Dave Checketts reflects on tenure with Knicks and spots similarities


The distant view from the northern suburbs stirs memories, emotions and the imagination. It opens a mind’s portal to many a 1990s Midtown Manhattan night when Madison Square Garden was the center of the pro basketball universe. When the New York Knicks — Dave Checketts’ Knicks — last owned New York.

Twenty-one years after seeing the Knicks fall one victory short of the franchise’s first NBA championship since 1973, 16 years removed from trying to lure Phil Jackson to coach the team on the eve of an improbable second run to the finals, Checketts watches with fascination — and as a fan, he said — as Jackson tackles the daunting challenge he once met, and can admit to missing.

Even when he rose from team president to Garden president, Checketts said, “I missed the Knicks, being right in there.”

On an unseasonably warm afternoon recently, he lowered his 6-foot-5 frame into a chair in a small conference room at the temporary offices of Rhone Apparel, a fast-growing 18-month-old men’s premium active wear company founded by his entrepreneurial son Nate.

Checketts had just returned from a round of golf with a friend who had lost his job. Over the years, Checketts has moved up or on from his fair share of high-profile positions — none of them, Checketts said, as provocatively gratifying as the daily operation of a professional sports team.

“It’s much more than running a bank or restaurant,” he said. “Success or failure is based on the performance of human beings that you selected. Nothing else like it.”

Seated nearby, Nate Checketts, who bears a fair resemblance to his father with his light eyes and athletic boyishness, wore the work uniform of the digital generation: casual slacks and shirt, backward baseball cap — a very different look from his father’s coiffed, corporate image.

A favorite of the former NBA commissioner David Stern’s, Checketts had a startling rise as a bright, ambitious Mormon from a Salt Lake City suburb, Bountiful, Utah. At 28, he was the team president of the NBA’s Jazz. At 35, he accepted the same position with the Knicks in 1991.

The deposed (as general manager) Al Bianchi — a native New Yorker and basketball lifer — said then that Stern and the Garden suits had “put this kid in, Checketts. You think he knows anything about basketball?” Who knew?

But Checketts, antithetical to Bianchi, had presence, was attuned to the business of basketball, smooth in the spotlight. He hired Pat Riley as coach and presided over the team’s best run since the 1970s glory days that produced the franchise’s two titles.

A few years later, he was running the expanding Garden operation, until 2001, or one year after James L. Dolan, at the head of ownership table, praised him for increasing profits and restoring to the building “a grandeur now that it had when I used to go to events in the early 1970s.”

Checketts smiled wistfully at the mention of the mercurial Dolan. He could probably write a book but settled for summary.

“More than anything else, I felt that Jimmy just wanted to run that show,” he said. The smile turned to a sigh as he added, “Jimmy’s a complicated guy.”

The same might be said of Checketts, who evinced charm and poise but combined it with a Darwinian shrewdness that produced the occasional public relations stumble.

His wife, Deb, once told him he lacked the urban edge to work in New York, but Checketts fired Ernie Grunfeld — his Knicks general manager and friend — over dinner not long before the 1999 run to the finals. It was a coldblooded move, however necessary to pacify Dolan that something was being done to motivate a floundering team.

Weeks later, Checketts denied the pursuit of Jackson to a reporter from The New York Times. He soon after called a news conference to admit the story was true.

Checketts created another firestorm in 2009 when Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host, tried to partner with his company that owned the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake in an unsuccessful bid to buy the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.

That was also when Checketts’ direct involvement in competitive pro sports began to unravel, along with the American economy. “The world fell apart,” he said. “I was the owner of two teams, and my largest shareholder was Lehman Brothers, 55 percent, and that made for a miserable four years, working our way out of that financial mess.”

Traversing around bends

Retaining a youthful countenance, Checketts remains hopeful of another opportunity before he is ready for a rocker.

He turned 60 in September, when his four sons — Spencer, 37; Nate, 32; Andrew, 30; and Ben, 28 — gave him the trip he took each of them on for their 16th birthdays: walking the Grand Canyon, rim to rim.

“The best birthday gift I ever received for two reasons,” he said. “One, we spent a lot of great time together. Two, I actually crawled out the other side.”

He said this with the relief of a man who must occasionally wonder if his peak career years have passed while sounding at times like a patriarch ready to cede the stage to his sons, who have all endeavored or aspired to work in something sports related.

“What you’re seeing in him is a shift — not necessarily back, maybe to the side,” Ben Checketts said.

The Checketts children grew up at the Garden when it could better justify the self-proclamation as the world’s most famous arena. In 1994, the New York Rangers won their only Stanley Cup since 1940. Dave Checketts at the time was affiliated only with the Knicks, who lost Game 7 of the finals in Houston that year but throughout the decade electrified New York in epic battles against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls and Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers.

“I used to go to school living and dying on the Knicks,” Nate Checketts said. “Those playoff games, if there was a loss, even the teachers would say, ‘Why couldn’t they pull it off?’ ”

“Or ‘Why didn’t they pull Starks?’” his father cut in, conjuring up John Starks’ 2-for-18 shooting nightmare in Game 7 in Houston.

Dave Checketts got into a car after that game at the old Summit arena to face his disconsolate children. “What a great run that was,” he told them, the family frontman knowing this was no time to reveal his own anguish.

There were other agonizing memories, Checketts said, including the 1993 Eastern Conference finals loss to Jordan and the Bulls after Jordan was set off by an article in The Times about his between-games gambling escapades in Atlantic City; and a 1997 brawl in Miami — coached at that point by Riley — that cost the Knicks multiple suspensions and the series.

Dolan, Checketts said, showed up at the team’s training base in Charleston, South Carolina, the next fall, eager to assert himself, requesting a lunch with coach Jeff Van Gundy and his staff.

“He told them that the brawl in Miami had cost us a championship,” Checketts said. “If it happened again, he was holding them personally responsible.”

Sure enough, in the 1998 playoffs, the brawling between two hard-hat teams continued. When the Knicks’ Larry Johnson fought Miami’s Alonzo Mourning at the end of Game 4 at the Garden, Van Gundy rushed into the middle of it and wound up photographed, clutching onto Mourning’s leg, seemingly floating horizontally above the court.

“I’m sitting there thinking, well, he did listen,” Checketts said.

He paused and added, “I can drive myself crazy about all of that during those years.”

The Knicks were so close and the family was emotionally tethered in a visceral way that sports cannot replicate without a professional connection, Nate Checketts said. The athletes were the stars. Their father ran the show.

“I’m 28 now,” Ben Checketts said. “At 28, he was taking over an NBA franchise. That was probably unheard of until you had someone like Theo Epstein with the Red Sox. So we had two options growing up: trying to use that as a measuring stick, or just revering it for how unique it was. I just saved myself a lot of grief.”

Ben Checketts works with Nate at Rhone, a company determined to challenge the giants of the men’s active wear field. Spencer is a sports radio personality in Salt Lake City. A daughter, Katie, has set aside coaching women’s lacrosse to raise a family; another daughter, Elizabeth, is pursuing a career in broadcast journalism.

Only Andrew, finishing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has ambitions to become a team sports executive. His father will not discourage or encourage him.

“I don’t know how Andrew will end up getting to it, because owning an NBA club requires a billion or two,” Dave Checketts said. “So we’re not going to outright own a club, our family.”

One way back for Dave Checketts would be as a franchise fixer, the role Jerry Colangelo, 76, recently assumed in Philadelphia — though Checketts said he would prefer to own some part of any team he runs. The more conventional path would be to organize a group as he did for the Blues and Real Salt Lake.

“The problem is to find sellers — there just aren’t that many, and Steve Ballmer’s purchase of the Clippers made everybody think their franchise is worth $2 billion,” he said. “I don’t think they are. But people have high expectations. The good news is that I can afford to be patient, find the right situation.”

Vindication for a visionary

Among other business interests, Checketts sits on the board of JetBlue, which he has been involved with since leaving the Garden. He had a nearly three-year run starting in 2012 as the chairman and chief executive officer of Legends Hospitality Management LLC, a concessions, merchandising and management-services company owned by the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

Checketts left after overseeing the construction of One World Observatory, the tourist attraction run by Legends at the top of the Freedom Tower in New York.

He said his decade at the Garden changed him in one permanently meaningful way. The man from Bountiful became a stalwart New Yorker, one who frequented downtown Manhattan as a volunteer, post 9/11.

“The views from the observatory are the same views we thought we’d never see again,” he said.

His last visit to the World Trade Center was for a party to celebrate the retirement of Wayne Gretzky from hockey and the New York Rangers. It was the spring of 1999, the revelation of the Jackson recruitment soon to dull Checketts’ corporate shine after Van Gundy’s Knicks slipped into the playoffs and stunned Miami, the conference No. 1 seed, on Allan Houston’s series-clinching runner.

Yes, Checketts had interviewed Jackson and right in his New Canaan home.

Being caught in the falsehood was enough to send him to the family dinner table to explain to his children why he was being roasted in the papers, on the airwaves. And why he deserved it.

“That, for me, was a very uncomfortable time,” he said, explaining that he had wanted to spare Van Gundy the scrutiny in season, and wound up martyring him instead.

The more the Knicks won, the more the Garden crowds rhythmically chanted Van Gundy’s name, Checketts playing the antihero in the developing drama, even if the pursuit of Jackson — before the Knicks made the playoffs — had made much sense, under the circumstances.

“The first thing I did when I was appointed Knicks president was to have a four-hour sit-down with Red Holzman at his house in Cedarhurst,” Checketts said, referring to the coach of the championship Knicks teams. “He understood more than anyone what made the Knicks go, what made them relevant to the city. That’s why I went after Phil. He had been a Knick in the championship days. He had the same understanding of the variables.”

Checketts soon came to suspect that Jackson was using the Knicks to leverage and land in Los Angeles with the Lakers, which was why, he believed, the surreptitious talks were leaked.

“But that’s way in the past,” he said.

What goes around has come around, Jackson’s return in the spring of 2014 providing Checketts the incentive to feel obliquely vindicated, even visionary, and again follow the Knicks after years of receding interest during years of mismanagement.

The drafting of Kristaps Porzingis aside, there are no guarantees, he knows, but, he said, “Phil understands what it takes — the values in New York, the nature of the ups and downs, the media and fans.”

Checketts went on: “I think he knows that if you’re a rock about it all, you can build a team that can really be admired in a way like nowhere else. I think he’s on the right path. I’m rooting for him.”

Unless, or until, he can score another team of his own.