Andrew Yang is concerned the Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau coaching hire might not be the right fit. Nor is Yang convinced the Knicks new administration can change the team’s fortunes with James Dolan as owner.
The former Democratic presidential candidate who participated in seven debates believes he has reason for skepticism. The 45-year-old Westchester native had been a Knicks fan since he was a teenager. He recalls standing on line outside the Garden for special $10 tickets.
Yang, a vocal Knicks critic on his Twitter account, recently turned allegiances to the Nets because of all the orange-and-blue heartbreak.
In a 25-minute interview with The Post concerning his past Knicks fandom, Yang said his hope is Dolan will realize it is in Gotham’s best interests to sell the team and wonders whether new president Leon Rose’s vision will ever come to fruition.
“You want to be cautiously optimistic,’’ Yang said. “Turning over a new leaf is a positive. The main lens you have for Leon Rose is the sense he’s a relationship guy. The concern you have is: Will he hope to be saved by some epic free-agent haul with his high-powered former clients? That concern is somewhat reflective of hiring Thibodeau with whom Rose had a prior relationship.
“You look at Thibodeau with a track record of success, Knicks heritage and DNA. This team has needed an identity, discipline, structure. He provides those things — all positives. You think, “so far so good.” But there’s also a concern Thibodeau is the hire [you make] when you’re ready to compete, and this team is somewhat not ready to compete. Is that a fit?”
Before getting into politics, Yang, a Columbia Law School graduate, founded a variety of startups, including the nonprofit Venture for America that helped recent college graduates become entrepreneurs.
Yang’s latest nonprofit Humanity Forward has distributed $8 million to mostly New York residents during the pandemic.
“I hope the Knicks do well for New York’s sake,’’ Yang said. “You don’t want your hometown team to be a laughingstock, which they’ve been for some years. But I feel like my mental health improved the last few years not being a Knicks fan. It felt like a one-way street after a while. It felt like an abusive, bad relationship.
“I’ve been a hardcore Knicks fan all through my childhood,’’ Yang added. “I grew up on the Ewing Knicks, John Starks, Charles Oakley. And I avidly kept up with them through thick and thin, through the lean Isiah Thomas era with Eddy Curry and soured on them when they dumped Jeremy Lin and started just making bad decisions with their leadership. I became a Nets fan slowly at first. Over time, it’s become easier and easier as they’ve become a better team.”
The Knicks have missed the playoffs seven straight seasons — and have made the postseason just four times since 2001. Yang doesn’t see it changing anytime soon.
“Even if Thibodeau does a great job, I wouldn’t project a playoff run for them,’’ Yang said. “He’s inheriting a roster that’s so poorly assembled. The pieces don’t fit. You’re not even sure of the building blocks. RJ [Barrett] and Mitchell [Robinson] are starting points but after that it’s very fuzzy. It’s unclear if Tom Thibodeau is that figure. He strikes me more as compete-now, no-nonsense coach.
“There’s concern as a fan, this administration will have a hard time succeeding because they’ll be put in a position where they have to act like they’re going to be competitive immediately. You have to know where you are. If you bring in a win-now coach and you’re not ready to win now, is that the right move? And I’m a Thibodeau fan from his Knicks days, Celtics days and Bulls days. I would’ve been encouraged if the Knicks had taken a coach who had a track record of development of young players.”
And it all starts with Dolan, according to Yang.
“James Dolan is one of the reasons that team is so difficult to root for,’’ Yang said. “He literally banned fans for being passionate [he banned them for heckling him]. He banned heroes like [Charles] Oakley. I believe his ownership is producing a culture that makes it difficult for the Knicks to produce a winning team despite the fact they have major advantages over any team in the league and have the New York market.
“[Dolan] handed the keys to Isiah, Phil [Jackson] and Steve Mills — all of whom were objectively terrible. That has to start at the top. The best thing you can say about [Dolan] is he’s unafraid to spend money, but he hasn’t been able to install for the franchise the right decision-maker.”
Chants of “Sell the team’’ arose at the Garden before the coronavirus shut down the building. Forbes ranks the Knicks as the NBA’s most valuable franchise at $4.6 billion.
“If James Dolan wanted to truly express his love for New York and his love for the Knicks, he would sell the team,’’ Yang said. “He would look up and say, ‘I’m clearly not the owner this team needs. The team needs a new owner.’ There’d be people willing to put up billions of dollars.”
Though 350 people working for MSG Entertainment were laid off this past week due to the ongoing pandemic, Dolan has said in the past he won’t sell because he doesn’t want to be viewed as a quitter. It’s unclear if this economic crunch has changed his stance despite several of his venues on lockdown.
Yang said he felt the Knicks hit the low point last summer when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving spurned Broadway for Brooklyn.
“It was the darkest time in Knicks history,’’ Yang said. “Even in the depths of Isiah’s and Phil’s terribleness, there was a sense of what the team was trying to do. But last year you had no idea what they were trying to do. They didn’t know. You had young players and brought in mercenaries on one-, two-year deals. I thought it would be such a disaster and I expressed it [on Twitter]. It was the worst Knicks team. Zero identity. Zero cohesion.’’
The Rose-Thibodeau ticket is something of a start, Yang said.
“It’s an upgrade from the last leadership team,’’ Yang said. “When you have a new leadership team, give them the benefit of the doubt.’’
But it will be hard for Yang, who was at the Garden for Larry Johnson’s four-point play in the 1999 playoffs, to come off the Nets at this juncture.
Yang started to lean slightly away from the Knicks when they let Lin walk in 2012.
“It had been tough to be a fan before then, and when Linsanity was such a bright spot for every Knicks fan, even my now-wife, who never had watched, then the fact we lost Lin over money struck me as so ridiculous,’’ Yang said.
“And it’s hard to give up on your childhood team. Even now I still keep up with what’s going on with them. And I know when they’re good, it’s very good for New York. In the 1990’s, it was an incredible unifying spirit, those Knicks playoff runs.’’
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