Out of Bounds

If Madison Square Garden owner James Dolan ever needs material for his blues band, JD and the Straight Shot, he doesn't have to look farther than his own life. There's ample fodder from 51 years of living not as "James" or "Jim" but almost always "Jimmy," largely in the shadow of his billionaire father, Charles (Chuck) Dolan, who built Cablevision from scratch. At one time, Jimmy was plagued by a demon that required exorcism by Hazelden, the high-end rehab. There was the macabre experience of having a murder victim's severed leg wash up on Dolan's waterfront estate in New York's Long Island. And as owner of the New York Knicks, he's presided over the rapidly fading fortunes of one of the most storied sports franchises in the nation.

Recent events in a Manhattan courtroom should really have Dolan singing the low down dirty blues. Last week a federal trial jury ordered him and Madison Square Garden to pay $11.6 million to a former female executive who accused Knicks head coach Isiah Lord Thomas of sexual harassment. The jury concluded that Dolan had illegally fired the exec, Anucha Browne Sanders, in retaliation for her complaints about Thomas's sexual advances and name-calling. Dolan, Thomas and the Garden plan to appeal the ruling.

Dolan's league-leading payroll of $120 million last season made the Knicks perhaps the most expensive team of losers ever assembled. As depicted in Browne Sanders's suit, Dolan's Garden has become for women a sweaty, X-rated men's locker room, resounding with slurs like "bitches" and "ho's" and crass solicitations of sexual favors. This sordid picture is certain to be magnified in an upcoming trial that echoes the Knicks case, this one initiated by Courtney Prince, a cheerleader for Dolan's hockey team, the New York Rangers.

Will Jimmy's dad finally lower the boom? "At what point does Chuck say, 'I'm sick of being embarrassed'," asks a prominent sports executive and onetime close family associate. "He loves his son, and it's hard to imagine he'd move on Jimmy." But the executive, who declined to be identified because of loyalty to the senior Dolan, says the embarrassment may finally be too much for the Dolan patriarch, who turns 81 this month: "This is his son; this is his name." In a joint statement last Friday night, Charles and James Dolan said, "The management and leadership of the company is and will continue to be firmly in place."

Although Jimmy Dolan may be thought of as the pariah of New York sports, that characterization is one-dimensional. In fact, he plays an integral role in the cable-and-entertainment empire called Cablevision, of which the Garden is just the tail wagging the elephant. Founded by his father—who in 1972 created the first pay channel, HBO—it is one of the largest cable operators in the country, with almost $6 billion in annual revenue. The company is widely credited with pioneering the paradigm-shifting innovation of the "triple play": offering phone calls, Internet connections and interactive television all on the same high-speed, broadband lines.

Improbable as it may seem to sports enthusiasts, Jimmy Dolan is as much responsible for Cablevision's success as his father is, say a combination of industry leaders, high-profile family friends and Cablevision itself. "I have no idea about the court case or the Knicks," says Internet mogul Barry Diller of IAC. "But I do know he has run Cablevision, the major asset of his family, in a way that only gives him good marks." (Diller is a director of The Washington Post Company, which owns NEWSWEEK.)

Dolan and his father are trying to take Cablevision out of the public eye, with a $10.6 billion buyout of the company's publicly traded stock. If the Dolans succeed, they wouldn't have to concern themselves with investors who, for example, could sue them for potentially sullying the company's reputation with the Garden shenanigans.

This being the Dolans, however, the buyout effort has been fraught. A special committee of Cablevision's board rebuffed earlier offers as shortchanging shareholders; shareholders will vote on the latest offer this month. Media-industry investor Mario Gabelli, whose investment funds own 20 million Cablevision shares, says the family has seriously "underrepresented the value" of the company, and is hinting he may sue for an independent appraisal. Gabelli worries that the Dolans may be trying to collect a windfall—at shareholders' expense—by ultimately selling the company's cable operations to rivals Comcast or Time Warner, the Nos. 1 and 2 providers, to pay off debt from the deal. Cablevision declined to comment on rumors about any talks with its rivals, as did Comcast and Time Warner. People close to all three parties indicated that no such talks are underway.

A sale of the cable operations would mark Chuck Dolan's exit from an industry he helped advance. Dolan established the nation's first big-city cable company, Sterling Manhattan Cable, in the 1960s, and struck unparalleled deals for televised sports and cultural fare. He launched HBO in 1972 and subsequently sold it to Time Warner. In 1973, he expanded to New York's Long Island, with the creation of Cablevision. He took the company public in 1986.

Though Chuck made all three of his sons executives at his company, Jimmy, the youngest, was always the chosen one. He struggled for a period with drugs and alcohol, and Chuck personally escorted him to Hazelden in Minnesota, according to a Sports Illustrated profile this year. After working several years at Cablevision, Jimmy got the nod to succeed his dad as CEO in 1995. A year earlier Cablevision and ITT, its partner at the time, had acquired Madison Square Garden. Cablevision bought out ITT in 1997, and two years later, Jimmy became its chairman.

Though Dolan wasn't a student of basketball or hockey, his rule over the venerable venue apparently heightened his competitive drive and zeal for confrontation whenever he thought Cablevision had been crossed. Among the host of opponents he battled were the Yankees' TV network, which Cablevision agreed to carry only under government pressure, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose initiative to build a stadium in Manhattan was defeated largely by Dolan-led opposition. Even after losing the Garden suit, Dolan says he has plenty of fight left in him. But no matter how much he fights, the verdict on Dolan's character in the court of public opinion may be set in stone.