The Knicks have just finished a preseason practice, and Isiah Thomas, wearing a black Knicks polo shirt and shorts, makes his way over to the pack of reporters gathered for his daily briefing, pausing just long enough for a team PR man to affix an autism-awareness pin to his chest. Thomas is a marked man—during the off-season, Cablevision CEO and Knicks owner Jim Dolan made him the team’s coach (he was already the general manager), then promptly gave him one season to turn the team around or meet his coaching maker. But if Thomas is feeling the pressure from the potential end of his Knicks career, and possibly his managerial future, he’s not showing it. He’s flashing the same trademark Cheshire-cat grin that basketball fans have known since 1981, when he led Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers to an NCAA championship at age 19.
Just before Thomas sauntered over, Stephon Marbury had been singing his new coach’s praises. The two men grew up in similarly desperate neighborhoods, Thomas on Chicago’s West Side, Marbury in Coney Island. Both were basketball prodigies who became point guards, and both now live across the street from one another in Westchester. “Isiah and me are the same person,” said Marbury. “We’ve walked the same line. I trust him completely.”
He’d better. More than ever, the two men’s fates are intertwined. Marbury is the centerpiece of Thomas’s Knicks. To be judged a success, and keep his job, Thomas needs Marbury to morph from the hypertalented but underachieving pouter he’s been into the ultra-elite star he’s long been expected to become. For Marbury, who’s 29, this season may be his last chance at redemption. If he can’t orchestrate a career makeover under Thomas, his chosen mentor and close friend, he’ll be relegated to that special level of hell for gifted athletes—the Land of No Championships.
Marbury has said that he’s happier than he’s been in years and that playing for his new coach will help him and the team. When I ask Thomas about Marbury’s new attitude, the eleventh new attitude of Marbury’s eleven-year career, Thomas fiddles with his autism pin, flashes his smile, and praises his not-so-young charge effusively. “I have a real soft spot for him,” Thomas says in a gentle voice. “He’s the kid that loves everybody, but he’s been kicked around. He’s the guy by himself. I gravitate to those guys. I was an outsider too. He’s the kid at the park who puts a hard layer on to fit in, but deep down inside, he’s a nice guy.” Thomas’s words run so contrary to the accepted view of Marbury that, for a moment, there is only silence from the other reporters. Finally, someone suggests that maybe Isiah is speaking figuratively. After all, both Marbury and Thomas were heavily wooed by recruiters and cheered from the age of 12. Outsiders? Loners?
Thomas slowly shakes his head. “When you’re Mr. Popularity, you’re off from the group, and you just want to be part of the group. I’ve explained to him that it’s okay to be the nice guy. You really don’t need to carry all that armor. The fight is over. In the game of life, you’ve already won, from where you came from to here. It’s okay to let the shy kid out.” A moment earlier, Thomas had observed, “They say it’s lonely at the top; they didn’t make that shit up.”
Isiah Thomas was supposed to be the savior. From the moment Patrick Ewing was sent packing in 2000, the Knicks had suffered from a decided absence of big-time talent and a chronic lack of heart. Brought in as the team’s general manager two months into the 2003–2004 season by Dolan, Thomas was touted as the answer—the former NCAA champion and two-time NBA-title winner with a cherubic face and 10,000-megawatt smile that belied an up-from-the-mean-streets personal success story and a rabid competitive streak.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the promised land. In his almost three seasons with the Knicks, Thomas has managed the team to an anemic 85-127 win-loss record and zero playoff victories. Along the way, he has churned through dozens of players and four coaches in a manner that’s been politely described as befuddling but could just as well be called grossly negligent or patently insane (thanks to Thomas’s machinations, for instance, the Knicks currently owe $41 million to players no longer on the team—check that, the figure is probably double that with the league’s salary-cap penalty).
Last year, Thomas played a starring role in what turned out to be one of the sporting world’s all-time great melodramas. The CliffsNotes version goes something like this: Thomas hired veteran coach and native New Yorker Larry Brown (most recently of the Detroit Pistons, Thomas’s former team) to bring discipline to the young Knicks, especially Thomas’s star acquisition and would-be protégé, Marbury. The famously team-minded Brown immediately clashed with the famously Marbury-minded Marbury, and chaos ensued. Brown called out Marbury, and Marbury called out Brown. Thomas publicly supported Brown but was widely suspected of privately backing Marbury. (Sordid subplot: A former Knicks executive sued Thomas mid-season for sexual harassment.) The players eventually quit on Brown, finishing the year at a dismal 23-59, forcing Dolan to make a choice: Keep Brown, fire Thomas, and in effect give up on Marbury. Or bet the franchise on Thomas and Marbury.