By Kent Larsen
Did Checketts Succeed in New York?
NEW YORK, NEW YORK -- When Cablevision's Charles Dolan fired LDS Church
member Dave Checketts last week, it marked the end of Checketts' fight to
balance his beliefs and values with the cut-throat New York sports world.
For ten years Checketts had managed to make that balance, managing to work
the process until he finally ran out of moves. But while Dolan's move has
left Checketts out of the Garden, it seems unlikely that he will not be soon
snapped up elsewhere in the sports world, given the remarkable financial
record he built, increasing the Garden's revenues by ninefold in less than
Checketts arrived in New York in 1991 as an ambitious 35-year-old executive
from Bountiful, Utah who had gained a reputation working for the Utah Jazz.
Sports reporters in New York and even his wife, Deb, suggested that he
wasn't ruthless enough for New York; when he told Deb about the job offer,
she told Dave "You can't do that; you shouldn't do that." He asked, "Why
not?" And Deb replied, "Because you don't have that New York edge."
If he didn't have that edge, he managed to acquire it quickly enough. He
started as President of the Knicks in 1991 and later became head of Madison
Square Garden, which owns the Rangers, the Garden itself, Radio City Music
Hall, a cable-tv network and other businesses. In these positions Checketts
bluffed ruthless agents to keep star players in New York, fired a close
friend, Knicks General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, over dessert at a restaurant
(Grunfeld at first thought he was joking), and even lied and displayed anger
when things weren't going his way, all to further the business and help the
The balance between his values and what he had to do for the team and the
company was difficult, "Look, I exist in a world that's pretty gruesome," he
told the New York Times about a year ago. "All I can tell you is this: I'm
trying to keep my balance. Some people who know me might say: `He's not a
great example of a nice person. He's a malicious, tough and ruthless guy.'
But when the day is done, as long as I've held to my values and been true to
my family and my God, it won't matter what anyone else thinks."
Its clear that the decision to fire Checketts was motivated primarily
because the teams weren't performing. The Knicks had lost in the first round
of the playoffs, an inexcusable performance for which someone had to be
fired. The Rangers haven't made the playoffs in four years.
But from a longer-term view, the firing looks short sided. Checketts has,
while running Madison Square Garden, made it into a colossal sports empire,
one of the most successful in professional sports. With revenues up
ninefold, the franchise was hopping. His first act of business was to hire
Pat Riley to coach the Knicks, and in four years Riley turned the team into
a star-studded hot ticket, bringing sell-out crowds to the Garden and
celebrities to courtside seats. Under Checketts the success also spread to
the Rangers, who won the NHL's Stanley Cup in 1994 and made the playoffs
again two years later.
The Times' Wise says that the Garden became a focal-point for New York's
social life. "The Garden on a game night was less about basketball than a
special time in the city, where you could dress up, be seen and watch
Anthony Mason drive someone into the first row with his forearms."
And even as both teams' performances started declining, Checketts managed to
pull move after move to keep excitement and interest in the teams and help
fans believe that they could win, in spite of Riley quitting in 1995,
thinking that the Knicks were in decline. "Every season the situation would
become more desperate. . . . and the Knicks would appear to be out of moves
. . . and Checkets would think of something," writes Mark Heisler in the
Los Angeles Times. Checketts brought in players like Latrell Sprewell and
Marcus Camby, giving these malcontents a second chance, and in the process
bringing the team closer to a championship.
But some of his moves crossed the line. In May 1999, Checketts hinted to the
press that he had met with celebrated Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson about
coaching the Knicks, but within days he was forced to admit that he had
lied. Days later he apologized to the New York Times' Wise privately. "I
just wanted to personally apologize for lying to you," Wise says Checketts
said to him. "Sometimes you end up doing things in this job that you don't
have any excuse for, and this is one of them. I hope we can go on from here
and you can trust me again."
Wise believes that this was the nadir of Checketts career at the Garden,
"More than the sincerity, I remember seeing the conflict within Checketts,
probably the same conflict he had when his wife told him he did not have
that 'New York edge.' To survive and succeed in his job, he had to be
someone he did not want to be sometimes, and it bothered him."
The Los Angeles Times' Heisler says that in the end Checketts simply ran out
of ways to bring the Knicks back to the top, "You can't cheat the process
forever. The old players became ancient. Gambles . . . capped them even
farther into the future, and this spring the miracles ran out."
Heisler says that Checketts' legacy isn't trivial. His name "reverberated in
Gotham with those of Donald Trump and George Steinbrenner, but he wasn't an
innocent any longer." Noting that in the six years since Pat Riley left the
Knicks there still hasn't been an empty seat at a Kick game, Heisler adds,
"but 10 years at the Garden isn't a tenure, it's a lifetime."
Until he was fired last week, no one would have predicted that outcome.
Rumors were periodically reported that Checketts would take over the Salt
Lake Organizing Committee (instead of Mitt Romney), become the next
commissioner of the NBA, replacing David Stern, run AOL-Time Warner, or even
put togther a group to buy Madison Square Garden from Cablevision.
Now, with the financial record that Checketts built as a testimony to his
skill, Checketts won't have problems finding a new position elsewhere. Its
only a question of where and how long it will take. The Knicks, their fans,
and Cablevision will have to face that fact also, Heisler says, "It took
something close to genius to keep the Knicks respectable in the face of
advancing decrepitude, while raising ticket prices and hyping expectations.
Whoever follows Checketts will find that out soon enough."
A Showman Who Made the Garden Magical
New York Times 20May01 S2
By Mike Wise
Finally, the Knicks Make a Move in Game of Checketts
Los Angeles Times 20May01 S2
By Mark Heisler