The incident at Madison Square Garden in which former New York Knicks player and longtime fan favorite Charles Oakley was arrested for a confrontation with arena security has yielded a visceral reaction from fans and media members who see Oakley as the epitome of what the current Knicks are missing. As a player, he did the dirty work, protected his teammates and was the “lunch pail” guy – the ones no team or business in general can function successfully without and whose work is largely appreciated in every context but the stat sheet. Long since retired, Oakley does not have an official role with the organization.
Given their current plight with team president Phil Jackson viewed as a disinterested observer of a team he was tasked – and received a contract for close to $12 million annually – to rebuild and owner Jim Dolan’s perceived ineptitude, it’s no wonder that the anger is reaching explosive proportions.
Regardless of the negative views of Jackson and his commitment and Dolan and his competence, is Oakley to be granted the benefit of the doubt for his behavior when no one seems to know what the dispute was even about? There must be a separation between what a player might have represented to the organization in the past and what is good for business in the future.
Every sport has these uncomfortable situations of trying to respect the past, granting deference to those who played an integral role in it and doing what’s right for the organization in the present and future. Not all reach the level of embarrassment as Oakley and the Knicks, but they’re everywhere. Legacy jobs are often harmless as long as there’s no actual decision making involved with them, but when a person is given a role without the ability to function in it effectively, it’s like a virus.
Sandy Alderson’s New York Mets regime has faced passive aggressive criticism from former Mets stars Howard Johnson and Mookie Wilson among others for their abandonment of the team’s past, but the biggest name that has elicited an over the top reaction is Wally Backman. This in spite of the Mets giving Backman a job as a minor league manager when no one else would; in spite of him repeatedly angering Alderson and his lieutenants for going off the reservation, for self-promoting, and for being the last thing anyone wants in a minor league manager: visible. In September of 2016, Backman either left the organization of his own accord or was fired – it’s still fuzzy – smothering his supporters’ lingering hopes that he would be given a chance as, at a minimum, a coach on Terry Collins’s staff.
By now, it’s clear to anyone who can read between even the flimsiest of lines that Backman only lasted as long as he did with the Mets because of his popularity with the fans and that the Wilpons were protecting him from Alderson’s axe. There are still conspiracy theories speculating about the real genesis of Alderson’s issues with Backman and whether Backman has been blackballed or not.
The only thing we have to go on is what’s happened. With that, if Backman truly is the managerial genius his fans purport him to be, it only worsens the practical reality that no affiliated club will hire him in any capacity. That Backman, for lack of big league opportunities, needed to take a job in the Mexican League is conveniently ignored in the narrative of negativity that still surrounds the Mets even as they’ve won a pennant, made the playoffs as a wild card and are a favorite to contend for a World Series in 2017, all under Alderson and Collins.
Smith is royalty with the Cardinals and was treated as such by Whitey Herzog and his successor Joe Torre. By the time La Russa arrived, he was unattached to the Cardinals’ past. The club had been declining for several years, sparking the hiring of La Russa to begin with. Was La Russa supposed to enter the 1996 season relying on a 41-year-old Smith who had batted .199 the previous year? Or should he have pinned his hopes on what Smith had been five years before to keep from angering fans who want to have a winning team but also want to continue treating their stars with blind loyalty?
In his lone year playing for La Russa, Smith had a solid comeback season showing a portion of his fielding genius and batting .282 in 82 games, sharing the job with Royce Clayton. Could he have maintained that over the course of the season at that age? Could La Russa bank on that? Deferring to the past has its place, but when there are substantive changes made, collateral damage is unavoidable. La Russa didn’t go to St. Louis to mess around with what was already there and had finished 19 games below .500 in 1995. Caught in the crossfire was Smith. He’s still bitter about it, but who can argue with the success the Cardinals had under La Russa? Now had the club been worse under La Russa than it was under the prior, old-school Cardinals front office or Clayton fallen flat on his face, then there would have been a larger contingent of angry fans and media members standing behind Smith just as Knicks fans are doing with Oakley.
Tom Landry was unceremoniously fired by Jerry Jones in 1989 when Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys. When Jones made the clumsy and necessary decision and subsequently walked face first into a public relations buzz saw, no one on this or any other planet could have envisioned that less than three decades later, Jones would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to take his place among the sport’s luminaries along with Landry.
In retrospect, the same fans and media members who were outraged at the crude dispatching of Landry had been privately saying that the coach needed to go and a full overhaul was needed. Jones, in telling his predecessor Bum Bright that he was not buying the team unless he was able to replace Landry with Jimmy Johnson, was setting the conditions that many advocated but few had the guts to follow through upon. By the time the Cowboys’ rebuild was completed four years later and culminated with a Super Bowl (and two more in the next three years), no one cared whether Landry would acknowledge Jones or still felt embittered about his dismissal.
The insular nature of sports front offices is exactly what owners sought to get away from when they hired outsiders from other industries to take charge. Before that, a large percentage of former players who rose to upper level positions in a front office did so not because of competence or skill at the job they were hired to do, but as a form of patronage. That is no longer the case and invites a backlash. When Jeff Luhnow was hired to run the Houston Astros and gutted the place down to its exoskeleton, the on-field product was so hideous and former Astros stars so callously discarded that the response was inevitable: he had abandoned luminaries and made the product worse. The Astros are contenders now and the groundswell is largely muted even if the anger is still there.
Giving former star performers a ceremonial title is not done to grant them sway with the club. It’s a placating measure to engender goodwill with the fans and media. When that comes undone, incidents like the Knicks and Oakley exacerbate current problems and provide evidence of ongoing and unstoppable turmoil.
The issue for the Knicks is that they’re in such disarray that this type of incident involving a player who was a key component of their glory years will be magnified.
The Oakley incident can be viewed as the nadir of the Knicks under Jackson and Dolan based on nothing more than Oakley having been a favorite of the fans and the media during his playing career and representing a past that is so far in the rearview mirror that a large bulk of younger fans are unlikely to believe it even existed in the first place. It occurred directly on the heels of a typically cryptic Jackson tweet that seemed to disparage Carmelo Anthony and sent the team president and “Zen master” into familiar spin control only contributes to their perceived dysfunction. If the Knicks were riding high and this happened, the reaction would have been that Oakley needs to know his place. Since they’re not, it’s symbolic of that which ails the club.
Adhering to the past might be palatable, particularly when Oakley-type incidents take place, but there needs to be a separation between what’s happening within the organization and its outskirts even if they appear to be inextricably connected.