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Knicks rebranding may mend fences with past to improve future

James Dolan, Executive Chairman and CEO of The

James Dolan, Executive Chairman and CEO of The Madison Square Garden Company, watches an NBA basketball game between the Knicks and the Orlando Magic at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

For a young Knicks fan, even one recently reaching adulthood, all they have ever really known is misery from their team, dysfunction, mismanagement and losing. So much losing.

So the tales that older fans tell of the championships — the first one being celebrated later this season on the 50th anniversary of the title and the second and last championship coming just three years later — are like something culled from the fiction racks at the library. They hear it and wonder if it really could have happened in this place. 

But it wasn’t that long ago that the Knicks were regularly not only a contender with a belief that they could win the title, but doing it in a style that the city embraced just as tightly as those championship teams. Patrick Ewing was the leader on his way to the Hall of Fame, but almost to a man they were playing the style the city loved, focused on defense and toughness. And if they didn’t have the talent to surpass Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls or Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets, they regularly were a playoff team no one wanted to face.

And the face of that group could be seen in Charles Oakley, or more accurately in his arms which swung lesser players out of the way. Those young fans might only know them from the way they shoved aside security guards at Madison Square Garden three years ago, the tipping point of an already acrimonious relationship with the franchise he helped make relevant. 

But for all of the eye-opening missteps that Steve Stoute took in the first televised rollout of his rebranding plans for the Knicks, there was one place where his words and heart matched the fans sentiment.

"Listen, I would love to see that thing. As a New York fan, as a friend of Charles Oakley, as somebody a part of the Knicks organization, of course, I would love to see that subsided and bring that back," Stoute said in his appearance on ESPN's First Take. "Charles Oakley is a very big part of New York. He's a fabric of what the New York Knicks have stood for for many years — that toughness, resourcefulness, by-any-means-necessary attitude."

A rival executive spoke of the Knicks problems and pointed out the troublesome departures of some of the franchise’s most notable players and players around the league took note of the way that Carmelo Anthony had been treated by Phil Jackson and how Kristaps Porzingis was traded away with the team whispering smears about him after making the deal.

It was suggested that healing the reputation of the team would come by mending those issues. The notion of bringing Anthony back for a farewell season next year was raised. And the executive said, as long of a shot as it may be, having the Garden chairman apologize to Oakley would do wonders. 

But maybe Stoute’s message has someone’s ear within the Garden because when Oakley’s lawsuit against the team was thrown out of court last week a statement was released by the Madison Square Garden Company and while those statements have a long history of tone-deafness and vindictiveness, this one sent a different message.

The statement read, “We thank the court for its ruling. This was an incident that no one was happy about. Maybe now there can be peace between us.”

This time, whether it was James Dolan or Stoute or an assemblage of marketing and PR folks, an olive branch was extended in that statement. It was a step in the right direction, maybe a first step toward the type of rebranding the Knicks really need more than any nod to hipness — recalling its history when the Garden really was the Mecca and Oakley was one of the leaders.

It’s not so simple though. Oakley’s legal team filed an appeal of the defamation and assault and battery lawsuit against Dolan and Madison Square Garden a day after the dismissal.

Maybe if the Knicks bring in a coach like Tom Thibodeau or Jeff Van Gundy who were part of those winning teams it helps ease the path back. It’s not easy to repair 20 years of damage. Will it be resolved and will they bring Oakley back? Maybe not today. But on this occasion, at least they made the effort. That’s a step. 

This is your team

At this time last season, the Knicks were on their way to 17 wins and sending veterans on their way. They were buying out the contracts of Enes Kanter and Wes Matthews. DeAndre Jordan was offered one, too, but declined, sticking around and spending the final stretch of the season in street clothes.

There are no plans right now this season to buy out any contracts — or to sit the veterans in favor of the young players. For now, the Knicks are content to cling to the long shot that they can put together a run at the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. 

The Knicks entered Friday five games out of that spot, so it won’t take long for that dream to fade and at that point the rotation idea could change. 

"I talk to [general manager] Scott [Perry] every day,” Knicks interim coach Mike Miller said. “We talk about personnel. We talk about player development. We talk about everything, every day. Multiple times, sometimes. We are in agreement, as we go through this, that we are high level trying to develop players. 

“And as we do that, the approach that we’re taking is that their minutes are quality minutes. They’re bringing value to the team when they’re out there. We think that’s helping them develop and moving them forward. Again, we’re looking at development in a lot of different ways and not saying it’s just about, you just need 25 minutes a game to develop. I think there’s more to it, there’s more ways that we can help these guys grow then doing that. They’re getting experience and they’re getting opportunities and they’re learning. We’re seeing growth.”

But if the Knicks fall out of the running it isn’t likely going to change the position on contract buyouts. The Knicks still view the contracts, even the ones with only a $1 million guarantee next season, as possible trade assets.

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