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Jim and Isiah: A Love Story

Why is the Knicks owner obsessed with a failure?

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All it took to bring a screeching halt to the surprising Era of Good Feeling surrounding the Knicks this summer—no LeBron, but Amar’e! Anthony Randolph! Hope for Carmelo!—was, as always, Isiah Thomas. The week of Isiah terror began with a terse press release, issued on a Friday afternoon, naming the scorched-Earth-failure former Knicks GM as a “consultant,” then ended with Thomas announcing that he wouldn’t end up working for the team after all (his plan to advise the Knicks and coach at Florida International University came to be seen as a violation of the NBA’s conflict-of-interest policy). Even after the universally maligned deal was called off, MSG chairman Jim Dolan reaffirmed his dedication to Thomas. “He’s a good friend of mine and of the organization, and I will continue to solicit his views,” Dolan said in a press release. “He will always have strong ties to me and the team.” All of which left Knicks fans irate, befuddled, and faced with a simple but profound question: What the !@#$ does Jim Dolan see in Isiah Thomas?

First, let’s entertain the official explanations. Dolan, through back channels (he hasn’t given a media interview regarding the Knicks since he gave Thomas a contract extension back in March 2007), insists the man who caused an unprecedented decade of misery at the Garden is of value to the organization because he has an eye for spotting talent and the star power to recruit players. Both of those reasons are bunk. Thomas’s “eye” gave us Eddy Curry, Jerome James, and countless other expensive stiffs. As for his supposed recruiting talent, even Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni dismissed Thomas’s alleged influence in landing Stoudamire. “I think $99 million helped,” D’Antoni said.

What, then, is the deal? A running joke has it that Thomas has some kind of dirt on Dolan, but until compromising pictures emerge of Dolan with a Laker Girl, it seems safe to rule that out. A more realistic possibility is the fellow-survivor theory. Dolan, a onetime drug and alcohol abuser, now two decades sober, is said to be sympathetic to Thomas because of Thomas’s personal difficulties over the past few years (including an overdose of sleeping pills that he, when questioned, attempted to blame on his daughter) and eager to help Isiah work his way back to the NBA. Dolan, whom no one ever accused of being charming or glamorous, has always seemed to be in awe of Thomas’s Dream Team wattage and superstar élan; part of the reason Isiah came here in the first place was to offset the dull, staid then-GM Scott Layden. But probably the most likely reason is that Dolan and Thomas are actually a lot alike. Both men share what an armchair psychoanalyst could easily diagnose as narcissistic personality disorder—the unquestioning self-confidence, the lack of self-awareness, the determination to stick to a plan even—especially—when all the available evidence indicates it’s wrong. Dolan’s blatant disregard for public opinion (and the judgment of every other MSG employee) is precisely how Thomas kept his job as GM and then was named the team’s head coach—after undertaking one disastrous move after another. It’s also how Thomas ran the Knicks as GM and coach, the Pistons as point guard, and has managed virtually every other aspect of his life.

The way Dolan handled Anucha Browne Sanders’s sexual-harassment lawsuit against Isiah is telling. MSG execs were begging Dolan to settle. Instead, he fought, keeping the unseemly details of the matter in the tabloids for months … and ended up losing anyway. Dolan is what he has always been: a stubborn brawler who is constitutionally certain he’s always right, with the power and stock holdings to force all around him to follow his every whim. It’s not his way to justify a decision with facts or expert opinions. He does what he wants because it’s what he wants, and because he can. If he likes Isiah, he’ll hire Isiah, reasons and fans be damned. New York, of course, just lost a similar figure. The difference is George Steinbrenner won.

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