I am trying to imagine what it's like to be Isiah Thomas. Last week, after another discouraging loss, this one by 10 points to the Dallas Mavericks at Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks' coach pledged to fight to his death to turn around his woeful team. He clarified by adding, "I literally mean death."
In their next game the Knicks fell at home to the equally horrid Seattle SuperSonics 117-110, dropping to 6-15. So much for the I-regret-that-I-have-but-one-life-to-give-for-my-franchise approach.
The Garden has become 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 make boneheaded moves (which they are prone to do), booed when he heads disconsolately to the locker room after the game. It's possible that no other coach has been booed at home as much as Isiah is these days. Despite the uninspired product, the 19,763-seat Garden is regularly filled almost to capacity, 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 tried flashing his cutest-kid-in-kindergarten smile, held up his palms to the crowd to acknowledge its loathing and, according to one season-ticket holder, even chatted with fans seated near the bench, gently proffering the opinion that they haven't been "a good sixth man." All that only brought him more chants of "Fire Isiah!" at the Garden and more derision in the newspapers, particularly when it became public knowledge that at least one fan last week had received a warning card from a security guard to stop heckling the coach. The "heckle card" policy does not come from Isiah, but he's the one who pays the public-relations price for it.
Isiah might like to point a finger at his boss, James Dolan, but the chairman of Cablevision Systems Corp., the conglomerate that owns the Garden, the Knicks and the NHL's Rangers, isn't sitting courtside as often as he used to. Maybe Dolan's working on other Garden business such as the circus -- which arrives in March, though some would say it's going on already -- or basking in his team's boffo financials. Forbes, after all, recently declared the Knicks to be the NBA's most valuable franchise with a net worth of $608 million.
The inescapable reality is that Isiah, also the team's general manager since December 2003, is at fault for the sorry state of the Knicks. Isiah was the one who gave fat free-agent contracts to mediocrities such as center Jerome James and forward Jared Jeffries. Isiah was the one who traded for Steve Francis, then had to unload him because there was no room for Francis in New York's overcrowded backcourt. Isiah was the one who made point guard Stephon Marbury the face of the franchise and the reins bearer of the Knicks' offense, then watched in horror as Marbury gave bizarre and, by now, much-YouTubed off-season interviews; admitted in court to having extramarital sexual relations in his SUV with a team intern; played poorly this season and then deserted the Knicks for a game after Isiah demoted him. Isiah was also the one who in October was found by a federal court jury to have sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders, the Knicks' former vice president of marketing and business operations. She received an $11.5 million settlement from the team last week.
O.K., what about getting fired? That would give Isiah a nice settlement on the reported four-year, $24 million extension he received last March, and free him from the literal-death pledge. But that doesn't look likely. Dolan seems content to stay out of sight and let Isiah draw the fire, sticking his neck out only to give his beleaguered coach a vote of confidence on Dec. 8, after back-to-back drubbings.
Sometimes when the going gets tough, a leader must call on the troops who are in the foxhole with him. But these Knicks are not foxhole guys; rather, they're the kind who make you want to leap out of the foxhole, wave your arms wildly and run toward the enemy. Marbury sits on the bench with a towel over his head during blowout losses. Eddy Curry, the center Isiah traded for, approximates a traffic pylon on defense. Most of the others emit a joylessness reflective of the franchise's general malaise.
In truth, I can't imagine what it's like to be Isiah these days. Woody and Dustin have left the building, and there's little incentive for Spike to pull on his blue-and-orange jersey. The season stretches out drearily before Isiah, inhospitable opponents lurking 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 of work I could recommend for Isiah, but, clearly, this is not a job to die for.