The New York Knicks of recent vintage have been a cheerless lot and not simply because they've failed to reach .500 in the last four seasons. It's more that the spirit (a word used loosely) of their parent company, Cablevision, has pervaded the team. Nobody--execs, coaches, players--that's part of this Bright Lights, Big City franchise seems to be having any fun.
In his six years running the team, Cablevision CEO James Dolan has canned beloved broadcaster Marv Albert. His tussle with Time-Warner Cable (which is owned by the parent of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED) kept many Mets fans from seeing games on cable earlier this year. And he picked a fight with the Jets over the stadium they wanted to build up the street from Madison Square Garden. Knicks president Isiah Thomas makes bold personnel moves but talks only in corporatespeak when called upon to defend them; since pitching his tent at MSG in December 2003, much of his impish charm has worn away. The players seem perpetually perturbed; even when someone pops off, as Stephon Marbury did when he proclaimed himself "the best point guard in the NBA," the declaration comes across as angry and desperate ... not to mention inaccurate.
But with the hiring of Larry Brown as coach, the Knicks are about to get it right, to both improve their team and enliven their soulless corporate culture. As of Monday, Brown had not yet accepted the challenge that seven months ago, in the midst of coaching the Detroit Pistons, he proclaimed "my dream job." But all signs are that he will, and the 10 to 12 million dollars per year the Knicks must pay to employ the 64-year-old Brown will be money well-spent.
Brown will make the Knicks better, a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference. He will eventually communicate to Marbury, as he did to Chauncey Billups in Detroit, that in order to be the league's best point guard, he must actually be a point guard, not a de facto shooting guard. He will turn whippet guard Jamal Crawford into a tenacious defender and reliable scorer. He will exact maximum tenacity out of free-agent Jerome James at center. He will tutor rookie center Channing Frye and hold him up as an example of what Darko Milicic, the young Piston he kept butt-lashed to the bench, should have been. I'm not sure what he'll do with aging guards Allan Houston and Penny Hardaway and their combined $32 million in salaries. But he'll think of something.
And it will be great theater. Larry and Stephon will hug, then spat, then hug again (just like Larry and Allen Iverson did with the Philadelphia 76ers), and it will be great copy. (Marbury, who was not on the same page as Brown during their Olympic experience last summer, already told a radio station that hiring Brown is "a no-brainer.") Larry--Brooklyn-born, Long Island--bred, Hamptons-chilled--will enthrall the media pit bulls in this tabloid town and evoke comparisons to the sainted Red Holzman. Larry will at some point proclaim everyone from Dolan to Thomas to equipment manager Mike Martinez to the fans in the nosebleeds as "special," and we will believe him because, at that moment, he will believe it himself.
Yes, there's little doubt that the Knicks are making a smart move even though Brown is, to put it mildly, some piece of work. The circumstances that led to his being axed in Detroit are tangled but in some way reducible to this salient point: The Pistons were tired of Larry being Larry, tired of what owner Bill Davidson called "too much Larry Brown and not enough Pistons." Like the protagonist in a Cinemax movie, Brown just can't help getting seduced, and ultimately the Pistons found the disingenuous manner with which he dealt with every suitor (the Knicks in January, Cleveland in May) reason enough to cut him loose. They worked out a reported $7 million settlement on a contract that was to have paid him $21 million over the next three years.
Look, we all know that sometime in the future we'll be excavating the sunny stories written in the wake of his hiring and having a good chuckle. Unless the Knicks advance steadily toward the title, Marbury will eventually chafe under the demands of being Larry's Leader. Or Brown and the suits at Cablevision will start sniping at each other. Or Thomas will realize that in Larry Land he's been relegated to a bit player, and prez and coach will start sniping at each other.
But coaches, even saviors such as Brown, aren't hired for the long run these days. Brown remains the only man on the planet who is at the same time coaching king and drama queen, and right now the Knicks need both.
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"Bruschi decided he wants more time to recover from the stroke." --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 22
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG