There are many reasons why a fan of the New York Knicks might become embroiled in a public feud with the notoriously mismanaged franchise. The team trading away its best young player to save money under the salary cap. Or sources inside Madison Square Garden whispering for months about the supposedly imminent arrival of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, neither of whom would ultimately sign with the team. (Instead both stars, the NBA’s most archetypal millennials, decided to team up at a hip co-working space on Atlantic Avenue.) For other fans, the final straw was the Knicks choosing to use their newfound financial flexibility to sign 17 power forwards, none of whom know how to pass the ball.
All would be valid reasons for denouncing the Knicks. But these are not the reasons that Spike Lee, the world’s most famous Knicks fan, has announced his uncoupling from the team. On one level, the feud has to do with Lee’s entering and exiting privileges at Madison Square Garden, which like tax fraud and being annoyed by paparazzi, seems the kind of trouble that you can only get into if you are a wealthy celebrity. But dig deeper, and this becomes a story about loyalty, a story about respect, a story about the proper meaning of a handshake. Let me explain.
Though Lee has occasionally called out Knicks management in the past over the franchise’s treatment of Charles Oakley and Carmelo Anthony, this week’s dispute involves the team’s treatment of the director himself. The inciting incident occurred in the run-up to a Knicks home game on Monday night, when a video emerged of Lee being refused entry to his traditional courtside seat at the Garden by arena security. In the video, Lee can be heard exclaiming “Nobody told me!” and comparing himself to Oakley, a team legend whose arrest at a 2017 Knicks game marked the previous low-water mark between the club and its supporters.
As “Page Six” reported, the altercation arose from a dispute over which entrance the Oscar-winning filmmaker was using to get into the arena. Lee was coming in through the employee and media entrance on 33rd Street; the team wanted him to use the VIP entrance on 31st Street. Lee eventually got seated and was able to enjoy the game, and was later seen speaking to owner James Dolan at halftime. You might think that this was a minor issue that could be easily sorted out by responsible adults. You forgot that one side in this disagreement is the New York Knicks, and the other side is Spike Lee.
After news of the altercation began circling online, both parties made their case to the media. On Monday night, team sources told “Page Six” that, despite Lee’s claim in the video, the director had previously been told to stop using the employee entrance. Then, on Tuesday morning, Lee went on ESPN’s First Take, decked out in Knicks gear, to give his side of the story:
According to Lee, he’d already scanned his ticket at the employee entrance when a security guard surprised him as he stepped off an elevator and ordered him to leave the arena and reenter through the VIP entrance. Lee refused. As he explained on ESPN, “Once you leave a sporting arena, you can’t come back in. I’m not falling for the okay-doke.” Lee also reiterated that he had been using the employee entrance for 28 years — including just the week before, at a performance of To Kill a Mockingbird — and that he’d received no word from the team that he would need to stop using it.
The BlacKkKlansman director also announced that his spat with the team was merely a separation, not a divorce. “I’m coming back next year, but I’m done for the season,” he told ESPN. Lee had stuck with the team through a 45-year championship drought and seven straight losing seasons, and seemed mystified by his treatment. He intimated that shadowy forces were afoot: “I’m being harassed by James Dolan and I don’t know why.”
With de-escalation as foreign a concept to the Knicks as financial prudence or humility, the team shot back at Lee with a public statement on Twitter, calling his story “laughable,” and accusing the director of creating a “false controversy to perpetuate drama.” The statement concluded by asserting that Lee had agreed to no longer use the employee entrance, and in fact, had shaken Dolan’s hand to confirm the new arrangement. To underline the point even further, the team also attached to the tweet a grainy photograph of Lee and Dolan shaking hands at halftime.
Shortly afterward, in an interview with the New York Times’ Sopan Deb, Lee called the Knicks’ statement “an unmitigated bold-faced lie,” challenging the team to produce evidence that he had been informed of a change in policy. He also initially disputed that he’d shaken Dolan’s hand, but relented when informed of the photograph. However, in a further text conversation with Deb, Lee called the photo “a setup.”
Lee’s media tour was not through. Before the day was up, he’d also called into the YES Network’s Michael Kay Show to make his case before the people of New York once more. “No one called me” about any change in the entrance policy, he said. “They had my number, they had my email.” He also reiterated a question he’d raised throughout the day: If the entrance he was using was off-limits, why was there someone there taking tickets?
Ultimately, that was just one of the many mysteries left unsolved in the first 24 hours of the feud. One, why would the Knicks usher in the reign of new president Leon Rose, a former agent who was supposed to put the team back in the “relationship business” again, by publicly disrespecting their most prominent celebrity cheerleader? Two, are the Knicks the only institution in the world that makes the Trump White House look mild-mannered and conciliatory? And, finally, what is so good about the employee entrance at the Madison Square Garden that Spike Lee has been using it continuously for nearly three decades? The world eagerly awaits the answers.