James L. Dolan might have been a perfectly fine custodian of a professional basketball team had his father given him one 50 years ago. But not in the 21st century.
Before there was such a thing as free agency, back when the privilege of ownership essentially included the players along with the franchise, Dolan’s imperious ways would not have cost him transcendent talent. His self-defeating stubbornness would not have ruined the curb appeal of Madison Square Garden, the self-proclaimed World’s Most Famous Arena.
If he didn’t have to compete for the likes of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Dolan might have been a contender, instead of the steward of a team that just lost a franchise-worst 65 of 82 games for the second time in five seasons and has won just a single playoff series since 2000. Which happens to be about when the Knicks began to play by the byzantine Dolan house rules.
On the subject of past and present, the evolution of the game, I stumbled upon a fascinating article while researching an archival book project on the N.B.A. for The New York Times last year — written for the newspaper in April 1977 by that famed Boston-based journalist, Arnold (Red) Auerbach.
The headline read: “Pride and Integrity: Pro Basketball Has Changed.” In the piece, Auerbach bemoaned the federal court rulings heralding the earliest form of free agency and the gradual shifting of bargaining power to where it rightfully belonged. “By and large, we’re seeing an erosion of basic values — things like pride and integrity and dedication,” Auerbach warned. “We’ve created a system that works against motivation, desire and discipline.”
To the contrary, the N.B.A. is a global phenomenon now precisely because its stars became max-leveraged commodities, soaring to once-unfathomable commercial heights in the age of techno-connectivity. The league’s 2019 free-agent signing season, newly timed to kick off Sunday at 6 p.m. Eastern, was a Super Bowl of player empowerment and stimulating competitive realignment, commencing with the bombshell that the Nets — and not the Knicks — would be landing Irving and Durant.