Yang interview: What's wrong with the NY Knicks is what's wrong with America

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By Benjy Sarlin  with NBC News Politics
Image: Andrew Yang speaks at the Democratic presidential debate in Houston,
Andrew Yang speaks at the Democratic presidential primary debate in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 12, 2019.   -   Copyright  Heidi Gutman ABC via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Andrew Yang is running for president and he has a lot of ideas about how to fix the country. He also has a lot of ideas about how to fix the New York Knicks.

In tweets, interviews, even a book on universal basic income, Yang has drawn attention for his unrelenting criticism of his childhood favorite team — who opened their season last night against the San Antonio Spurs — and their management under owner James Dolan.

"I think I'm speaking for many true Knicks fans, and after Dolan sells the team, I'll probably be the first in line to sign up for the new administration," Yang, who was raised in the New York City suburbs, told NBC News.

Complaining about the Knicks, of course, is an unofficial sport itself.

The team finished last in the league last season and traded young star Kristaps Porzingis in part to clear payroll for free agency only to see his potential replacement, former MVP Kevin Durant, sign with the Brooklyn Nets. Dolan, who has feuded with angry fans, thelocal media and a popular former Knick is a frequent target of mockery among NBA commentators.

But Yang's dual role as presidential candidate and Knicks-basher has attracted special attention from fans, with some repulsed and others nodding in agreement. New York Daily News reporter Kristian Winfield pennedan entire column rebutting the candidate's attacks, which he thought were a ploy to "get some cheap heat for his campaign."

"The Knicks are focused on playing basketball and the NBA season," a spokesperson for the Knicks, Patrick Sandusky, said in an e-mail when asked about Yang's criticism.

A suffering Knicks fan myself, I reached out to Yang to discuss his love-hate relationship with the team, what it says about his campaign and what to do about the NBA's relationship with China. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Americans are used to politicians who love a sports team or hate a rival team. Do you wonder if it might take some getting used to a politician who loathes their home team?

I actually still miss being a Knicks fan because it was such a positive, wholesome part of my life for so many years and when you have a sports loyalty like that, that's unquestioning, it's very special. So I'm not excited that I've reached this point, it's still kind of sad.

But I will say I don't regret having adjusted my fandom in this way, because can you imagine rooting for this team over this number of years and just getting more and more frustrated with the lack of player development and with the lack of direction?

Some New York sports fans and commentators were very upset when you tweeted that this is the darkest time ever to be a Knicks fan. They think things are maybe looking up.

I think the Knicks right now are in no man's land, which has to be the most frustrating thing for your team.

The reason I believe this is the darkest time to be a Knicks fan that I can remember is that the team's not even adopting a true rebuild. If you're going to adopt a true rebuild after you didn't sign the good free agents, you would have rented your cap space for draft picks and future assets and given your young players tons of playing time. Instead, the Knicks signed a group of veterans to one- and two-year deals.

You wrote about the Knicks in your book, saying they were an example of the way Americans are losing faith in their institutions.

Well, James Dolan has owned the Knicks for as long as I can remember. There's just been such a series of epic management mistakes.

You have a leadership that can't get out of it's own way and then, when a legend like Charles Oakley comes back, or when a fan criticizes Dolan, he literally kicks them out of (Madison Square Garden) or bans them for life or does something that to me is the opposite of what you'd want a manager or leader to do. And so if you look at this and you're a fan of the team, you're like, 'Wait a minute, I'm giving this team my energy and emotional investment and the owner clearly doesn't care about me or my opinion.'

This, to me, is an emblem of what Americans feel about various institutions in different walks of life. If you look at our trust in the press, or Congress, or unfortunately even schools and hospitals, they're all at multi-decade lows.

The Knicks have lost more games this century than any other NBA team, they also are the most valuable basketball franchise in the world, according to Forbes. Does that say anything about our economy and society?

NBA teams are rare properties where if you grow up in New York and you're a Knicks fan, it's something of a monopoly. There actually are parallels to other aspects of American life because if you wanted to make a switch from certain companies or even certain political parties, they also have a quasi-monopoly.

It's true James Dolan can run a team however he likes and it just gains hundreds of millions or even billions in value over time, so his incentives to pay attention to the fans are next to nonexistent.

Right now, Independents outnumber either Democrats or Republicans in terms of alignment. But we have the party system we have, so often when you're an independent you don't feel like you have much of a choice or have much of a voice.

So you're a Nets fan now.

I'm like many many other people in this boat, where you've been a Knicks fan for years and it's incredibly frustrating and your team sucks and then the Nets show up and the Nets are everything you want in a team. They're young and well-managed and well-coached and develop players and they're fun. I'm friends with many people who are associated with the team, so that makes it easier.

Usually the Knicks make headlines for controversy, but the Nets are in the news as part of the confrontation between China and the NBA. Their owner Joseph Tsai (cofounder of Chinese tech giant Alibaba) wrote an open letter excoriating Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey for supporting the Hong Kong protesters and called them a 'separatist movement,' rather than pro-democracy. What do you make of this episode?

I think the NBA sticking up for Daryl Morey is a positive thing, saying there isn't going to be any discipline (over his tweet). To me, this is an outgrowth of our globalized economy where a generation ago, if someone had said something about an issue internationally, it wouldn't have caused a ripple. But now, because the NBA is seen by hundreds of millions of people in China, it becomes an international incident. So it's just a new reality that NBA employees have to adjust to. But this kind of thing, if it hadn't been Daryl, it would have been someone else at another point in time.

You talk a lot about the threat of automation, but this episode raised concerns many Americans have about our economy becoming so intertwined with other countries. How would you approach this issue as president?

I think the goal has to be to try and safeguard American values, in this case including freedom of expression. One of the things that does happen is that in certain cases your values may run contrary to what would be best for your enterprise's bottom line and so there are going to be more companies that have to make different choices and value judgments in the days to come. As president, my goal would be to try and make these choices more clear and also protect the people that do decide to protect our values.

Some profiles of your campaign refer to you as a doomsayer and I wonder if the Knicks fit into it. You've talked about how the climate crisis is too late to stop so we have to move to higher ground, about how robots are going to take our jobs so we just have to give everyone $12,000 a year to cope. Are you a pessimist?

I'm a serial entrepreneur, which means I have to be very optimistic and can-do. I think running for president is in many ways a very optimistic action, because you think that you can fix things and make them better.

The unfortunate reality is that we are years late to the game on climate change. Automation is transforming our economy beneath our feet. And the Knicks are going to be terrible this year. You just have to tell it like it is.