can Prokhorov sway Brooklynites to root for a different team?” mused Daniel Goldstein, a leader of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the leading Atlantic Yards opposition group, in an e-mail to The Observer. “If he pays them enough.”
“For the hard-core anti-Yards people, I don’t see them coming around that fast,” conceded Borough President Marty Markowitz, a longtime supporter of relocating the team. “But I see their kids coming around. And that will motivate them.”
For the majority of Brooklynites, the prospect of Nets fandom is likely to rest on the simple question of whether the team is worth watching.
“I’ve been a lifelong Knick fan, but winning changes everything, so if they start to win, they’ll like ’em,” said Larry Chertoff, a Park Slope dad, who was leaving the Atlantic Center mall on Feb. 27. “I don’t see myself switching allegiances, but a couple years ago, when the Nets were pretty good and they had [Jason] Kidd and [Richard] Jefferson, I went out to Jersey to see them, and I enjoyed them, so you never know.”
In that regard, Prokhorov seems to inspire more hope for a competitive product than Ratner ever did.
“Bruce Ratner, who I respect enormously and who made this possible—after I put the pressure on—he was never a jock, I was never a jock,” Markowitz said. “This man eats and breathes basketball. He’s looking at it, I don’t think as an investment, as in only dollars and cents; I think he’s looking at it as being a good owner.”
Markowitz cited the recent trade for Williams and said he hoped the new point guard would help lure a winning team to the borough. “We’ll have his back, that’s for sure. He’ll learn how lucky he is to be wearing a Brooklyn Nets uniform in not too long from now.”
But first the team must get him there; Williams can opt out of his contract in the summer of 2012, just when the franchise is set to occupy the brand-new Barclays Center.
On Feb. 28, Newark did its best to woo him. Jay-Z and Beyoncé sat in the Prudential Center’s front row; fans were showered with complimentary Williams T-shirts; the opening montage had been recast with his highlights; even the mascot, an overgrown silver fox, was wearing his No. 8 jersey.
Although the crowd was spotty—despite being within a few hundred seats of a sellout—the fans who were there gave him a rousing ovation.
Williams high-fived his teammates with a stone face. “I can’t really give any assurances or say that I’ll be here, when I don’t know what the future holds,” he said in his first news conference when asked about his long-term future with the Nets. On Feb. 25, Prokhorov cut short his heli-skiing trip to fly to San Antonio and welcome him to the organization, which hopes he’ll be a cornerstone capable of luring other top talent.
While both teams tinker with their rosters over the next 16 months, the climax of this cold war won’t come until the summer of 2012, when Williams and two other superstars—Orlando’s Dwight Howard and New Orleans’ Chris Paul—are set to hit the open market.
But with the NBA renegotiating its labor contract this summer, it’s unclear just how much room Dolan and Prokhorov will have to maneuver around each other. Will teams be able to exert a contractual clamp on their free agents like football’s franchise tag? And will a strict salary cap restrict the ability of both to spend freely? No one knows, and the pessimists predict a long lockout as the two sides try to hash it out.
For Knicks fans, though, the larger, looming question is who might be making the basketball decisions in 2012.
At Dolan’s news conference, after introducing Anthony, the owner launched into an unprompted screed against rumors that he had overruled Walsh and was instead heeding the counsel of Isiah Thomas, Walsh’s predecessor, who stuffed the team with an underperforming cast of bloated contracts.
“While Isiah Thomas is a friend of mine, a very good friend of mine, he was not at all involved in this process,” Dolan volunteered to the crowd. “The trade was a complete effort with Donnie, Mike and I,” he said, as Walsh, whose contract expires in June, sat awkwardly next to him on another stool and coach Mike D’Antoni stared straight ahead with his arms crossed.
“I’m a die-hard Knick fan,” said Shawn Mundinger, a season-ticket holder who was wearing a Ronny Turiaf jersey on Feb. 23. He commutes to the Garden from Westhampton, even though he has to wake up at 5 a.m. for his shifts as a sanitation worker. “But if [Thomas] was ever to come back, in any way, shape or form, and the Knicks really aren’t a contender, I think I’d give up my seats. I know a lot of people who feel the same way. He’s just toxic, always has been.”
“In my opinion, Dolan will not bring Isiah Thomas back,” said Dan Klores, the veteran PR man turned documentarian, who met Walsh in 1967, and then helped him land the Knicks job four decades later. “Donnie went through the two worst years of his professional career, and it would be wonderful to have him see the fruits of his labor.”
Klores, a Brooklyn native, was cautiously optimistic about what the new rivalry might mean. “Obviously, it’s a great time for New York basketball,” he said. “Unless the people running New York basketball screw it up.”