The Knicks have won one playoff series in the last 16 years. Considering their significance in the overall sporting culture, this qualifies them as a bigger laughingstock than their NFL counterparts at the opposite end of New York State.
But there were times when the Knicks actually stood for something, when they were perennial title contenders who lived up to their reputation as the caretakers of the City Game, honoring basketball in "The World's Most Famous Arena."
They won two NBA titles (in 1970 and '73) and made nine straight playoffs during the glory days of Red Holzman, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley. Later, from 1987-2001, which spans almost the entirety of the Patrick Ewing era, the Knicks reached the postseason 14 years in a row.
The most vivid image of their more recent heyday is Jeff Van Gundy holding onto the ankle of Miami's Alonzo Mourning, who had been in a fight with Larry Johnson. Moments later, Knicks power forward Charles Oakley can be seen holding back his feisty, diminutive head coach and smiling ear to ear.
Those were the days when even the coach jumped into the fight, when the Knicks were a rough, tough, unyielding foe. The NBA was a physical, often unsightly game in those days. But the Knicks won. Their fans loved them, and Oakley, the team's enforcer, was the emotional conscience and chief symbol of that team's indomitable spirit.
So it was sad and shocking last Wednesday to see Oakley escorted out of the Garden, defiant as ever and struggling with security, after being ejected by team owner James Dolan. Oakley was arrested and charged with assault and trespassing by the New York City police.
Some witnesses said Oakley, whose seat was very close to Dolan's, was being abusive. Others support Oakley's claim that he had only been in his seat for four minutes and didn't say anything directly to Dolan, with whom he has been feuding for some time. Oakley feels he has been snubbed by the team, which hasn't included him in reunion ceremonies at the Garden in recent years.
Whatever the case, it was a bad look for a reeling franchise with a disaffected fan base. Dolan, who said after the incident that Oakley "needed help." made matters worse a day later, banning him from the Garden and publicly suggesting that Oakley might be suffering from anger and alcohol issues.
It was a petty move by Dolan, one that aroused cries of protest from fans and players past and present. Actor Michael Rapaport, a long-time Knicks fan, told FS1, “Arresting Charles Oakley in Madison Square Garden, you might as well arrest the pope at the Vatican.”
Reggie Miller, who was a Garden anti-hero during those memorable Pacers-Knicks playoff clashes in the '90s, tweeted, “ ... why would you play for an owner who treats the past greats like this or a president who stabs a star player in the back?”
The Oakley flap momentarily overshadowed the ongoing drama between president Phil Jackson and the team's star, Carmelo Anthony. Jackson, who remains infatuated with his own myth, has been trying to pressure Anthony into waiving his no-trade clause. He recently tweeted his approval of a Bleacher Report that was critical of Anthony as a winning NBA player.
I can sympathize with Anthony, though I won't defend him as a player. He's been vastly oversold as an NBA superstar. The biggest blunder of Dolan's time as owner was bringing Anthony to New York and expecting him to lead a renaissance.
Anthony is a terrific scorer and solid rebounder. But he's not a guy who makes teammates better. He has never won anything of consequence as a pro. True, the Knicks haven't given him a great supporting cast. But he's a flawed finesse player, one who lacks the essential qualities that fans embraced in those great Knicks teams of the past.
The championship teams were famous for passing the ball so quickly it never touched the ground on some possessions. Anthony is a noted "ball stopper" who demands to be the focus of the offense. The Oakley-Ewing teams were ferocious on defense. Anthony is a soft, indifferent defender.
There's talk of the Knicks rebuilding around Kristaps Porzingis, the gifted second-year man from Latvia. But Porzingis is a soft defender, a small forward in a 7-foot-3 body. On Friday, an average Denver team came to the Garden and won, 131-123, shooting 57 percent. Nikola Jokic, a 21-year-old, 6-foot-11 Serb, dominated with a career-high 40 points.
Fans in the Garden began chanting Oakley's name early in the game and booed the Knicks when that sorry display of defense was at an end. They know their hoops in New York. They didn't miss the irony of the Knicks putting in a passive performance two nights after the toughest player of recent times was shown the door.
Reports say Anthony, who has three years and $80 million left on his contract, still wants to win in New York and might refuse to waive his no-trade to spite Jackson. But he would be wise to get out while he can and go to some team (Cleveland?) where he can be a complementary player and have a chance at a real playoff run.
As Miller said, why would any player with an alternative choose to play with the Knicks at this point? It has been years since a significant free agent went to New York. It's a circus, a soap opera, a poorly constructed team going nowhere.
The owner and president are dumb and petty enough to make the dysfunction worse. Dolan can ban Oakley and suggest that he's mentally ill. What's really sick is seeing a beloved player and a proud NBA tradition trashed this way.
The question isn't when Oakley will be welcome again, but how long it will be before respectable, winning basketball comes back to the fabled Garden. For now, you might as well call it "The World's Most Disgraceful Arena."