I am trying toimagine what it's like to be Isiah Thomas. Last week, after anotherdiscouraging loss, this one by 10 points to the Dallas Mavericks at MadisonSquare Garden, the New York Knicks' coach pledged to fight to his death to turnaround his woeful team. He clarified by adding, "I literally meandeath."
In their next gamethe Knicks fell at home to the equally horrid Seattle SuperSonics 117-110,dropping to 6-15. So much for theI-regret-that-I-have-but-one-life-to-give-for-my-franchise approach.
The Garden hasbecome Isiah's personal hellhole. He's booed when he walks onto the court,booed when he's introduced to the crowd, booed when his overpaid players makeboneheaded moves (which they are prone to do), booed when he headsdisconsolately to the locker room after the game. It's possible that no othercoach has been booed at home as much as Isiah is these days. Despite theuninspired product, the 19,763-seat Garden is regularly filled almost tocapacity, suggesting that the booing has become an entertainment of its own.Should we see Tony and Tina's Wedding tonight or go boo Isiah?
He has triedflashing his cutest-kid-in-kindergarten smile, held up his palms to the crowdto acknowledge its loathing and, according to one season-ticket holder, evenchatted with fans seated near the bench, gently proffering the opinion thatthey haven't been "a good sixth man." All that only brought him morechants of "Fire Isiah!" at the Garden and more derision in thenewspapers, particularly when it became public knowledge that at least one fanlast week had received a warning card from a security guard to stop hecklingthe coach. The "heckle card" policy does not come from Isiah, but he'sthe one who pays the public-relations price for it.
Isiah might like topoint a finger at his boss, James Dolan, but the chairman of CablevisionSystems Corp., the conglomerate that owns the Garden, the Knicks and the NHL'sRangers, isn't sitting courtside as often as he used to. Maybe Dolan's workingon other Garden business such as the circus--which arrives in March, thoughsome would say it's going on already--or basking in his team's boffofinancials. Forbes, after all, recently declared the Knicks to be the NBA'smost valuable franchise with a net worth of $608¬†million.
The inescapablereality is that Isiah, also the team's general manager since December 2003, isat fault for the sorry state of the Knicks. Isiah was the one who gave fatfree-agent contracts to mediocrities such as center Jerome James and forwardJared Jeffries. Isiah was the one who traded for Steve Francis, then had tounload him because there was no room for Francis in New York's overcrowdedbackcourt. Isiah was the one who made point guard Stephon Marbury the face ofthe franchise and the reins bearer of the Knicks' offense, then watched inhorror as Marbury gave bizarre and, by now, much-YouTubed off-seasoninterviews; admitted in court to having extramarital sexual relations in hisSUV with a team intern; played poorly this season and then deserted the Knicksfor a game after Isiah demoted him. Isiah was also the one who in October wasfound by a federal court jury to have sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders,the Knicks' former vice president of marketing and business operations. Shereceived an $11.5¬†million settlement from the team last week.
O.K., what aboutgetting fired? That would give Isiah a nice settlement on the reportedfour-year, $24¬†million extension he received last March, and free him fromthe literal-death pledge. But that doesn't look likely. Dolan seems content tostay out of sight and let Isiah draw the fire, sticking his neck out only togive his beleaguered coach a vote of confidence on Dec.¬†8, afterback-to-back drubbings.
Sometimes when thegoing gets tough, a leader must call on the troops who are in the foxhole withhim. But these Knicks are not foxhole guys; rather, they're the kind who makeyou want to leap out of the foxhole, wave your arms wildly and run toward theenemy. Marbury sits on the bench with a towel over his head during blowoutlosses. Eddy Curry, the center Isiah traded for, approximates a traffic pylonon defense. Most of the others emit a joylessness reflective of the franchise'sgeneral malaise.
In truth, I can'timagine what it's like to be Isiah these days. Woody and Dustin have left thebuilding, and there's little incentive for Spike to pull on his blue-and-orangejersey. The season stretches out drearily before Isiah, inhospitable opponentslurking at every stop, much quiet delight taken in New York's misery. Oh yeah,I got yer most valuable franchise righ-cheah! I'm not sure what other line ofwork I could recommend for Isiah, but, clearly, this is not a job to diefor.
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ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER