Last week’s attempted lynching of the retired basketball legend Charles Oakley at Madison Square Garden, coupled with a season-long campaign by Knicks’ Team President Phil Jackson to hang in effigy the team’s best player, Carmelo Anthony, should not be viewed in isolation, but rather contextualized as further evidence that ours is a nation in decline, and in need of a radical makeover.
What better way to jumpstart our stalled democracy than by selling the storied Knickerbockers franchise to the people of New York?
Hear me out:
Much as the Brooklyn Dodgers helped spark an American Spring 70 years ago by signing Major League baseball’s first Black player, and similar to post-apartheid South Africans rallying around the Rainbow Nation’s rugby team, so too could the Knicks help spearhead America’s next reinvention, by reimagining the franchise as a publicly-owned enterprise. By sharing the responsibility for the team’s management, and divvying up the profits, the denizens of the Big Apple could resurrect what was once, arguably. the most liberal city in North America, and provide the world with a model for democratizing the 21st-century global metropolis.
The benefits– of galvanizing New Yorkers around their common contempt for the Knicks’ unpopular owner, James Dolan, and a shared vision for reconstructing both their beloved basketball team and a Beloved city, – would be immediate, financial, and spiritual.
Imagine, if you will, the transformative possibilities, both for New York City’s built environment and its civic consciousness. Instead of continuing to fund Dolan’s lavish lifestyle and Jackson’s maddening mismanagement, Knicks’ ticket sales, television revenue and merchandising could begin to reverse the city’s gentrification, financing the construction of affordable housing in all five boroughs, and free and subsidized child care.
With windfall profits, New Yorkers could restore open admissions and free-tuition at City University, expand Medicare and Medicaid, bolster public schools, create summer apprenticeships for kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods, and thousands of good jobs through worker-owned cooperatives that roast, brew, bottle and knit the city’s own line of artisanal coffees, craft beer, organic toothpaste and sportswear, just as a few examples.
And that’s just the low-hanging fruit. If they so chose, New Yorkers could fund their own credit-union or business incubator, lending money for mortgages, start-ups, and municipal bonds at interest rates sharply lower than those offered by Wall Street. Cash-strapped New Yorkers could rake in billions of new revenue annually. The surge in commercial activity would, in turn, help the city to rake in substantially more in tax receipts,expanding the community-building possibilities even more.
New Yorkers can work out their approach to managing the new-look Knicks through neighborhood congresses or committees, but their starting point would be the NFL’s only publicly-owned asset, the Green Bay Packers, albeit with a far more pluralistic organizational structure, aimed at restoring the two critical assets that have all-but vanished from the city since the Knicks last won an NBA championship in 1973: community cohesion and buying power.
All team decision-making would be made by New Yorkers, either through referendums or proxies chosen to represent each borough, or a combination thereof. As an ex-New Yorker, I would propose a two-tiered management structure comprised of a board to oversee basketball operations, and another board that administers the investment of team profits into community programs and projects.
And here’s the piece de resistance: the board that manages the social programs and business development should be composed entirely of women, and mostly women of color at that.
I might even go so far as to suggest strict income limits for board members, restricting membership to households that earn no more than, say, $50,000 annually.
Forbes magazine estimates the value of the Knicks at $3 billion. Honestly, that’s chump change in the world’s financial hub. As just one example, a tax of as little as .05 percent on every Wall Street transaction–that’s a nickel for every $100–could generate $25 billion in revenues in a single month, according to mid-range estimates.
The more important number is how many New Yorkers could be organized into a coherent, grassroots movement, printing fliers, canvassing neighborhoods, getting the word out on social media, petitioning local aldermen and lawmakers, and marching on the NBA headquarters, City Hall, and Wall Street banks.
This is every bit as important as the financial windfall that would accrue from public-ownership of the franchise. New Yorkers coming together–or more likely arguing loudly but constructively– to choose between Patrick Ewing or John Starks as the Knicks’ next head coach, would likely have a democratizing effect on a city increasingly at war with itself, pitting rich against poor, black against white, immigrants against native, even, Knick against Knick.
It wasn’t always that way. Beginning in the Great Depression, the city’s Jewish, African American, Puerto Rican, Irish and Italian communities formed a fulcrum, upon which rested a “social democratic polity” as one historian dubbed it. At its height, in the 1950s, that arrangement included a public health network that numbered twenty-two hospitals (no other city had more than three), an expanding City University system, far-reaching civil rights and labor legislation, rent control long after it was abolished in other cities, and public housing subsidies so widely available that pro basketball Hall of famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar would later fondly recall the tenement where he grew up as a “little multinational enclave” but “without the bunker mentality.”
New York even had a quasi-public arts center that brought opera to a shirt-sleeved audience. When in 1942 the city found itself in possession of a massive Shriners Temple on 55th Street as a result of a tax default, the mostly Jewish Clothing, Garment and Musicians unions and a Jewish fraternal organization, the Workmen’s Circle loaned Mayor LaGuardia the money to convert the shuttered building into the City Center for Music and Drama, used to house the New York City Opera Company. With a top ticket price of only $2– less than a third of what the Metropolitan Opera charged for an orchestra seat–the City Opera Company was an innovator, hiring young American singers who had not yet achieved international reputations. One such artist was Todd Duncan, whose September 1945 debut represented the first time a major American opera company featured a black performer in a leading role.
It would be another decade before the Met desegregated.
In April of 1969, several hundred black, Latino, and Italian students chained the gates of City College’s South Campus shut and renamed it the University of Harlem to demand that desegregation of a university school system that was, at the time, 92 percent white. The protests quickly spread across the city university campuses, and before the season of protests had ended, dissidents occupied 17 buildings.
By the beginning of the 1969 fall semester, besieged administrators had agreed to open admissions for all city public high school graduates, and free tuition.
Two months later, the Knicks opened training camp for what would be their first NBA championship season.
Public ownership could even be a selling point to recruit top NBA stars, who, like Carmelo Anthony and his peers, LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade, seem far more conscious, or “woke” than was Michael Jordan’s generation.
Big problems require big ideas.
It’s time to break up the Knicks . . . and heal New York City.