Remember when Dolan, the Madison Square Garden chairman, socked season-ticket holders with a price increase that ? When he nearly tripled the already hair-raising cost of a seat for some in the lower bowl, loyalists who had stayed with the team through a decade of misery?
News of the mass gouging circulated in April 2011, weeks after the none-too-coincidental acquisition of Carmelo Anthony but before the Knicks would be swept in the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, extending their streak of failing to win a postseason game to a full decade.
Count on us, Dolan in effect told the stressed folks he had disappointed or infuriated for so long. Believe in our potential by investing heavily in our reconstructed product (and refurbished arena). For the many who did, the reward was not a divisional unseating of the Celtics, not a deep run in the playoffs, nothing remotely close to championship contention.
Superficially, it was one playoff victory over LeBron James and the Miami Heat this spring on the way to another first-round exit. Spiritually, it was the brief but remarkable emergence of Lin during a galvanizing month that saved the season and made Dolan’s arena feel like the world’s most famous in more than its customary, self-aggrandizing way.
Then the Houston Rockets adopted the very strategy in their restricted free-agency pursuit of Lin that the Garden had forever used to crowbar talent from less-endowed competitors. All of a sudden the normally free-spending Dolan decided it was time to stop the Linsanity. With a gun to his head that was loaded with a potential $35 million luxury-tax penalty on top of a $14.9 million balloon payment in the third year of Lin’s contract, he hid behind the reasonable-sounding excuse of a long-elusive fiscal prudence.
Many have agreed with the rationale that Lin, based on the sampling of his work, just was not worth it. Then again, did Dolan banish Lin — who was about 20 minutes from being a former player while vegetating on the end of the Knicks’ bench early last season — from New York on the grounds of his being an ingrate and daring to exploit his leverage for what could be the one time in his basketball career?
In contrast to Lin’s work, there is more than a sampling of Dolan’s, enabling us to make an educated guess as to how cool and calculated he was upon learning that Lin and the Rockets had conspired to make their deal even more tax punitive for him to match. Anthony, inhabiting the place in Dolan’s heart once reserved for Isiah Thomas, chimed in by calling the Lin deal “ridiculous,” as if his time in New York had produced anything close to the surge in interest and profit resulting from Lin’s achievements, however limited, last season.
The argument has been made that the financial risks of matching the offer were not necessarily that daunting, given the possibility that Lin could become the player he was for most of February (if Anthony allowed it) and continue being a marketing gold mine. If he did not, there would have been several avenues for salary cap and tax relief — using Amar’e Stoudemire’s expiring contract as a trade chip, for one — going into the third year of Lin’s deal.
We can also debate until opening night the basketball merits of retaining Lin versus letting him go, without reaching a satisfying conclusion. But that is exactly the point for long-suffering Knicks fans. A majority, I am betting, wanted Lin on their team next season, if only because they wished this compelling saga would continue in the Garden, where it started and where they have been extraordinarily loyal to a franchise that has not really deserved it.
To that end, one season-ticket holder for decades whom I have known for many years expressed exasperation over Dolan’s unwillingness to do what he has asked of his fans over and over: keep the faith and invest in the potential for success, in this case that of the 23-year-old Lin.
“After sitting there all those years and watching all that horrible basketball, we finally had such a feel-good story that felt like our own,” said the ticket-holder, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from a management that has been notoriously contentious. “How many times can they hurt me?”
Her ticket renewals for next season have long been mailed in (with yet another incremental increase of $30 per game ticket). Even with the materialization of the Nets in Brooklyn and the alienation of the large outer-borough Asian-American population, she knows the Garden will be packed come opening night. Lin’s replacement, Raymond Felton, will probably be welcomed back with a hopeful roar.
But on some level the fans will also know that what Dolan asks of his patrons is not necessarily what he demands of himself. He lets Lin walk and tells them to keep writing those painful checks and keep believing in a franchise that within a handful of months has managed to turn its most alluring episode in more than a decade into a requiem for a point guard.