Who's the boss?

Maddie Meyer

The New York Knicks are a terrible mess in every way. Fixing that won't be easy for Phil Jackson, but if he has really gotten owner James Dolan to hand him control of the team, he has already accomplished a lot.

Some months ago, the founder of Home Depot attempted to strong-arm the Pope. The billionaire, whose name is Kenneth Langone, did this by proxy. He told Timothy Cardinal Dolan at a breakfast meeting that he and other donors to the multimillion-dollar restoration of Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral were offended by Pope Francis' words on inequality and "the idolatry of money." He went on to warn that such loose talk -- "generalities," Langone called them, pointing out that "rich people in one country don't act the same as rich people in another country" -- could cause them to reconsider their large donations to the renovation.

This is not quite, "Nice cathedral you've got there, it'd be a shame if something happened to it," but also it is not quite not that. Earlier this week, Langone compared the plight of the extremely wealthy to that of Jews in Germany circa 1933.

You keep thinking it's the end, that some shame-ceiling exists and has been reached, or is at least in sight. And yet this sort of thing keeps happening. Some swell senses that someone might be looking askance at the champagne bidets on his yacht, considers his plight -- and there is no other word for the agony of being so alone in one's penthouse triplex -- and compares himself to Anne Frank.

It's taking nothing away from the various appalling plutocrats that have done this of late to point out that New York's self-pitying, self-satirizing rich dudes are the worst. There is the baroque douchery of the Bay Area's thinkfluential techlords, the classic braying gaucheries and thudding selfishness of our leatherette petro-barons, the off-brand malapropped Galt-isms of the multilevel marketing ponzi elite -- sure, yes, all of that. All great achievers in their field.

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But there is no person on earth more grandiose and more loudly deluded than a New York Rich Guy. And there is no other owner in pro sports like James Dolan, and so there is no other team -- with all due respect to Jerry Jones' Cowboys, Jimmy Haslam's Browns, Jeffrey Loria's Marlins and so queasily on -- messed up in the same way as Dolan's Knicks.

Dolan has built an organization that looks like him: paranoid, isolated, weird, autocratic, arbitrary and more concerned with maintaining white-knuckle consistency than anything else. Dolan is inextricably, unmistakably written on these Knicks, even when Dolan is not scowling courtside in the inevitable mock turtleneck, looking like the hairier, crueler twin brother of the Men's Wearhouse You're Gonna Like The Way You Look guy.

The team that Dolan's organization has made works about as well as you'd expect such a thing to work. Something needed to change, and -- under duress and as expensively as possible and later than any other owner would have -- Dolan has changed it. He did it as a contemporary New York rich guy would, in what is maybe the only way a contemporary New York rich guy could: he found another rich person with a comparably bulky sense of self and paid him. The good news for Knicks fans is that the other rich person is Phil Jackson. The bad news, as usual, is Dolan.

But there is some good news here, in that whatever Phil Jackson will be doing will be something that Dolan is not doing. Dolan conceded in the press conference that basketball is not his area of expertise, and while he delivered it as if it were old news and in the sour I-wouldn't-expect-you-turds-to-understand tone he uses in his rare engagements with the press, there was something new and potentially significant about that admission. Dolan has never acted as if he knew the limits of his basketball knowledge, after all.

More on Phil Jackson's return

If Phil Jackson's presence can remind him of what his role ought to be -- signing checks, terrorizing underlings, buying bluesman hats online while terrorizing underlings -- then Dolan's impact on the team could be blessedly mitigated. One of Dolan's foremost executive shortcomings is his terrible taste in front office personnel, which consists of vacuous starfucky loyalty to unworthy ex-jocks -- his epic Of Mice And Men partnership with Isiah Thomas is testament to this -- and malleable sycophants. Neither is really any threat to his authority. The only enjoyable Knicks team of the Late Dolan years was built by Donnie Walsh, then unmade at Dolan's whim in the deal for Carmelo Anthony, seemingly in part to remind Walsh that the glowering goateed fellow in the t-shirt and blazer was still the boss.

Dolan talked a good one about ceding authority to Jackson on Tuesday, and may well do it. Whatever his strengths as an executive might be -- and this is a job he has never done, let alone done well -- Jackson is accomplished enough to earn some deference from Dolan. If the stylistic signature of a New York Rich Guy is an inability to believe that he could ever be wrong, it would stand to reason that the only person to which such a person could ever defer would be someone similarly convinced about his own self. Such a person would, in the best-case scenario, also be more competent than the New York Rich Guy in question.

And this is Jackson, for better or worse. He, too, is an authoritarian world-historic narcissist, casually piloting a Nimitz-class ego wherever he goes, Buddhist-scented self-justifications trailing in his wake. Jackson has been brilliantly successful at his job, knows it, and does not believe it to have been an accident. ("This would be a pinnacle," Jackson mused in the conference when asked what he might accomplish in New York. "It would be a capstone on a remarkable career that I've had.") But he is not James Dolan, and if that's all that can be said for Phil Jackson, executive at the moment, it is still something Knicks fans will be delighted to hear.

One of the subtler frustrations of Dolan's tenure as the Knicks' chief font of institutional dysfunction has been the fact that he is just a few ticks away from being a successful owner. He wants very much to win and will spend as much money as needed to do so. Dolan's tragic flaw, though, is not some metastatic imperfection that will eventually leave him bellowing "do you know who I am" on some South Shore heath like a Long Island-accented King Lear. Dolan's tragic flaw is himself: his whole bullying, blinkered being and his outsized, outlandish perception of who he is and what he knows and what he should do. Everything he does is an undoing. This particular tragic twist reads like a comedy, because of how resolutely Dolan refuses to see what he does for what it is.

The Knicks are the anti-masterpiece that Dolan's busy blundering has made.

The Knicks are the anti-masterpiece that Dolan's busy blundering has made. Bloated and self-thwarting, expensive and enervated, and self-destructive in ways so weird that they are almost impossible to parse; Prada's Pictures regularly features Knicks-authored moments of defensive ridiculousness that look like they were pulled from Breaking Madden. And because he cannot believe that he could ruin something, Dolan can only make the team more and more like this, hiring and firing people that he blames for letting him do what he does. There's some broader cultural metaphor to be made, but the thing itself is depressing enough.

Whether or not Phil Jackson can unmake or remake Dolan's team is a question without an answer right now, and one that's fully and finally contingent on Dolan letting him try to do it. But simply by getting his new gig, Jackson has already accomplished a kind of miracle. He has gotten a New York Rich Guy to yield, however tentatively and tenuously. It's a start.

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